About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Where's the Line?

This is one of those blogs that is going to get somebody's knickers in a twist.

Every term there are students in my classes who have documentation from Disability Services that they need special accommodations. Most of the time, their disabilities are firmly in the "mild" category. They have ADHD and need more time on tests. They have anxiety disorders and cannot present in front of the class -- or, sometimes they claim, they cannot even talk in class. They have auditory processing disorders and want to tape record the lecture so that they can listen to it over and over again. They have a seizure disorder and need to tell me what to do in the event that they have a seizure. They have a processing disorder and need a notetaker.

None of these accommodations bother me in the least, though I find it ironic that it is these kinds of modest "disabilities" that end up receiving a relatively large portion of my attention. The student in the wheelchair is doing fine. The temporarily disabled student recovering from a serious football injury and hobbling all year long on crutches is too. So is the student who wears hearing aids and so is the one who is obviously pretty seriously visually impaired. They all have found ways to meet the requirements of my course -- they may not all be getting an "A," but somehow they are taking notes, reading the material, completing assignments, contacting me the questions. In other words, they are easily fulfilling their duties as "student".

This week I had a student claim that part of his disability accommodations includes being allowed to have access to professors' notes. This is the first time I've been presented with documentation that basically says I have to pony up MY lecture notes to a student.

I politely told the student "no." Later, after having consulted with several colleagues, I recontacted the student to tell him that all of us found this request highly unusual. Giving a student one's notes puts that student -- even with a disability -- at an incredible advantage over all other students. No WAY am I doing that.

I said I'd contact his disability advisor to discuss. I also told him that if he has trouble taking notes (believable, given his disability), he needs to have an assigned notetaker.

Mind you, it's past midterms. This should have been taken care of WEEKS ago. (He has since found a notetaker.)

My conversation with the disability advisor was telling. She told me that, indeed, he had permission to get professors' notes directly from them. She also told me that "universities have been designed by people who are successful in them; in order to open them up to more people, we have to change the way they work. Not all students can process oral or aural information." She went on to say that there's an "emerging trend at the University" for professors to give their notes to ALL students.

NO way. No F-ing WAY!

OK -- so here's the rub. Historically, universities have been horribly elite places. I agree. I also think that, given the economic pressures to have a BA, more and more people are in college who maybe don't really belong there. (And it's not so clear that pushing more and more people through college actually always gives them a leg up in the job market, but that's a topic for another blog. Basically, if everybody is "enhanced," then nobody is enhanced.)

I also agree that those who find school "easy" are those who design classes and have historically established the system that we all recognize as education. I can also accept that not everyone is equally gifted with words, or with processing what they hear, or with taking notes.

But holy hell! THAT, my friends, is part of what education is all about. The reason we grade students is to distinguish between those of more average ability and those with more of the "gifts" that go along with being scholarly. If you can't take notes or if you can't write what you hear, then by all means bring a tape recorder to class or hire a notetaker.

I don't want to deny an education to those who are less academically gifted. I don't want to be a one-woman crusade against grade inflation or a one-woman crusade against the tide of making everybody go to college. But by God, I'm not giving my notes to a student.

I'm also seriously questioning where this slippery slope is leading: are colleges now just service institutions? Are we just providing a service to those who demand it? Are we still hoping to differentiate the smarter and (sometimes) harder-working from others? Is college for everybody? Or are we here to teach and work with people who have, hopefully by the age of 18, done "enough" to stand out a little bit?

And by "little bit," I mean being able to: read, take notes, ask questions, write a minimally competent essay (correct grammar, correct spelling), and synthesize information in new ways.

The disability rights movements has done great things, has made people aware of how we are all differently abled, how we are all disabled in different ways, how we learn differently, how often disability is due to the structure of the environment and not inherent in the person. How often relatively mild accommodations can mean the difference between failure and success.

HOWEVER...the twin pressures of a) "needing" a degree and b) having to accommodate nearly everybody has arguably led to an explosion in diagnoses of mild "disabilities" and is changing -- perhaps NOT for the better -- the nature of professor-student relationships, as well as the role of higher education in society. Not to mention making some students seek out a label in order to make things easier for themselves.

