Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Grace Joy Cebrero

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the forty-sixth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews with disabled philosophers that I began at Discrimination and Disadvantage and will henceforth post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month.

The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

I acknowledge that the land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and in the spirit of reconciliation.

My guest today is Grace Joy Cebrero. Grace is preparing to start her second semester as a philosophy doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota. Her broad research interests include philosophy of disability (all facets); moral, social, and political philosophy; epistemology; law; and metaphysics. Grace also has a strong interest in public philosophy. She earned her B.A. in Philosophy from Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. When not reading, writing, teaching, or grading, Grace enjoys seeing the beauty of Minneapolis with her family, cheering for the champion Golden Gopher women’s hockey and volleyball teams, running, and getting to know members of her new department and neighbourhood.

Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Grace! When, in December of 2017, I conducted an interview with you for the Dialogues on Disability series, you were in the midst of applying to philosophy graduate programs. I thought that it might be helpful to prospective philosophy graduate students if you returned to the series to share what you learned from the process. So, please tell us about your grad school application experience, how you made your decision about which university to attend, and your general experience thus far as a first-year graduate student.

Thank you so much for inviting me back, Shelley! I am honored and excited to update you and share what I’ve learned during the past year.

First, a word about my Ph.D. program here at University of Minnesota (UMN). I truly appreciate how lucky I am to be here. My cohort member, Kylie Shahar, and I have been warmly welcomed by our Chair, Valerie Tiberius, and by all of our fellow grad students and faculty alike.

Our department is cohesively committed to taking all measures within its scope to diversify philosophy. That Kylie and I are here and 45% of our graduate students are women offers evidence of such. Valerie helped us found a new chapter of Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) International, is the faculty member on our Diversity Committee, and proactively encourages us to make the extra effort to reach out to our student-members of underrepresented racial minority groups who show promise in philosophy. Valerie also facilitated an American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT) Inclusive Teaching workshop here before the year began and, recently, led a department-wide and wonderfully-fruitful discussion group to share classroom experiences related to diversity issues.

So, the culture here at Minnesota is wonderful. It’s important for me to note that in our department, nearly every single white male grad student and many of the white male faculty members are actively involved in efforts to seek, welcome, and nurture talented underrepresented racial minority student-philosophers.

I know that the history of the UMN department (like the history of most other philosophy departments) holds dark stories and that my positive experience here is very different from the experiences that many women and other underrepresented racial minority philosophers who were here before me have had. I am deeply grateful to everyone who worked hard to change the culture at UMN Philosophy so that people like me and Kylie were not only invited but rather were welcomed into a collegial philosophical family. We are committed to carrying their torch forward for positive change. I am so happy to be a member of such a great group.

[Description of photo below: Outdoors at UMN, Grace, who is smiling broadly, appears in the bottom-right corner of the photo. Patches of sky can be seen between and throughout the trees that fill the background of the shot. Light is filtering through the leaves of the trees.]

Last semester, Kylie, my office-mate, and I survived the most difficult course of our lives, in which we studied Herbert Enderton’s Intro to Mathematical Logic. We attribute our survival to, and both shine all gratitude upon, Michael Calasso, our genius, generous, patient, and kind über-logician-TA! David Taylor is also a very good teacher, but the countless extra hours that Michael spent with us daily were entirely volunteered. He cared enough to take whatever time was needed for us to succeed. I think that I speak for both of us, myself and Kylie, when I say that this devotion has been the best, the most unexpected, gift from grad school to date. We have indeed earned our “logic stripes,” thanks to Michael!

As far as the process of deciding which Ph.D. program that I should choose goes, it was fresh hell. I wasn’t prepared to be accepted into more than one, and each of the four programs to which I was accepted offered equally good, but very different, benefits—non-financially speaking. This might sound ridiculous, but I cried—agonized—over the decision. I am happy to say that during my campus visits, the graduate students and faculty whom I met at each program were extraordinarily good people who are just brilliant. In choosing to study at Minnesota, I knew that I would grieve losing the opportunity to study and befriend all the other programs’ philosophers. However, I am very glad to say that I have no regrets. I love it here at UMN! On the bright side, I am now optimistic about the future of philosophy. There are so many good folks doing such great work. I count myself blessed to be a member of the broader community of global philosophers.

In our earlier interview, Grace, you pointed out numerous problems with the graduate school application process that, you believe, greatly contribute to the lack of diversity in philosophy. Please revisit these issues and tell us whether you think that the situation has improved.

