October 14, 2011

Accommodation and Evaluation: The Case Of Elizabeth Snyder

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:20 pm by profart

If you haven’t been following, Elizabeth Snyder is the professor who sent an email to a student with a stutter, trying to offer him an alternative to verbal participation because she apparently was having trouble getting in time to lecture and to allow other students to participate in discussion.

Reading the comments that follow any of the articles about Ms. Snyder and Mr. Garber (the student) is an exercise in raising my blood pressure. Some scream that Mr. Garber needs to shut up and realize other students have rights, that he shouldn’t be concerned about writing his questions down (the suggestion made by Ms. Snyder), that he should understand his limitations, etc. etc. etc. On the other side are the folks screaming for Ms. Snyder to be fired for insensitivity and disregard for Mr. Garber’s rights.

And they are both disgustingly wrong. Blood-boilingly wrong.

Both of the people in this situation have rights. Mr. Garber’s classmates need to learn to appreciate his participation and learn patience with his disability, to be encouraging and supportive. From the articles I have, I am assuming in this that Mr. Garber is not the type of student who uses “questions and discussion” as an excuse to wander off-task or derail a lecture. He simply takes longer to express himself verbally. That should be respected.

In order to do that, you have to know how to accommodate a student who may have a severe communication disability, such as a stutter or a processing issue. Most professors have no training in disability accommodation. If a professor wants training, they must actively seek it, which I fully recommend they do. But as an adjunct, Ms. Snyder likely had little access to such training. People outside the disability community have no sense of it, or familiarity with the resources and issues connected with it; understanding that you have to go knock on your disability coordinator’s door in order to get proper basic training in disability accommodation, an then go knock again each semester to discuss your students with specific disabilities, is just outside the realm of experience and reality to most people. Any screaming “she should have known!” are not most people- as clearly shown by the vociferous chorus of people calling for her termination.

Ms. Snyder is an adjunct. For many people that means “part-time.” We don’t know how many classes Ms. Snyder is teaching. Most adjuncts in this day and age actually teach full courseloads; sometimes more, if they teach at more than one institution. They usually are paid about half what a “full-time” professor makes. It used to be that they would come in, teach and leave; but as institutions depend more heavily on cheap adjunct labor, adjuncts are being asked to take on other duties of full-timers: advising, curriculum development, faculty meetings and governance, etc. The least colleges can do is offer appropriate training to these overworked and underpaid members of their faculty.

However, this would assume the administration is aware of the issues of disability rights and accommodation. Often, they are just as clueless, just as outside of the community as the majority of the world. They have to be clued in, and that can be a sticky row to hoe- a fine line between suggestion and criticism. Why must politics pervade everything? Ah, the joys of the social animal- we must be careful not to tread on toes as we assert ourselves, because if you call too many people out too harshly, far more people get up that defensive back and then fall into the two camps of this case: blaming the professor or blaming the student.

The facts appear to be that Ms. Snyder had a large class with other students to consider along with Mr. Garber, but had no training or plan for how to do that. I have some suggestions, but I recommend anyone and everyone with a student in your class who requires accommodation to march straight over to the disability resource person and have a sit-down with your student to find out what is needful and appropriate.

My first suggestion is to put support material and discussion online. Most colleges have online resources these days, and having modules to follow your lecture material is a great idea for our increasingly computer-savvy and web-familiar student body. Students who are not familiar with forums, discussion/message boards, blogs, etc. probably need to add that to their education, anyway. Using online discussion supplements your classroom and allows for more thought-out responses to questions, while allowing you to add in questions and remarks that may have been eliminated from class due to time constraints.

Second, there are many things we are teaching in our classrooms besides the subject of our courses. Patience and compassion are among them. Speak to your accommodation-requiring student about how to address the rest of the class and encourage classmates to be supportive and patient. Be sure other students who may be unfamiliar with disabilities, or frustrated with disabled students and what they see as “advantages” instead of accommodations, get the support and education they need to handle the situation and cope. People will be encountering people with disabilities all their lives. Here is a chance to help them learn to interact appropriately!

Third, if accommodation is viewed as disruptive or time-consuming, make sure your other students are supported with extra office hour availability, online access, and given equal access to class time. You may find that putting the whole lecture online, and saving classtime for discussion, may be the way to go with a certain group of students; another group may prefer the online discussion, and live lecture. Being flexible about material delivery is increasingly important, as the goals of education shift to being more concerned about student success and actual learning, rather than simple presentation. If you are not afraid to deflect and re-direct a student without a disability, you should not have to fear to do so with someone with a disability- “let’s give someone else a chance, too!” and call on students specifically. Make it clear from the syllabus that you want to hear from every voice, every day.

No, it isn’t easy. Yes, there are fine lines to walk here. Villifying student or teacher in this situation is utterly inappropriate. Yes, the professor is in the role of power and therefore bears more responsibility for appropriate action. Yes, we professors, even as adjuncts, must currently be proactive in making sure we are prepared and trained. This situation should be a wake-up call for college administrations everywhere, to be sure all staff are equipped to accommodate. It should not be a call to fire Ms. Snyder or put down Mr. Garber in any way.