Florida State University’s English department was seeking a poet. The department was ultimately interested in two applicants: Jillian Weise and L. Lamar Wilson. Both happened to be disabled. And Florida State found the money to hire them both.
Whether Florida State originally intended this to be a cluster hire in support of diversity and inclusion is immaterial to all involved, as that’s what it’s become anyway. In hiring two openly disabled scholars at the same time, in the same department, Florida State is raising awareness of scholars with disabilities and valuing their contributions. It’s also offering community to two scholars who are used to being the only disabled professor in the room.
“For me, this is huge,” said Weise, an incoming associate professor of creative writing at Florida State who previously earned tenure at Clemson University. “This is like a foundational moment that is a credit, of course, to Florida State University. But it’s actually preceded by years and years of disability rights activism in higher ed.”
Disabled professors aren’t often spoken of, Weise said, much less held up to students as models of what professors and administrators can look like. This dynamic exists across fields. A recent federal report on academic scientists, for instance, found that 9 percent of scientists reported at least one disability, compared to about 11 percent of the general population. This doesn’t mean that all scientists disclose their disabilities in the classroom or to their colleagues, either, as some disabilities are less obvious than others. Ableism persists across academe. Within the field of creative writing, in particular, Weise said that disabled scholars continue to face hostility. (Weise’s YouTube alter ego, Tipsy Tullivan, came to life after a 2016 conference included no panels on disability featuring disabled writers.)
“We don’t need nondisabled people to exclusively tell our stories,” Weise said. “It’s time for a kind of revolution in creative writing, where disabled poets, memoirists, novelists, screenwriters, are not just accepted but invited and welcome.” As for Florida State’s English department bringing on two disabled creative writers, Weise said, “No other creative writing program has done that.”
Weise, who was born disabled and refers to herself as a “cyborg” on account of her computerized prosthetic leg, is a longtime disability rights activist. Wilson, an assistant professor of creative writing who most recently taught at Wake Forest University, can’t quite say the same. He was born with Erb’s palsy, which affected the use of his left hand, but the culture in his family growing up was not to talk about it. He learned to play basketball, tennis and trumpet and, later, to type quickly for school and work. Wilson is otherwise outspoken, but again and again, he’s been rewarded professionally for making it easy for others to ignore his disability. This is something he’s trying to unlearn — including from Weise, he said recently.
“What I’ve appreciated about her friendship and … I would even go as far as to say mentorship, is that she’s not going to let me be left behind,” Wilson said of Weise, who is the more senior scholar and enters Florida State with tenure. “What she seems to be indicating to me is that we’re going to do this strategically, together.”
The pair recently submitted their office accommodation requests, for instance, and have discussed workplace climate.
Weise was unable to move to Florida during the pandemic, while Wilson, whose family lives in Florida, has been teaching at Florida State online for a year already. Weise and Wilson, who previously worked together on a New York Times poetry installment by disabled writers, will both begin teaching on campus this fall.
Like Weise, Wilson said the joint hire is a big step forward for academe, in more ways than one. Weise, who is white, also identifies as queer, and Wilson, who is Black, is gay (he prefers the term quare) and neurodivergent. Both write about sex and disability, among other topics.
“We are aligned, even though we write differently from subject positions of race and gender identity,” Wilson said. Florida State “is making a huge political statement, whether they realize it or not.”
Gary Taylor, Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor and chair of English at Florida State, said the department has been aggressively trying to diversify its professor ranks within the last three years, after acknowledging that it had historically failed to retain scholars of color. Some in the department were initially concerned about making a diversity a bigger “part of our ambitions,” Taylor said, but that’s changed.
“There was anxiety among, you know, a few of the faculty that our mantra had always been, ‘We just want to hire the best person. This is going to mean that we weren’t going to hire the best person.’ But nobody thinks that anymore,” he continued. “After doing this for the last three years, it’s absolutely clear that we are attracting a more impressive candidate pool, because people can see and they have heard that we are that kind of place, and we are that kind of community.”
The job ad for what became the mini-cluster hire invited applicants with a terminal degree, at least one published book from a nationally recognized press and experience in teaching and service. It didn’t say too much about diversity or disability, beyond this: “The English department is dedicated to the FSU strategic plan on diversity and inclusion. Therefore, priority will be given, first, to candidates with a commitment to creating a pipeline for diverse students beyond the department/institution; and, second, to candidates with experience incorporating diverse and inclusive practices into their pedagogy.”
David Kirby, the search committee chair and another Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English, said he recognized that the writing program faculty was at the time “predominantly white and male and older.” But he said he didn’t think, “‘Okay, time to hire for diversity.’ I just started reading applications.”
The applicants “were pretty darn stellar,” Kirby said. “In the end, we brought Jillian, Lamar and another excellent applicant to campus. The idea was that we would offer the job to one person, but the enthusiasm for the top two was equal, so I asked our chair and dean if we could hire two.”
Kirby continued, “I didn’t really see either Lamar or Jillian in terms of their disability. I gravitated to both — and I think this is also true of the search committee and the department as a whole — because each is what I call a poet plus, meaning they can they have that specialty but do lots of other things as well.”
Weise writes fiction and Wilson writes criticism and makes films, Kirby added. “Both are journalists. This means both can do what we hired them for but also teach other courses if need be, relate better to other faculty in the department and university as well as to a greater variety of students, and just be more engaged citizens at school and in the world, as well.”
Weise had something else going for her: she was an undergraduate at Florida State, and Kirby remembered her, based on her optimistic personality and one particular incident. Kirby said he was unaware that Weise had a prosthetic leg until one day she was late to a meeting with her professor and apologized, saying she’d had been fitted for a new leg that day.
“‘A new leg?’ I said,” Kirby recalled. “She gave me a ‘Duh!’ look and said with affectionate exasperation, ‘I only have one leg, silly!’”
Wilson recalled that the search committee was particularly interested in his own long-term pedagogical emphasis on accessibility — something that’s inspired by his own experiences with disability. Wilson was interviewed prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic has only highlighted and exacerbated the need to offer students multiple ways of accessing and thinking about course content.
“I assume that I’m going to have in the classroom people who are disabled,” Wilson said. “I think about all the ways it can possibly be accessible as a default. Then it’s just as accessible for a person who you think is able-bodied and has no disabilities that you can see as anyone. Because the reality is, in 2021, it is very rare that I have a student who does not have something that we could discern as a disability, if nothing more than an anxiety disorder.”