Disability studies course seeks academic department placement, risks being discontinued

March 19, 2018, 12:20 a.m.

The future of Stanford’s introductory course on disability studies — offered for the first time last fall — remains uncertain, following the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education’s (VPUE) commitment to fund the course for another year on the condition that a single department support it.

Designed and taught by Doron Dorfman J.S.M. ’14, a J.S.D. Candidate at the Law School, the four-unit “Introduction to Disability Studies and Disability Rights” class is an interdisciplinary course examining disability as a social, cultural and political phenomenon. The course aims to address the intersectionality of disability. According to the Stanford Disabilities Initiative, over 25 students completed the inaugural class.

In the fall of 2017, the course was funded by VPUE, Harry Elam, who said that he remains committed to continuing the course.

“The reason we made it happen in the first place was because we believed in it,” Elam said. “We still feel that way.”

VPUE has offered to fully fund the course for the 2018-19 year on the condition that it joins a single academic department, according to Elam. When offered last fall, the course was cross-listed under interdisciplinary academic programs — ethics in society, human rights and feminist, gender and sexuality studies — as well as sociology, which is its own discrete department.

According to Elam, VPUE typically only sponsors pilot courses and, as such, cannot not financially support the course “indefinitely.” To ensure that Stanford continues to teach an introductory class in disability studies, Elam said, an academic department must fund the class and permanently incorporate it into its course offerings.

Dorfman informed VPUE of his difficulty finding an academic department that was willing to cover the cost of next academic year’s course offering.

“VPUE is not a program or a department, so we cannot house a class … [or] give it a course number,” Elam said. “[Dorfman’s] responsibility is to find an academic home.”

Dorfman said that he had reached out to the Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice, but the center could not budget the course.

Dorfman expressed frustration at the expectation that he salvage the course. “I didn’t expect that this would fall under my responsibility,” he said. “It is hard to fit this task into my schedule as a full-time doctoral student and a lecturer.”

However, he acknowledged the complexity in housing the course. “We cannot expect the VPUE, which is not an academic department, to fund the class,” he said. “However, we should expect the academic community at Stanford to understand the importance of the field and its relevance to the lives of all students, staff and faculty. “

According to Elam, this prompted VPUE to increase the amount of funding he pledged to give the course from 50 to 100 percent for the 2018-19 year.

Dorfman said that he is unconvinced that academic departments will agree to accommodate the course and feels uncomfortable asking departments to support it. Consequently, there is no guarantee that the course will be offered in fall 2018 without the support of an academic department; as such, the course’s status in 2019 — and in years to come — remains unresolved.

Supporters have taken measures to advocate for the course within Stanford’s political sphere. The Stanford Disability Initiative released a petition earlier this quarter urging University administration to continue offering an introductory course in disability studies.

In an open letter to the Daily published last Friday, representatives of the Stanford Disability Initiative, Kids With Dreams, Power2Act, the ASSU and Sense Connect demanded that the University continue to offer an introductory course in disability studies.

“If we lose this class, Stanford is responsible for perpetuating an ableist trend, pushing disability issues and people with disabilities to the margins,” the open letter said.

On Feb. 28, the Undergraduate Senate voted unanimously in favor of a resolution written by Katie Hufker ’18, extending support to the Stanford Disability Initiative in its aim to guarantee that the course be offered every year.

Elam expressed skepticism about the sustainability of the course in its current form. He suggested that a “deeper problem” is also standing in the course’s way, namely that the University does not have a professor who teaches undergraduates and specializes in disabilities studies.

“Having a graduate student teach [the course] is not a long-term sustainable model,” Elam said. “Eventually a department would need to hire someone with expertise in [disability studies].”

Dorfman acknowledged VPUE’s efforts in offering a pilot version of the course.

“As much as you cannot expect a graduate student to save [an introductory class in] disability studies at Stanford, you really cannot expect the VPUE — which is not an academic department — to save disability studies,” he said.

However, Dorfman also pointed criticism at the University as an academic institution, which he believes has neglected the field of disability studies.

“The problem is with the academic system at Stanford which doesn’t value disability studies and hasn’t thought about it as a unit of analysis,” Dorfman said. “It is shameful.”

Some U.S. universities offer undergraduate minors in disability studies, including UC Berkeley and Ohio State University.

Setting out his goals for the discipline’s future at Stanford, Dorfman said that Stanford needs to guarantee that the class is taught next year and, from then on, make an “institutional effort” to establish a disability studies program.

He suggested creating a specialized research center or hiring a professor who is an expert in disability studies, which Dorfman defined as “a discipline of its own — with its own theories, its own scholars, its own way of viewing disability.”

Georgiana Burnside ’21, who sustained a spinal cord injury and now lives with paraplegia, said that she would expect a university as rigorous as Stanford to offer courses in disability studies.

“Discontinuing this class would suggest a social indifference that Stanford typically works hard to avoid,” Burnside said.

Burnside argued that the class also has important educational value, emphasizing that it could inform students about the lives of students with disabilities.

“Classes like this help educate people about how to be active empathizers, rather than just harboring unproductive pity,” she said.


Contact Anna-Luisa Brakman at abrakman ‘at’ stanford.edu and Yasmin Samrai at ysamrai ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Yasmin Samrai ’21 is a Desk Editor for Local. She hails from London, UK. She loves traveling, listening to 80s music and sipping Earl Grey tea. Feel free to ask her about her favourite James Bond or talk politics. Contact her at ysamrai ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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