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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?


  1. I wonder if "disabled" students will mention these diabilities while trying to establish a career. "I want to work for you but will need someone to take notes for me." Good luck-- it only becomes less fair once you are out of the nest.

  2. Dear Anonymous -- Thanks for your comment. It's a tough issue, and one I'll probably blog on again. There ARE students for whom traditional modes of education are truly difficult, and for whom rather minor accommodations make a huge difference (tape recording the lecture is one example). However, a bigger problem is the expectation that ALL students should go to college. It's not a realistic expectation and there should be other avenues to success that are encouraged and admired.

  3. I cannot agree with you more. I received my undergraduate and MSc in a foreign country and my Phd in the USA. Currently I teach mainly graduate students at a reasonably high ranking public research university and in my opinion half the students in my graduate class would not have passed a single class I took as an undergraduate. I was joking with somebody that the students does not even want to be spoon-fed, they now want their education intravenously. I'm not sure what this means for the US education system, but it's not good.


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