Unruly bodies: My life as an academic with disabilities

The fourth post in this series, curated by the WPSA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, is a window into how personal health issues and disabilities influence the understanding of, and approaches to, academic success and failure. Other posts in this series are listed below.  If these topics are of interest to you the short course on this topic, Unlocking Success with Failure, at the APSA conference in Philadelphia is underway. If you are interested in contributing to analyzing successes and failures in the academy, we invite you to propose a roundtable, paper, or session to the Critical Perspectives on the Academy section of the WPSA conference, which will be from April 13-15 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Participation requests are due September 18th.

By Ellen Ann Andersen


Based on some commonly used markers, I am an academic success story. I have a tenured position at a university I am pleased to call home and I live in an area of the country I adore. I’ve made a name for myself in my areas of research; my teaching is closely aligned with my research interests. My wife and I teach at the same university and have done so for nearly twenty years. I have also been able to secure academic positions at universities with extraordinary medical facilities and excellent health plans. I’m extremely aware of how lucky I am in all these respects.

At the same time, as my university has increasingly come to define success primarily via scholarly output—which necessarily devalues teaching and service—the temptation to see myself as a failure is all but overwhelming. You see, my capacity to engage in sustained research and writing waxes and wanes with the vagaries of my health, and my health has a wicked sense of humor. I am what might be termed a medically complicated person. My body is like a Russian-nesting doll: health problems layered on top of health problems. I came to graduate school with a mobility impairment and a progressive neuromuscular disease. Working around my body’s limitations was fairly easy at that point. And, in fact, the professoriate can be a terrific place to work for someone with either (or both) of those conditions. Our work isn’t physically strenuous; we work with our minds far more than our muscles.

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The Personal is Political, or At Least, Relevant

Today marks the second post in our new “professional development and reflections on the discipline” series, curated by the WPSA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession. In this post, Professor Hirsch reminds us that there is strength in sharing our experiences with each other,  and grapples with our one-size-fits-all system for measuring success. For more on his reflections, check out his memoir,  Office Hours: One Academic Life. If these topics are of interest to you, we would like to encourage you to register for our short course at the APSA conference in Philadelphia in September on Unlocking Success with Failure. This half-day short course will focus on unlocking our success – as individuals and institutions – by exploring the failures in our personal and institutional stories. We will do so in the context of the many interdisciplinary intellectual frameworks that illuminate failure as inevitable and necessary for achievement.

By H.N. Hirsch

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Recently, I took a step away from usual scholarly expectations–I published a memoir about my academic life, a memoir I spent roughly four years writing (and rewriting and rewriting).  Having reached my sixties and having, somewhat by chance, somewhat by choice, worked in a variety of different institutional environments–the Ivy League, the University of California system, and two liberal arts colleges–I felt I had things to say about the strengths and weaknesses of each of these major types of academic workplaces, as well as things to say about being a gay academic of a certain age.

Writing a memoir is an odd experience when you are still embedded in the system you are describing, or at least it was for me.  At times I felt–and will no doubt be judged by some to have been–disloyal or ungrateful, someone seeking revenge or (as an officious senior colleague once said to me) someone who doth protest too much–an occupational hazard for anyone doing personal writing of this kind.  At other times during the writing process I felt liberated–enormously free to ignore standard scholarly form and to say things I had kept to myself for many years, things that seemed to me necessary to say.

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Introducing the New Editors of The Western


In this edition, we would like to introduce the new editors of the Western Newsletter, Danielle Lemi and Janni Aragon. We are proud to continue the tradition of editors Daniellecoming from UC Riverside’s Political Science Department. It is a happy coincidence. Many thanks to the founding editors, Valerie O’Regan and Stephen Stambough for their hard work!

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