Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Alex Bryant

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the seventieth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and 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 exclusion, as well as personal and structural gaslighting in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

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 the aim of decolonization.

My guest today is Alex Bryant. Alex is a first-year Ph.D. student in Philosophy at McMaster University, living and working on the same traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg as me. His research interests are primarily in social and political epistemology, moral philosophy, group agency, and collective responsibility, especially with respect to political and legal systems and the political legitimacy of movements for social change and tactics related to belief revision, ideology, and consciousness-raising. When Alex isn’t doing academic work, he loves to spend as much time outside as possible, especially when climbing, hiking, cycling, and paddling.

[Description of photo below: Alex, who is smiling widely, wears a toque on which is stenciled “FIGHT THE FEES” and “cfsfcéé,” the acronym for the Canadian Federation of Students/Fédération canadienne des étudiantes et étudiants. With his head tilted slightly to his right, Alex stands in front of large boulders of the Niagara Glen near Niagara Falls dressed in a t-shirt on top of another t-shirt .]

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Alex! Please tell us about your history and what led you to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy.

Hi Shelley, thanks very much for your invitation to be interviewed and for the essential work that you do through BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. The Dialogues on Disability series has played a key role in helping me recognize and accept my experiences of disability, especially as a graduate student in philosophy.

I was raised in Waterloo, Ontario. In kindergarten, like some of my peers, I suffered a mild case of chicken pox. A piece of chicken pox scar tissue later traveled into an artery in my brain, blocking the flow of blood and causing an arterial ischemic stroke (AIS) in the right hemisphere. Thankfully, my father quickly recognized the symptoms. After being prodded, tickled, and needled by doctors and medical students in Kitchener, I was moved to Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. I was incredibly lucky to be discharged from Sick Kids about a week later with minimal impact on my motor function. I had some weakness in my left-side, which has remained to this day, but not to the degree that it seriously impacts my life. After discharge, I received out-patient care and made regular visits to both Sick Kids and the Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre but returned to school full-time not long after.

A special problem of paediatric brain injury, of course, is that parents and doctors have a hard time assessing what has changed in a child. While I did not demonstrate significant problems with motor function after my stroke, I did show cognitive and behaviour changes. This posed a problem for my parents: teachers and school administrators were surprised to learn that a child could have a stroke at all, taking my physical recovery to be the end of it. As my neurologists expected, however, I had new and significant problems with emotional regulation and executive function, including significant problems with memory, attention, and anxiety. My parents struggled to help my teachers recognize the difference between new behaviours, problems that might have manifested anyways, and behaviour that should have been understood in light of my stroke.

Despite these troubles, I was a big reader. In my final year of high school, I took a wonderful philosophy class with Daniel Koegler that had a significant impact on me. I applied to a few different university programs, but I changed my plans completely after visiting a friend at the University of King’s College where I saw the Wittgenstein lectures given by Steven Burns for the Foundation Year Programme (FYP). Although I hadn’t heard of King’s before visiting, the visit left a tremendous impression on me and I applied there shortly afterward. After FYP, I eventually pursued a degree in both Contemporary Studies and Philosophy.

The Contemporary Studies Program (CSP) at King’s is an interdisciplinary undergraduate program that, in effect, does critical theory and contextualist intellectual history after about 1850. The CSP courses that I took included seminars on Jan Zwicky and Foucault, along with wonderful classes on race and gender with Dorota Glowacka. At Dalhousie, the courses I had with Stephanie Kapusta and Chike Jeffers were particularly memorable, with Stephanie’s course on theories of intersectionality cementing my interest in feminist metaphysics. In my last year, I took two courses in Early Modern philosophy at Saint Mary’s University with Scott Edgar—these courses were an incredible treat. Seeing Sally Haslanger give the Austin/Hempel Lecture and Seminar in 2016 sealed the deal for me with respect to my view that philosophy would be an important piece of my life.