Not a good student? You must have something "wrong" with you. BULLSHIT.

(I take time out here to remind everybody that I parent a kid with one of those disabilities; I don't doubt that these can be impediments to success.)

However, maybe some people just aren't academically inclined -- it doesn't mean they should be slapped with a diagnosis. Similarly, maybe some people with these diagnoses should have other avenues to success OTHER THAN COLLEGE opened up to them.

To expect colleges to stoop so low as to force professors to make all their notes publicly available changes both the definition of "student" and the role of "professor".

If you cannot take notes, should you be in college?

Seriously, is that "too much" to expect of a student?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Being Nice

I'm a professor. My sister's a doctor.

We both work in professions where sometimes the people we are expected to be the nicest to (students, patients) drive us bat-shit eff-ing crazy.

Of course, you probably could say the same about the people you work with. We fully realize colleagues, clients and bosses can drive one insane. So can children, husbands, wives, parents, neighbors, postal carriers, people you "talk" to on the internet.

I get it. We're not that unique.

But, honestly, some of the stories my sister and I collect during our days at work are worthy of a blog.

This week: My sister had a patient come in and say that the wound on his arm was "from a raccoon." Hmmm...raccoon attacks arm of drug user. OK, we'll go with that. Are you sure it's not due to your needles? Oh, the raccoon? Right-o.

Also this week: My sister had an old alcoholic geezer ask her, "Wondering if you would ever go out with an old fart like me?" Yeah, a married young woman WHO WEARS A WEDDING RING is going to fall for that one. Sorry, you're just not her type.

This week for me: The midterm and the accompanying excuses as to why a) I can't take it, b) you made it too hard and c) it's not fair.

Now, every professor knows that midterms and finals are terribly dangerous times. Grandmothers die. Parents end up in the hospital. Pets get run over. Students come down with the flu. Cars break down. Buses don't run on schedule. Like clockwork. Always at the same time of the term.

There should be a consent form students sign at the beginning of the term, assuring me that they fully realize the dangers they put themselves and their families in by taking my class.

This year, the excuses for not being able to take the exam on time got far more creative. Kidney infections ("it keeps coming back!"), broken ankles ("I can't hobble any farther than my bathroom"), minor surgeries that just HAD to be scheduled the day of the exam ("I'm being put under as I write this...the surgeon couldn't fit me in at any other time"). Damn those surgeons and their schedules! Perhaps most creative, however: "a friend in North Carolina told me at the last minute that she's getting married." RE-ALLY? A friend has an unexpected wedding?

That should be a title for a movie. "Unexpected Wedding" Oh HELL! I'm getting married -- tomorrow! And I just found out about it! I'd better call my friends!

Yeah, right. Did any of then remember my warning on the syllabus that the makeup exam is considerably harder than the original one?

I sent an email to all my students about the dangers of college. How much I feel for them. Their stress levels must be overwhelming. ...Tongue-in-cheek, but pointedly, I told them that I was sick of excuses.

Then I got THE TELEPHONE CALL. Good student (I've had her before) sobs over the phone about how she thought the email was directed at her (it wasn't). It's always one of the good students -- unfortunately, not one of the poorer ones -- who thinks that the professor is angry at them. I calmed her down and I think we're OK.

However, after the exam itself, students came up to me with the usual questions. Are you going to curve it? Well, that depends on what the curve is -- if a lot of people actually did well, then no, I won't. Are you going to toss out any questions? Again, it depends. What can I do for extra credit -- I'm pretty sure I did really bad(ly)! Uh, nothing, but we'll talk privately about that later.

And my favorite, uttered to me at least once a term. "This class is really important to me. I'm really a good student. But this term I was sick/am working 1000 hours a week/had a family emergency and didn't have much time to study. I think you should curve the exam or offer extra credit."