You might recall that, in December 2017, when starting my apps, I was strongly determined. By the time that I submitted the last application, I felt demoralized. The process solidified my fears that I wasn’t good enough—that is, wasn’t wealthy enough or pedigreed enough—to be accepted anywhere. I had resigned my hope. I think that the primary cause of this resignation was financial: the only way that I could afford to apply to graduate school was to repeatedly beg for fee waivers, a process that is exhausting, humiliating, and without guarantee.

I’m salty that poor students are forced to waste extra labor, time, and anxiety on begging for these fee waivers while wealthy students get to spend their time and energy polishing their writing samples and perfecting their GRE scores! I am grateful for the fee waivers that I received; but I resent how badly each, and every, request for a waiver made me feel, as well as the time that they required. I will work until the day that I die to change the system so that grad apps are zero-cost to applicants.

We have good reason to hope for a better future! I am excited to see several top universities offer fee waivers at “one click” to underrepresented minority applicants who attended programs such as PIKSI and COMPASS. In addition, several excellent Ph.D. programs now refuse to accept GRE scores, a policy that I hope we will see grow in practice.

I am also heartened to see the results of the zero-dollar-app-fee experiment that Kevin Zollman, Carnegie Mellon’s Director of Graduate Admissions, has introduced. We now have at least some data that might start to assuage graduate admission committees’ fear of certain bad consequences of free applications: The quality of the pool was not tanked. They were not barraged with unqualified applicants. In fact, top-tier applicants raised the bar. Given the myriad of factors that likely contributed to these results, one could at least infer that the effect of CMU’s zero-dollar-app was not net-negative. As I mentioned in my previous interview, I know more than a handful of philosophers of color who did not apply to graduate school because of the impossible financial burden of both the applications and the GRE. There are many philosophers of good will who are coming into positions of power with a strong desire to open philosophy’s gates. I hope that we see both GRE requirements and app costs abolished in the near future.

As readers and listeners of Dialogues on Disability may recall, Grace, you studied undergraduate philosophy at Mount Saint Mary’s University in L.A., a women’s college whose student body comprises mostly women of colour. What differences do you perceive in the classroom at UMN from your classes at Mount Saint Mary’s and how has your own teaching at UMN been informed by your undergraduate experience?

I was pleasantly surprised to find the students in the medical ethics class last semester, for which I was teaching assistant, were from diverse backgrounds in every regard: ethnicity, race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, and citizenship status. I believe that this heterogeneity is the direct result of targeted efforts by UMN’s leadership to be inclusive and to diversify the student body. Because we were such a diverse group, our classroom discussions were rich and engaging. I learned more from my students than they did from me, I’ve no doubt.

I am grateful for the AAPT’s Inclusive Teaching workshop, as my students responded positively to the pedagogical methods that I learned from it. When I developed learning objectives, I started with who the students were and where they were. One decision that I made, which I think impacted my students’ engagement, was to adopt the practice of “ungrading.” I learned about this practice when I sought advice from longtime professors about how to avoid creating the typical anti-learning, achievement-obsessed college classroom experience and when I read this article written by Notre Dame professor Susan D. Blum. I also discovered a global community of professors on Twitter who have found ungrading successful. I wasn’t sure it would work. The university’s policy states that I must assign each student a grade and I had no idea how to comply with this regulation without grading. But I wanted my students to both learn and internalize the material and nurture a love for learning and self-led inquiry. I saw how destructive anxiety about grades can be during my undergraduate years. I wanted my students to feel a difference, a humanness, in my class.

So, I told my students on the first day of class that I was there to facilitate their learning success and that they would need to work hard to not receive an A. I also told them not to worry if they were late for class or needed to leave early; they needed just to send me a message or talk to me. I told them that I did not require official documentation for them to receive whatever accommodations they need. I exhorted them, or, I should say threatened them, to never come to class if they were sick. I told them if they ever needed an extension for any assignment, all they had to do was ask me and I would grant them as much time as they required to do their best work. I told them that I would accept paper drafts for revision at any time during the semester, for any assignment, and would continue to help them revise the drafts until they were satisfied with them and wanted to submit them.

I also did an exercise that I learned at the AAPT Inclusive Teaching Workshop in August which was invaluable for me in terms of meeting each student where they are and to help them reach our learning objectives. The exercise is this: I gave an index card to each student and asked them to write their name on it and tell me (a) what I could do to best facilitate their learning, and (b) anything they wanted me to know about them. I told them that I would unquestioningly believe whatever they tell me and that no other eyes would see what they had written on the card. I made it clear that I was there for them in whatever ways that they may have required and that their learning what they need to learn from our course material was all that I cared about.

