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Hard-boiled muck-raker Ian Vansegbrook pieces together a profile of his latest subject, Dr. Katrina Keefer. Graphic: Evan Robins

An Interview with Neurodiverse Professor Dr. Katrina Keefer

Written by
Ian Vansegbrook
and
and
March 2, 2024

Ian Vansegbrook Ianvestigates Neurodiversity in Academia is an ongoing series in which Arthur staff writer Ian Vansegbrook interviews neurodiverse scholars about their experiences navigating the trials and tribulations of the academic world. This article is the first in the series. Stay tuned for further entries, which can be found at the tag below!

An Interview with Neurodiverse Professor Dr. Katrina Keefer
Hard-boiled muck-raker Ian Vansegbrook pieces together a profile of his latest subject, Dr. Katrina Keefer. Graphic: Evan Robins

Professor Katrina Keefer—a surprisingly separate entity than professor Kateryna Keefer—is perhaps my favorite professor here at Trent, and she should be one of yours too. A cultural historian that focuses on West Africa, she has twice opened a conversation with me by mentioning an injury sustained in a sword fight. My first ever encounter with Keefer was in my History of Love, Sex, and Intimacy class last year. She strode into the small seminar room, turned to the class, and said, “I apologize, but I will be standing today, as I threw my back out in a sword fight,” Never since has any interaction with her fallen below that standard. 

Keefer has taught me more about African history through excited anecdotes than any other medium has managed to, and, as far as I can tell, she can craft literally anything. 

Here is a rudimentary list of professor Keefer’s talents and accomplishments: Published Africanist scholar of cultural history, Game developer, Embroiderer, Parent, Chip carver/woodcarver, Brass engraver, Leatherworker, Foamsmith, Fencer (historical AND sport), Archer, Equestrian (the list continues).

By my count, all Keefer needs to do is pick up mining to put Minecraft Steve to shame. 

Among Keefer’s many talents, perhaps the most pertinent to my fellow Trent students would be that of professor. If it wasn’t clear, my subjective opinion is that she is fantastic, but it isn’t just me. At the time of writing this, she holds a 4.4 (out of 5) on Rate My Professors dot com. She is also the original influence that made me want to write this series and I can scarcely fathom a better person to start off my series of interviews with neurodivergent professors.

As one can imagine, a class called "Love, Sex, and Intimacy" would lead to personal discussions about our lives and experiences, and it was in one such event where she mentioned that she was neurodivergent. 

As for many people who are neurodivergent, there are always signs and struggles, but she shared that when she was younger, she didn’t have the terminology to understand it when she was a student herself. She told me of a particular experience as a second year Doctoral student where she was given the task of counting heads during an exam, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t manage to focus on the task long enough to count them all. 

“I was ashamed.” She said “I felt like a failure,”

Keefer also spoke of her experience in high school and elementary school growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. As someone who was considered “gifted”, at the time it wouldn’t have been possible for her to also be “disabled” in the estimation of those around her, and this led to longstanding challenges. 

She continued to speak of the “get it done” culture of grad school. She described feeling as if  she needed to cover up her differences as there was an unspoken understanding that neurodivergent people were incapable and would be discriminated against. It was so bad that she didn’t feel comfortable telling advisors or friends about it, for fear of judgement, but importantly, she added that this was never an explicit stance of those around her but rather an implication of the culture of intense pressure.

Keefer draws parallels to our current education system as well. Professors are encouraged to be supportive and helpful for undergraduates, but that support can sometimes get thrown out the window for grad students. While she says the culture has improved since her time in grad school, it still proves to be a struggle in academia today to some degree, unfortunately, and grad students anecdotally still describe similar problems in social media forums.

Keefer did offer a solution, however, stating that the stigma around neurodivergence needs to be “talked about more” not just by the students, but by professors too. She theorized that many older professors may also be neurodivergent, but lack the language to discuss it or are uncomfortable and unwilling to identify as neurodivergent because of past cultural stigma and internalized feelings of shame. 

With more education and awareness regarding neurodivergence, it could make everyone’s life healthier, including the older professors, who have already coped their whole lives with their differences. Keefer spoke about her own academic mother, who experienced serious health issues later in life in part due to a lifetime of masking and coping habits.

When I sat down with Professor Keefer, she discussed the importance of self-diagnosis and its validity. Keefer stated she supports the practice and spoke of the unfortunate habit of some people complaining about “all the labels being used these days” (said in as cantankerous a voice as possible). In regards to both queer and neurodivergent labels, Keefer spoke about how “Labels can empower, and help define”. Keefer herself—while having suspicions—only began to grapple with her possible neuro-divergence after her mother was diagnosed with ADHD in the early 2000s. 

Despite the difficulties she has faced, Keefer views her neurodivergence as a “superpower”, and is proud of her identity, emphasizing “I love being neurodivergent,” she said.

When considered in light of all her hobbies, I don’t think the superpower status is up for debate. She is perhaps the most frighteningly competent person I have ever met. 

She harnesses her ADHD in a rather novel way: whenever she can no longer focus on one task, she simply does another. Tired of writing a book? Design a video game. Tired of grading papers? Get in a sword fight. She does warn to take a break though, to avoid getting burnt out. 

Conversations with Keefer are a joy —they jump between startlingly lucid and professional, to affable and friendly, to excited and terribly informative all in the span of a minute. 

Self-described as an “apparently functional human” Dr. Katrina Keefer is a force to be reckoned with. If given the opportunity to take one of her classes or engage in any sort of conversation, I would highly recommend you take it. Keefer represents not only a shining example of Trent’s teachers, but also of the heights that neurodivergent people can accomplish.

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