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I have anywhere between 250 and 400 students in my courses each semester. A good number of them (apx 20 students) have documented learning disabilities. Now I have no way of knowing what these disabilities are, for privacy reasons, so I am not able to figure out teaching strategies to help these students do well in my courses. Some might have a physical disability making it hard to write fast enough to take notes (I permit audio and video recording of my classes), others might have dyslexia or other disorders. But given that I have no idea what the problem is, I have no way to help these students (and students rarely come to me to discuss this, I just get a note from our disability services offices indicating that students have a problem, that I am supposed to make an accommodation, and that they are supposed to come to me to discuss – in practice many students simply come to expect to be accommodated without having to see me).

But that is not the “worst” of it. In order to ease the administrative burdens on me, I try to streamline the process (if I followed the letter of the law, then for every single student and for every single assignment I would need to make specific arrangements, and fill out a form on the website to do this – my Environmental Class has 8 quizzes, 1 paper, a midterm and a final …). The most common accommodation I am asked to make is to give students extra time to complete quizzes, exams and assignments (at most double time). I do not wish to comment on the merits of such a policy here. What I wish to comment on is an interaction I had with a special needs student a few weeks ago.

How do I make accommodations? Well, rather than having exams during my regular class times (typically 75 minutes), I hold them at a common time and in a large, common location. Since the largest accommodation I need to give is 100%, at most a student would need 2.5 hours to take my exam. The catch – I allow everyone to take up to 3 hours for the exams. I do the same thing for in class quizzes – I write them to be 10 minutes long, but instead allow everyone to take 20 minutes for the quiz (or 15 vs. 7.5 mins for shorter quizzes).

After learning about this, a student came to me arguing that this policy was unfair to him, and that if I give the class 3 hours to take my exam, then he should be allowed to take 4.5 hours for it. Let me make it clear that some students are able to write a nice essay exam and do well in as little as 30-40 minutes. I simply told him that I already made sufficient compensation for his needs, and that I do not grade on a curve anyway, so it does not matter how the other students do (in most cases). What I wanted to say was to offer him to get up in front of class and make the case publicly that he should have 4.5 hours to do something that I wrote to be at most 75 minutes, and that it was unfair to him for me to allow everyone else the same accomodation as he is getting. That would make for a good economic lesson too, wouldn’t it?

If the case for helping students with disabilities is to improve their absolute ability to master and appreciate their course work, I can see someone making a case for it. If the case for helping students with disabilities is to bump up their relative position in some abstract sense, it seems to me an awfully hard case to make. Sadly, no one ever makes any case to any of us professors, and the intellectual climate in many universities is such that these questions dare not be asked. But I am genuinely interested.

One Response to “Joys of Teaching in a Politically Correct World”

  1. Susan says:

    I, too, teach at a university (San Francisco State) and sometimes have some fun issues come up with respect to disabilities. (At least our school provides proctoring at special testing centers for those who need more time.) The most perplexing example is when I get a letter from the center saying that I should allow for the student to be frequently absent and makeup work whenever they want— err… at a convenient time. Obviously, this creates an incentive for a cunning student to work the system to get themselves classified as “disabled” in whatever way gets them this treatment (I have no idea what it takes).

    Nowadays, if I get such a letter, I have a policy that they can opt to do any of the homeworks, quizzes or the midterm and have me evaluate them (but not for a grade) and just have the final count for 100%, which they have to take on the same date as everyone else. That solves the problem.

    I do wonder how these people get and hold jobs. Do they tell their employers “Oh, I have a special condition that necessitates frequent, unscheduled absences from the office, and I will need more flexible deadlines for my work” for real?

    Thanks for writing this blog. It’s great to see a professor willing to write something that isn’t Politically Correct.

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