Disability Studies, Fermentation, and the Premier League: A Q&A with Professor Mike Gill

Soup Russell ’27 sat down with School of Education Associate Professor Mike Gill to talk about his passion for Disability Studies (a program celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2024), his scholarly interest in fermentation, his love of English Premier League football (he’s a Tottenham Hotspur fan), and what he loves most about teaching at Syracuse University.

Soup Russell: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do here?

Mike Gill: So I’m an associate professor of Disability Studies in the School of Education, and I teach both Disability Studies classes and Health Humanities classes.

SR: Just for reference for people who don’t know, what is Disability Studies?

MG: Disability Studies is the study of the history and culture of disability. So I’m not teaching people how to diagnose; I’m not teaching people about characteristics. I’m thinking about disability as a cultural experience.

SR: As a teacher, why are you specifically so passionate about Disability Studies?

MG: I come to Disability Studies both as a disabled person and a person who has a long history of being connected to disabled people and loving and caring for disabled people.

Disabled people have historically continued to experience discrimination and oppression—what we call ableism—and that that doesn’t operate in isolation; that and other systems of discrimination work together.

That part of the work I’m doing in Disability Studies is trying to create less oppressive futures.

“What makes Syracuse University special is the students. It’s the students that I get to interact with and learn from. It’s the students that I get to teach. It’s the students that hold me accountable.”

SR: I wonder, when it comes to your teaching, how diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility comes into play in your teaching practices.

MG: I love teaching. I think that’s the piece of my job that certainly keeps me here and excited to do the work I do.

You know, there’s been a call to recognize that the canon, or what folks have historically taught, has only reflected certain perspectives, certain ideas, and usually those are, you know, the white, middle-class, heterosexual, English-speaking, college-educated experiences.

Part of what I’m doing in my classes, particularly in the work around Disability Studies, is to recognize that BIPOC folks with disabilities, people who have been in institutions, people who haven’t had access to higher education, their stories historically have not been seen as valid because they’re not being shared.

So I try to think about what are the ways that I can utilize blogs and other materials and first-person narratives and other stories to give that incredible diversity of experience, to recognize that not every person with disabilities experience is the same.

I want to expose my students to the work that, frankly, I was not exposed to in graduate school. I love to learn from my students, right? We all have different experiences, and I think that one of the things I really love about teaching is the opportunity to connect about our personal experiences and to recognize that there has been, and continues to be, opportunities for us to connect across difference.

SR: Why Syracuse University? What makes this University special to you?

MG: For me, what makes Syracuse University special is the students. It’s the students that I get to interact with and learn from. It’s the students that I get to teach. It’s the students that hold me accountable.

I want them to have the opportunity to learn and to go make less oppressive futures. To create change.

SR: You said the style of teaching that you experienced in the past was quite limited. How do you decide what you teach?

MG: I think there’s great flexibility. And part of what I’ve been able to do is think about not only teaching directly related to my research.

So I’ve taught courses about intellectual disability and human rights, but also I’ve been able to teach courses that force me to expand what I know. I taught a class about fermentation, which is like this thing that I’m really excited about.

SR: That’s so interesting! What brought you to …

MG: … topics such as these? Well, I mean for, for me, fermentation was this focus that came out of my work in food allergies and food studies. I have fermented at home. I make kimchi; I make other vegetable-based ferments. I’ve learned how to make cheese.

I started reading what people have written about fermentation. And one of the pieces about fermentation is it’s deeply connected to stories, right? So folks will learn how to ferment often from people in their family, and there’s such rich histories of fermentation.

One of the things about Syracuse also that makes it unique is that sometimes refugee populations have been resettled in Syracuse, and when they resettle, they bring all these food traditions with them. There’s so many interesting different types of opportunities to learn.

SR: I know you’re very passionate about being a professor, but what would you be doing if you weren’t a professor?

MG: So if there was no, like, limitations on that question, I’d be … well, I’m too old now, but I would’ve had a really great career as an English Premier League footballer.

And  I would be a tattoo artist. So I think that those are things that I’m really interested in. I love watching English Premier League and getting tattoos and fermenting food. So if I could figure out a way that I could do all of those things, maybe like a traveling fermentor who sells my products and then goes and watches football, and I don’t know, set up a tattoo shop, have the show on, serve people kimchi. Then give them tattoos of the kimchi!

SR: Is that the only tattoo you make?

MG: I’m a terrible artist though.

Learn more about the School of Education’s undergraduate minor in Disability Studies or the graduate Certificate of Advanced Study in Disability Studies.