From the beginning of my undergraduate degree, I had a very difficult time with my mental health. I had significant mental health problems prior to attending King’s, including problems with eating, anxiety, sleep, and depression, in addition to the problems of attention, memory, and other executive functions, as I mentioned earlier. After a few months of increasing severity, I set up an appointment with a doctor in the Dalhousie Health Services Centre, eventually receiving a referral to the Mood Disorders Clinic, along with counselling and medication, all of which were new to me. The counselling had a positive impact, with my first counsellor at Dalhousie suggesting to me that my experiences looked exemplary of bipolar disorder.

Feeling in good spirits after the Winter break, however, I dropped off from treatment completely and did not return until a few years later. Things went from quite bad to worse, not least due to the huge workload that I took on for a few years as a member of the student union executive. As a result, I was well off from graduating in four years, though four years isn’t the average in Canada for undergraduate degree-completion anyways. During the summer of 2016, I took some courses online and one in person at the University of Waterloo in the philosophy of law. That class, with Nicholas Ray, provided the basis for the honours thesis that I wrote over the following year with Gordon McOuat. The topic of the thesis was the political legitimacy of Supreme Court test case litigation strategies like those adopted by the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF).

At the end of my undergraduate degree, I gave some thought to doing a graduate degree in public policy, but I didn’t know anyone who spoke happily about graduate study. Rather, all of the blog posts and personal testimony that I encountered—including the reports from my professors—suggested that graduate study in the humanities was a foolish endeavour: it would take an enormous toll on your health and finances; furthermore, at the end of it, you would only be able to find academic work by piecing together precarious and underpaid contracts each term at multiple universities hundreds of kilometres from your friends and family. That sounded awful, and like the kind of thing reserved for rich, healthy people, not me. Rather, I was looking forward to living an uncomplicated life that might allow me to pay down my student loans, spend time with friends, take care of my health, do the reading that I had hoped to do, and adopt a dog.

This perspective changed while I was working as a teaching assistant at King’s. I was already hooked on philosophical research and writing; but working with Sarah Clift drew out my interest in the craft of teaching. I conceded that I would apply to M.A. programs—after an M.A., I could always escape what I took to be the heinous consequences of pursuing a Ph.D. At the time, I was most interested in writing an M.A. thesis on feminist legal strategy. Thankfully, I was admitted to McMaster, beginning the following year. After my McMaster coursework and a few positive conference experiences, my thesis topic shifted and Violetta Igneski took over as my primary supervisor, with Elisabeth Gedge as an influential second reader. In the thesis, I asked how we ought to conceive of moral responsibility in cases in which individuals contribute to the persistence of injustice as an unintended consequence of their norm-following behaviour. The thesis addressed male-perpetrated sexual assault of women in particular; but I think most cases of individual responsibility for structural injustice have the same formula.

I am now enrolled in the first year of the Ph.D. program in philosophy at McMaster. The M.A. was enough to convince me that a decent job in philosophy, were I able to get one, would be especially satisfying for me and worth pursuing. It is a reality of the discipline that I will likely need to give up on finding academic work. Because of this, I am also doing my best to be prepared for the alt-ac life!

Please tell our readers and listeners about your current coursework and projects, as well as how these tasks have been affected by the pandemic.

I’ve just finished three great graduate seminars: one with Stefan Sciaraffa on Part Three of Rawls’s Theory of Justice; another one with Johannes Steizinger on Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil; and I was lucky to be given the opportunity to audit a graduate seminar on knowledge and oppression co-taught by Alison Wylie and Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa at UBC. The graduate seminar with Alison, Jonathan, and the phenomenal students in that class—including the auditors!—was, for me, a silver lining of the pandemic. In addition to coursework, I’ve been very lucky to work as a Mitacs Accelerate Intern with United Way Halton & Hamilton (UWHH) and The/La Collaborative. For the internship, I’ve been working with the Community Impact Team to help support the development of their Social Innovation Lab program.

