Our Campus: Lecturer Jennifer Gagnon believes in the importance of showing vulnerability

When Dr. Jennifer Gagnon first started teaching at UBC, she chose to ‘pass.’

Though she uses a cane for mobility, she didn’t tell anybody that she had a disability for fear that people would treat her differently and that it would negatively impact her experience at UBC. That changed, however, after a conversation she had with a student.

“[They] said to me that they were thinking of leaving the university because they hadn’t seen anybody at the university with a disability succeed. And they felt that as somebody with a disability, ‘I don’t belong,’” said Gagnon. “And when I heard that, I immediately changed how I thought … I looked at [them] and I said, ‘You’re not alone.’”

Gagnon told that student about her own disability and that conversation changed the way that she taught. It reinforced the idea that representation mattered, especially when Gagnon looked back at her own experience as an undergraduate at UBC and then a graduate student in the US.

“I didn’t have disabled folks as mentors or role models to look up to, in the field that I was entering. And I thought about how big of a difference that would have made for me, if there was somebody with a disability, who was open about that.

“The thing that I do at UBC that, to this day, still terrifies me is to be really open and vulnerable about living with disability.”

That vulnerability also allows her to connect with her students and empathize with their struggles. When her students tell her about their struggles to pay tuition or to balance a job with their school work, she tells them that she understands because she is also struggling to balance her work at UBC with other jobs and everything else in her life.

“To be able to be honest with folks, and to be vulnerable with folks … I think that that’s incredibly important for building not just empathy, but solidarity between folks who are at the front of the classroom and the students who are really why we’re all here,” said Gagnon.

“Vulnerability isn’t weakness … Folks with disabilities are incredibly capable and are just another aspect of human diversity, and often, when disabled folks do something differently — it doesn’t mean we do worse. It means we do it in a new and creative way.”

No matter how terrifying this kind of vulnerability — about her disability, about her labour as contract faculty — remains to her, Gagnon takes her role as an educator, which she describes as “an incredible privilege,” very seriously. To Gagnon, teaching is a form of activism.

“It’s the conversations you have one-on-one. It’s what you say in a classroom, it’s the way in which students challenge each other in their conversations too,” she said.

“I think [that] is incredibly important to see as activism — the kinds of things that make people go, ‘I hadn’t thought of it like that before.’”

Intersectionality is another critical part of teaching for Gagnon. As a feminist and a woman with a disability, she brings an emphasis on gender issues, disability politics and queer theory to every course that she teaches, stressing the importance of having more people from marginalized communities at UBC.

“[It’s] really incredibly important here on campus to have folks who are from marginalized groups and who are willing to talk about their experiences, in my case being a disabled woman, and make that a part of our teaching and what we do here.”

Gagnon’s passion for intersectionality and social justice issues pushed her to join the Faculty Association’s Contract Faculty Committee and to start to speak out about the experience of contract faculty at UBC. She was looking for solidarity, both amongst other faculty and with students.

“I’ve always very much been somebody who’s felt strongly that if you want something to change — do something about it,” she said. “For me, ‘doing something about it’ meant … using the incredibly unique platform that I have at UBC to talk openly about what it was to be contract faculty in my classrooms.”

As a sessional lecturer since 2013 and a woman with a disability, one of the biggest barriers she faces working at UBC is not only the lack of job security, but also a contract structure that doesn’t provide any medical benefits. That means she has to find other ways to get the healthcare she needs to function and to be able to do the work she does at UBC.

“That barrier is something faced by many disabled people,” said Gagnon. “And that’s also a barrier that many queer folks and especially trans folk face as well, with their unique needs for health care. … At a university, we should have contract structures that guarantee that those who work here have access to things like basic health care.

“I really struggle to stay at UBC … but I struggle and really fight to stay here because I love what I do. My vocation is absolutely being a professor. And teaching. And being in a classroom.”

Despite everything, Gagnon keeps talking openly about her experiences here as contract faculty and as a woman with a disability — but not because she is brave.

“Oftentimes people will sort of hear me talk about disability and go ‘Oh, you’re fearless.’ And I want to say ‘No, no I’m not fearless. I’m afraid all the time.’ And I do it because I don’t want to be afraid to say these things.”