Here’s what happened. A collective sigh of relief was palpable in the room that day. Their fear and tension changed to attention, which I directed toward the course content and toward developing relationships with them and between them. My students weren’t afraid to ask for what they needed. Each week, I was more impressed than I had been the week before by the work that they submitted. I had excellent attendance. I had students reaching out for consulting about both class content and personal things that they worried might affect their work. I had a 90% paper draft submission rate, though drafts were not required. Their final papers were excellent as a result, of course. Every student completed every assignment and earned an A. I didn’t do much. My students learned mainly from the content and from each other. I learned that my job is to not get in the way of their learning.

How would you describe your overall experience thus far as a disabled philosopher in graduate school?

Again, I feel fortunate to be in a very supportive department and institution. I am heard and cared-for whenever I have accommodation requests, including informal help from other graduate students. To give just one example, Kylie, my office mate, unlocks our office door every day because keys are extra difficult for me. She and my colleagues do many small things to make life easier for me. These things may seem insignificant, but they are not. I appreciate my people at “the U” very much!

The city of Minneapolis is, by far, the most accessible city in which I have lived. From public transportation to curb design, this city is designed so that everyone may easily navigate life and enjoy it. As a result, disabled people have a more visible regular presence in daily life here than in either L.A. or Chicago, the two other cities in which I have lived.

I am only starting to realize how much life is stolen from disabled people by ableist, inaccessible design. I just returned from the APA Eastern Division conference in New York City, where I presented on a “Living Philosophies of Disability” panel for SOPHIA, a fantastic public philosophy organization. I was shocked at the impossibly inaccessible subway system, with broken elevators at every stop. Of course, this systemic exclusion is not news for the disabled people of New York, who have been denied access for centuries. I think that New York and other cities should learn from Minneapolis and make changes accordingly. It’s obviously a huge moral failure of the nondisabled people in power that they have not made these changes. But nondisabled people writ large need to prioritize such corrective action to motivate the people in power. Again, this need for systemic change is not news; nevertheless, the urgency of it can’t be emphasized enough nor repeated enough.

Please tell us more about the support that you have received from your teachers and mentors at UMN.

My graduate student mentor is Michael Calasso. My advisors are Sarah Holtman and Jessica Gordon-Roth. They are three wonderful humans! As I mentioned above, Michael devoted hours upon hours doing first-order logic proofs with me. He is always checking on my well-being and was one of our core team members in our new MAP chapter, helping me, logistically, make our launch event a big success. I am also grateful to Sarah, who taught my Moral Philosophy seminar, for patiently helping me break down my meta-meta ideas into chunks for more manageable projects and for always giving me as much time as I need. This flexibility reduces my anxiety immensely and will play a significant role in my success as I go through my program.

I would also like to say how thankful I am for the ongoing mentorship and support of Zoë Johnson King, my PIKSI 2016 mentor. Despite her busy schedule, now as visiting professor at NYU and permanently at USC after next year, she makes time to offer feedback and cheer me on, whatever I’m doing.

Grace, would you like to recommend some books, articles, or other resources on the topics you’ve discussed in this interview?

Yes! Your book, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, is a must-read. I also recommend Disability in Practice: Attitudes, Policies, and Relationships edited by Adam Cureton and Thomas E. Hill Jr.

Here are some other, assorted recommendations:

Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) International;

The Splintered Mind blog by Eric Schwitzgebel;

the Philosophy Bakes Bread podcast;

SOPHIA (Society for Philosophers in America), who are doing exciting work in public philosophy;

the Hi-Phi Nation podcast, hosted and produced by Vassar professor Barry Lam and now sponsored by Slate;

and BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, this new and exciting blog that you and Melinda Hall have created!

Grace, thanks very much for these recommendations and for your helpful remarks throughout this interview. I’m sure that many graduate students and prospective graduate students will benefit from the sentiments and political convictions that you’ve shared with us. It was a pleasure to interview you again for the Dialogues on Disability series.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Grace Joy Cebrero remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.


Please join me here again on Wednesday, February 20th at 8 a.m. EST, for the forty-seventh installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.

3 Responses

  1. gay Bell

    Hello Shelley, I’ve been trying to figure out how to reach you. I just saw Defiant Lives, a film you’ve probably seen about the disability rights movement. I thought it was pretty good except for a tiny thing. There’s a really homophobic thing that one of the people interviewed says and there’s no counter to it. Have you seen the film?


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