I love the logic -- they admit that they didn't study "much" AND they suggest that any problems on the exam are my fault (hence *I* should adjust the exam or offer compensatory assignments).

Oh, god. Grow. Up.

And don't go to the doctor asking for a date or claiming a raccoon gave you those infected needle marks.

And I'll try to be nice to you in the meantime.

Musings on Methods (or Frustrating Facebook Feuds)

I seem to become most inspired to write after I've had some sort of run-in with somebody on the internet. Lessons re-learned: you don't have to respond to challenges, particularly from people you don't know and if you know you're right, that's enough.

Or it should be.

In general, if I take the time to comment on something, I feel fairly strong about what I'm saying. If I then get challenged, I generally come back and politely say why I said what I said, in more detail than the first time.

I always feel I have to defend myself.

Honestly, I gotta get over that.

All that happened today -- in a discussion of a friend's link to a report about a recent study in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, linking pancreatic cancer to relatively low soda consumption (two drinks per WEEK). I had posted the same study to my friends on Facebook two days earlier, which I think is damn good evidence that I totally AGREE that soda consumption is bad for you and that the main finding in the study is extremely provocative. The odds ratio of developing pancreatic cancer, when comparing those who drank two or more sodas per week to those who drank no soda, was 1.87 -- that means nearly TWICE the risk.

Provocative to say the least!

However, the limitations of the study have been discussed fairly widely by other researchers who've read the article. First, the incidence of pancreatic cancer is low to begin with (take a look at the American Cancer Association's list of top cancer sites, and it isn't even in the top 10), so making a big to-do about soda consumption and pancreatic cancer *might* be leading people to believe that pancreatic cancer is the most likely outcome of soda consumption. Hardly!

Second, other confounding factors (such as overall sugar consumption or race) were not adequately controlled for. The study was done in Singapore with an entirely Chinese sample -- probably doesn't matter, but we don't know until we have a racially diverse, randomly chosen sample where we can look at racial differences in soda consumption and pancreatic cancer rates.

In addition, the majority of the pancreatic cancer victims claimed NOT to be soda consumers. So, that tells me that it's those people in the pancreatic cancer group who consumed LARGE quantities of soda that drove the finding. In other words, it's the "or more" part of "two or more" that likely made the finding statistically significant.

There's also the issue of relying on self-reports. Most people don't intentionally lie, but heck, most of us want to look good, especially to doctors, and so most researchers admit that relying on self-reported data has serious reliability and validity issues. (This means that some people may have UNDERREPORTED their soda consumption, which would likely have changed the finding!!)

Self-reports are often the best data a researcher has, so it's what a researcher uses. But in an IDEAL world, to test the effects of diet on health, you'd want to control -- and WATCH -- the diets VERY carefully, so carefully that very few people would consent to be in the study. Do you want me to tell you what to eat for the next 14 years? (That's the timeline of the study, which is also impressive.)

While it's totally believable that soda consumption, like overall sugar consumption, is linked to rising rates of diabetes, obesity and pancreatic diseases, this study doesn't prove that two sodas a week will give somebody pancreatic cancer.

And yet, that's what some people want all of us to believe.

There are other potential issues with the study -- all, by the way, very common in ANY study. I'm not writing this to rag on this particular study, but rather to point out that the criticisms of the study do not necessarily represent the interests of the big bad soda and sugar industry (which the man I was arguing with accused me of siding with).

As fun as it is to think of conspiracies against medical research and interests of corporations, not all criticisms of a study originate from a desire to side with the "bad guy".

I have no desire to be on any "side"; it just so happens that the criticisms I've read of this study conveniently play into the hands of the sugar industry, which of course wants you all to continue chugging that Pepsi or Coke and eating those candy bars and that packaged crap sitting at the bottom of your purse or backpack.

Don't do it. Eat right.

But also remember some facts of methodology. One, correlation doesn't equal causation, and two, a statistically significant finding does not equal a meaningful finding.

I thought saying all this in a Facebook post was showing quite a bit of attention to detail.

I was called "kneejerk".

Yeah, I was pissed and inspired to write.