Care, Hope, Action, Change: A Conversation with C Dalrymple-Fraser

Published: April 9, 2021

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At the end of March, C Dalrymple-Fraser, one of the department’s PhD students and course instructors, received recognition for their dedication to accessible, equitable, and practice-based undergraduate instruction in the form of a Superior Graduate Student Course Instructor Teaching Award from the Faculty of Arts & Science. C’s PHL382 course, taught in the summer of 2020, focused on contemporary issues of death and dying in healthcare systems. C’s teaching stood out for the exceptional care they took in designing a course that targeted the development of both advanced philosophical and interdisciplinary skills appropriate for a third-year course in bioethics. Their course also became a benchmark for accessibility and student engagement during the initial stages of online learning in response to COVID-19.

One of C’s primary pedagogical goals was for students to become familiar with and gain confidence using various formats for publishing and public writing in the field of bioethics. From assigned readings to course assignments, C’s course prepared students in stages to pursue their own interests in bioethics and potentially contribute their own work to the field. This approach gave students a concrete point of reference for the value of their work and showed them how the skills they were developing could be applied in practice.

We spoke to C about student-focused learning, their inspirations in teaching, accessibility in the classroom and beyond, and life as a graduate student, teacher, and person during a global pandemic.

First of all, congratulations again and thank you for your willingness to answer a few questions! Your course PHL382H1S Death and Dying took as one of its goals to prepare students to be able to publish or present their work in bioethics, whether as a traditional conference paper or as a relevant public-discourse blog post, for example. Why do you think it is important for undergraduates to develop these skills and what do you think the wider world—academic or otherwise—has to gain from hearing these often underrepresented voices?

As a short version of one of several longer arguments: Members of this course had opportunities to address debates or issues that were only days or weeks old. While many questions in bioethics have long histories, these questions and conversations are regularly called to reflect on current circumstances—unfolding medical technologies, new or reinterpreted data, changing social practices and laws, etc.—and this is especially true of thinking through death and dying in the shifting context of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because students in our course joined conversations very recent in context, their contributions had great potential to contribute to our unfolding conversations in the field.

Further, our students expressed a diversity of ideas, backgrounds, and experiences that can vary widely from perspectives most often mainstreamed. Several students reflected on the roles of age and ageism in COVID-19 research and practices: younger people are not typically the intended audience of advance directives; younger disabled people are often vulnerablized in ways that medicine often misses or ignores in triage appraisals; ongoing deficits of race-related data in COVID-19 and mortality statistics generally are compounded when we look at the racial and age groups most represented among our “essential” workers; still, younger lives are often deemed more valuable than older lives. Each of these reflections remains relatively underrepresented in the unfolding COVID-19 publications, and we knew that forthcoming conferences would definitely take the pandemic as central themes. So the course served as a good opportunity to discuss and practice disciplinary writing norms for different audiences and venues. And by all means, we should be encouraging students to share their thoughts beyond our courses!

You taught a course on death and dying in the middle of a global pandemic. How did the weekly changing realities of COVID-19 in the world influence your course design and topics?

My courses are typically designed to be flexible to respond to our changing interests, access needs, and circumstances, and I consider students key collaborators in course design. Having taught more flexible courses before definitely helped make this course a little less chaotic despite the constantly shifting climate. The First Annual Report on Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) in Canada was published in the middle of the course, right before our discussions of MAiD, while the epistemic landscape of the pandemic was constantly changing and continues to change. And less locally, disasters like the Lebanon explosion and the Yemen humanitarian crisis meant we chose to shift the course around so we could focus on contemporary global disaster ethics. This flexibility allowed us to remain current in our conversations, as well as to practice some of the research skills we were developing in sourcing information and the critical appraisal of empirical data.

Of course, the pandemic also affected us as course members in different ways. A majority of the class was, by self-report, experiencing forms of bereavement, while others had personal experiences with our topics on suicide, medical racism, trauma and grief, etc. Many of us were experiencing or struggling with forms of isolation or other life changes. Since we were living around the world—rather than meeting in a classroom—we didn’t have as much control of the shared course spaces, and could not always separate them from our domestic lives. These things and others made it harder to engage in the kinds of community building and support that we might have in other times, but I’m proud of the community and conversations we managed to create.

If students were to take only one thing from your class, what do you hope it would be?

A radical sense of curiosity. Angela Davis reminds us that “radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” I hope that our course members have left with a drive to explore the questions and assumptions lurking behind our questions; to interrogate the evidence, practices, and norms that motivate and support our modern theories and policies. And, where that work is often philosophically and emotionally difficult, I hope we have the curiosity to explore different ways we can care for ourselves and for others, and to seek out opportunities for building hope, action, and change toward the futures we desire.

Why bioethics? What drew you to the field in the first place?

My path into bioethics came from a series of overlapping life events that all seemed to pop up just as I was seriously considering abandoning my undergraduate degree. To sum up only a few: (1) Many people in my life and in my communities were dying preventable deaths. (2) Becoming increasingly disabled and confronting my genetic lineage and health history raised interesting and important bioethical questions. And (3) I was volunteering and engaging with communities where I could see issues and theories in bioethics having direct impact on people’s lives. By beginning to explore bioethics within and beyond the classroom, I came to see how it can be an important vehicle for change. I now stay engaged with bioethics (among other disciplines) because I believe it can be one of many pathways toward building a more desirable future.

What inspires and guides your teaching?

Students. I have gained so much from learning with and from students and other course members: celebrating our successes, working through our struggles, exploring our differing perspectives and knowledges. I regularly solicit student feedback throughout and between courses to help reflect on our failures and update my teaching practices. My teaching would be stagnant and stale if not for the guidance of current and previous students—at least as much as that of my other teaching mentors past and new.