In philosophy, I have a few too many projects on the go. One project is a paper on how negative stereotypes constrain people and how competing views about the effects of negative stereotyping lead to different accounts of the possible (or inherent, on some views) harms of sex work. I think that taking a substantive approach with respect to the content of sexual actions has unacceptable consequences for how we think about the agency of people who engage in sex work. In light of that worry, I’ve been attempting to draw up a proceduralist account of agency under oppression in dialogue with some very good recent work by philosophers, sociologists, legal scholars, and, most importantly, sex workers themselves on sexual agency under conditions of oppression.

I’d like to, eventually, work into articles a few different chapters from my B.A. and M.A. theses. In my M.A. thesis, I make the argument that all cisgender men share moral responsibility for sexual assault perpetrated by cisgender men. The set-up for that argument, both with respect to laying out the empirical basis for the argument and getting ahead of possible worries about the attribution of moral responsibility to non-perpetrators, took up most of the thesis. I still have a lot of work to do to make that framework clearly sensitive to intersectional analysis, especially with respect to race and disability.

I’m particularly interested in the relationship between memory, agency, and responsibility. Over the last few years, I have come to completely defer to friends in disagreements about things in the past or about our plans. I do so because, despite my best efforts, I have significant difficulty with memory—a common problem for those living with traumatic brain injury. While I defer in this way to people with whom I am very close and trust considerably, I generally treat my own recollection of events as of less epistemic value than the recollections of others. Taking up strategies like these (and the problems which preceded them) led me to think about how understanding of one’s actions (including memory of past actions) should play a role in the attribution of blame, responsibility, and accountability. The case for responsibility for structural injustice in my other project seems to take this attribution for granted (i.e., you can be morally responsible for consequences that you do not intend); but I’m interested in developing a more nuanced view of this that is more sensitive to agents’ differing cognitive abilities and capacities.

Finally, some day—some day!—I want to come back around to a long paper that I have written on Aristotle’s account of the science of acoustics. That paper began in a brilliant seminar on the De Anima with Mark Johnstone.

Alex, in addition to the specific research areas that you’ve mentioned, you are interested in scholarship with respect to teaching and learning, especially as these disciplines concern philosophical pedagogy and writing instruction. What are your thoughts on the accessibility of philosophical pedagogy and writing instruction? How can pedagogy and instruction in philosophy be made more accessible especially to someone who has experienced a stroke? Made more inclusive?

As your readers and listeners will know well, there are many ways that the philosophy classroom can be made more accessible for students, both disabled and nondisabled. I don’t have the sense, however, that a similar critical perspective is mainstream with respect to how we teach writing. While one can find effective training and scholarship on how to create an inclusive learning environment and diversify syllabi, I don’t think that we yet have such a critical literature around the central form of evaluation in undergraduate classes in the discipline, which is the philosophy paper. If we take for granted the disciplinary norms of undergraduate writing and the skills required to live up to these norms, we make the same kind of assumption about the accessibility of our teaching practices that have been problematized elsewhere in the profession with respect to the accessibility of discussion-based learning and the canon. The mainstreaming of alternative forms of evaluation, in light of pandemic teaching, offers a great opportunity to expand this conversation.

I am interested in what precisely the distinctive disciplinary norms of undergraduate philosophical writing are, how we teach undergraduate students about these norms, and, ultimately, whether these norms are worth holding on to. With respect to the first question, philosophy has an entire genre of handouts specifically about the norms of philosophical writing at the undergraduate level, as well as full-length books. Despite this literature, it is quite possible—based on my experience and the experiences of many students in my tutorials over the years—to make your way through an undergraduate degree in philosophy without extended in-course instruction in the basic disciplinary expectations around style, structure, and approach for philosophy papers.

In my case, I am not overstating things when I say that getting a clear picture in my third year of what I was meant to do in a philosophy paper transformed my experience of academic writing from a torrent of hopelessness and shame to one of excitement and manageable challenge. This new understanding did wonders for my mental health. Unfortunately, the most common reaction from students in tutorials where I aim to remedy gaps in instruction like this has been relief that they finally understand what they are meant to do and how to do it.