You have a strong research interest in disability studies, and your course received praise for its emphasis on making study materials and assignments as accessible as possible. Could you speak to us about the steps you take, and that other instructors might also easily perform, to create an accessible classroom, especially online, and how that really benefits everyone, including non-disabled students?

A decent answer here would take books and books, and so my first recommendation is probably to read those! Do the research: disabled people and others have been publishing guides for decades, and very rarely will access advice generalize to all circumstances. My own first attempt at a “concise” answer here was well over 1,000 words long! So to avoid stretching on at length, I’ll just list a few more superficial changes that could be made in one day. I occasionally run informal workshops that cover these and other tips at greater length.

  1. Trust and learn from students; they are the experts of how their own conditions and circumstances work, and may have advice on how to easily implement accommodations.
  2. Avoid requiring documentation for accommodations wherever possible. Doctors’ notes often cost money students don’t have, and diagnoses of conditions as common as ADHD can cost thousands of dollars in Ontario, let alone further social and institutional barriers.
  3. Avoid using PDFs. Unless we’re very comfortable with things like embedding navigation, reading pane order, alternative image text, and the like, PDFs can become highly inaccessible despite best intentions. Word documents and rich-text files generally provide greater flexibility.
  4. Use the accessibility checker tools built into MS Word and MS PowerPoint to review all documents and slides for accessibility and apply needed fixes.
  5. Ask librarians for help making scanned or hard-to-find readings more accessible. They have advanced optical character recognition tools and other resources available to them.
  6. On Speedgrader, try to keep comments in the dedicated comments box, or through the “point annotation” tool that looks like an upside-down teardrop. Highlights, text typed on the student’s page, etc., are not always visible to screenreaders, and not uniformly preserved when the feedback is downloaded for offline use.
  7. Learn how to caption or subtitle uploaded videos and try to provide transcripts where possible. The University’s licensed MS Stream app can generate both for you. Try to integrate captioning into live sessions also. Zoom currently has a tool for this.
  8. Upload video and/or audio recordings of lectures or seminars. (Audio-only files can be easier for folks with precarious internet access to download and use.)
  9. Reflect on how accommodations could be extended to other students or built into the design of future courses. If one student benefitted from a form of support, they’re unlikely to be the only one.
  10. Request and attend accessibility trainings, preferably designed and/or run by disabled people. The AODA training mandatory for employees is not a particularly useful resource (more than 15 years after its creation, the AODA still does not have an education standard!). Various people and groups also offer accessibility consultations about course design [including the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation at the University of Toronto].
  11. Lobby for more institutional support: accessibility is not a one-person job! Lobby for improved access to and funding for Accessibility Services, the Health and Wellness Centre, better financial support for students seeking diagnoses, more robust and integrated accessibility training, etc. Even an email to an administrator on any of these issues is a better start than none!

Taking up any of these small changes is a move toward improved accessibility in terms of disability, and can further improve access for others too. Consider, for example, making our materials screenreader compliant. This can improve access for those with low or no vision, those with TBIs or photosensitivities, among others. But this change can also help those who are multilingual who benefit from hearing terms pronounced, or those working multiple jobs or child raising who can listen to the reading like an audiobook while working on other tasks. Waiving doctor’s notes not only benefits those who don’t have access to their primary physicians during COVID-19 but also those who cannot afford those notes, those who cannot safely access healthcare generally, those who are caring for sick dependents, those who are bereaved, those recovering from abuse. . . . These are all examples of what some disabled folks call the “curbcut effect,” describing disability-centric access work that benefits many non-disabled people too. Any moves we can make toward more accessible courses, and beyond our courses, are important steps, limps, and rolls forward in teaching.

What does it mean to you to receive recognition in the form of the Superior Graduate Student Course Instructor Teaching Award?

Honestly? I’m still processing. But where there are many ways of teaching and learning, it is affirming to know that that the choices we made as a course community ended up working as best we could hope. This in itself is a wonderful accomplishment for such a philosophically and emotionally difficult course in such difficult and dangerous times. I hope my students can know this award is in part theirs too for the course we built together. I am also simultaneously overjoyed and saddened that accessibility came up so regularly as part of the nominations. I do think access work needs to be recognized, valued, and commended if we’re going to help normalize it as a fundamental part of teaching work, and I’m glad the students felt supported by it. At the same time, I wish it were already such a norm that it disappeared into the background in these conversations. Ultimately, I understand this award as an expression of kindness and support, and an encouragement to continue doing and lobbying for this kind of work, even when it can feel so hard. And I’m grateful for all of that.

What are you up to now, both academically and as just an everyday person?

My main work right now is just trying to survive and help keep my community alive through a pandemic that is still very much ongoing if not worsening. At the same time, this work is informing my academic research on disabled and queer epistemologies of health, particularly around COVID-19. Many of the “new normals” of pandemic living have been the long-lived realities of many disabled and ill folks, and many of our moves toward telehealth, online communicating and working, safer public spaces, more accessible and affordable protective equipment, for example, have benefitted from decades of disabled and ill knowledges and activisms. Many of these same people are working from their beds to create new knowledges and resources and actions: disability justice groups in Detroit and California have recently made some great wins on vaccination reform, while knowledge-share groups are creating community-informed databases of how different vaccines interact with medications and diagnoses. At the same time, many of these groups are struggling to survive during the pandemic and are inadequately represented in public health conversations and publications. So, I’m thinking a lot about the epistemologies of COVID-19, but ultimately I’m trying to put these reflections to work to help keep my communities safer—and to wash the dishes when I can.