In one sense, the accessibility problem here should be obvious: if we don’t make the right parts of our expectations explicit, students who don’t have previous understanding of how to approach assignments will be at a disadvantage relative to those who do. While both sets of students might share some completed aspects of the submitted assignment—word count, on topic, correct margins—one set of students will require much different support than the other set. Common forms of assignment accommodation also won’t remedy the deeper problem of the hermeneutical lacuna or the possible skills-deficit which divide each group—i.e., you might have the skills but not know what to do with them, or neither have the skills nor know what to do. In our discipline, that centrally means addressing papers and writing skills.

As a baseline, clear rubrics, detailed assignment outlines, and opportunities to develop or rehearse the skills required to complete the relevant assignments will provide students with every opportunity to construct a robust understanding of what they are meant to do, how they are meant to do it, and what the model for success in that assignment is meant to be. Surely some people do this well already, but I am suggesting that departments and the discipline as a whole take this seriously as a matter of accessibility. That basis, I expect, will provide the opportunity for someone with cognitive disabilities to autonomously assess their needs with respect to accommodation and to have greater opportunity for success in their coursework.

Some readers and listeners of this interview who teach their own courses might respond in the following ways: “I do not have the time or energy to redesign my course in order to teach writing”; or “students should already have these skills by the time they get to me.” These are both reasonable concerns which suggest a possible answer to the problem. One might think, for instance, that we can make the disciplinary norms clear by just getting the right kind of handout into the hands of the students who need it.

The problem with the “how to write a paper” genre, however, is that handouts simply cannot do the work of intentional writing instruction. A good handout can be helpful for overworked teaching assistants attempting to triage structural problems with students who need direction, but this reactionary approach will only work for students who have the time and capacity to self-study philosophical composition. A better approach would be that the course itself is designed to teach the writing skills that will later be essential to success in the course—expository writing, how to form an argument, etc. There is some good work on exactly how to approach this instruction and design in places like the journal of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT), Teaching Philosophy.

If we do not build skill-building into a course itself, that work will need to be done by students on their own time and at the expense of their other work. I think that we should reject that kind of bootstrapping-thinking about accessibility. What is really needed in order to help students develop an adequate set of philosophical skills to succeed over the course of their degree—and, I should say, in graduate school!—is departmental strategy that intentionally coordinates the introduction of writing skills-development in early coursework, with at least a sense of how students will be set up to acquire the higher-level skills required to succeed in upper-year courses—either beforehand or in the course itself.

My suggestion is not significantly different from the requirement that undergraduate science students take mathematics courses when they enter university. A prerequisite of entry into many science programs is sufficient introductory background in linear algebra and calculus. Despite this prerequisite, such programs regularly require that all students take coursework in their first and second years that covers the same ground while pushing such students into more difficult territory. By doing so, students from different high school math backgrounds have the same opportunity to acquire the mathematical skills that will be taken for granted in their higher-level coursework.

Whether the norms of undergraduate writing in philosophy are worth holding on to, I’m not sure—in a sense this is a metaphilosophical question like the question taken up in Kristie Dotson’s “How is this Paper Philosophy?” and, from a different angle, in Jan Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy. I’m not prepared to propose an answer. I am hopeful, however, that the huge amount of course preparation and assignment design that has been done during the pandemic will lead to careful and critical examination of this question. I encourage philosophy instructors who are interested in pedagogy and teaching to seek out two great interviews that you recently conducted in the Dialogues on Disability series, Shelley, namely, your interviews with Julie Maybee (Redux) and Cecilea Mun. Both of these interviews address similar themes.

Few disabled undergraduate students in Canada complete degrees in philosophy and even fewer disabled graduate students in Canada complete Ph.D. programs. Rather, most disabled undergraduates transfer to another program or department or, like most disabled Ph.D. students in philosophy, drop out of university altogether. What features of philosophy do you think make it especially unwelcoming to disabled students?

As you and the readers and listeners of BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY will know very well, there are many ways in which graduate study and the discipline of philosophy in general are inhospitable to disabled people. This hostility to disability lives in the assumptions of philosophical research, as much as it does in the words, actions, and norm-following behaviours of practicing philosophers. With this hostility in mind, I’m going to say a bit about just one kind of challenge for disabled students, namely, the effect of disability upon our time.

Even if disabled students overcome the serious task of completing graduate studies in philosophy, the prospect of spending years on the job market while living either on poorly paid and overworked contracts or working outside of the profession leave little hope for those of us who need additional disability-related supports to live full and satisfying lives, especially given the prospect of losing our access to drug coverage and other ancillary health insurance after graduate school. While graduate study surely takes a toll on the health of graduate students generally, I have to think the trade-off of short-term and long-term health for the sake of pursuing graduate studies plays a significant role in the decisions of disabled students to leave.

An example from my own life goes like this. On my current course of treatment, I take medications which force me to sleep at least 7.5 hours. I must take these medications about an hour before I plan to fall asleep, during which time I am typically left feeling completely disoriented fairly quickly. The same is true when I wake up in the morning—I need about an hour from the time that I wake up before I can have a full conversation with anyone or work. No level of caffeine, exercise, or mood lights changes this.

As a result, I have a greatly reduced number of possible working hours compared to what I might have in a crunch if I were not on this treatment plan. When paired with the other aspects of my post-stroke life that balloon the amount of time that it takes for me to complete the common tasks of a philosophy graduate student (reading, writing, replying to e-mails), there is never enough time. In order to participate in some facets of graduate education in philosophy, then, I make a time/health trade-off such that I don’t participate in other facets. I have been lucky that my professors at McMaster have been willing to accommodate this predicament, both in coursework and in my employment. But this effect cascades and can be a significant problem when funding is tied to a specific time-to-completion schedule, for example.

Take this baseline problem of time, then add the unexpected problems of doctor’s appointments, problems getting prescriptions filled, unexpected full days of dissociation and alexia (inability to read), etc., and whatever flexibility one might have had left with respect to work and research time in a month can be lost in a day or two. To stick with the same example, if I miss a day of my medication because of a problem refilling the prescription, I end up with mini-withdrawal symptoms such that I can’t do any work that requires attention. As my graduate work requires significant attention, this inability to concentrate translates into a loss of at least a day of work time. A panic attack can do the same. This adjustment in time is surely significant for other disabled graduate students and scholars as well.

What can make the problem of time particularly bad in philosophy is that the profession, at least as far as I see it as a graduate student, is very social. Professionalization involves networking, and networking will occur in large part at social gatherings in late afternoon and evening. But there is no time. In this one example—and there will be many examples for others with different experiences of disability of course—living up to the demands of my work while maintaining a degree of health compatible with completing that work means sacrificing opportunities that might help me succeed in the field later on. The state of the job market is also such that graduate students are expected to apply for jobs with a C.V. which would have previously been sufficient for tenure. This is extraordinarily demanding on its own, but especially for students holding on through graduate school while living with disability. I also worry a great deal about what, if any, forms of accommodation might be possible after graduate study and whether disclosure will hurt my chances on the market.

What are your future plans?

This might be the most difficult question that you’ve posed in this interview! In one respect, I think my plans are fairly straightforward. I have no expectation that I will find viable academic work on the other side of the Ph.D., but I hope that I will. Between now and then, I hope that I will be able to build community with my peers and do research that has public impact. Looking ahead to this year, I am thrilled that, as a consequence of the pandemic, many incredible conferences have moved online and I might have the chance to attend talks by philosophers that I wouldn’t have the chance to hear otherwise!

Alex, would you like to make any additional remarks about something that you’ve discussed in this interview or make some recommendations of what readers and listeners of the interview should seek out on anything you’ve discussed?

Only to say a deep “thank you,” Shelley, for your incredible work on this series. I am so grateful for the opportunity to participate. Thank you for inviting me.

Alex, the pleasure has been mine. Your remarks throughout this interview have been quite instructive. I hope that philosophers who read or listened to the interview give your ideas considered attention.

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

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Please join me here again on Wednesday, February 17th at 8 a.m. E.S.T., for the seventy-first 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.

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