If you’ve checked science/academic Twitter today, you’ve probably noticed that an anonymous account has managed to explode our little corner of the Twittersphere.
I won’t give him a bigger platform than he has already, but in short, a bitter early-career professor who has taken to Twitter to vent about undergrads has said some extremely nasty things about his students, including his students with disabilities.
These tweets have struck a nerve, and it turns out everyone on Twitter has an opinion, from “ugh kids these days are so whiny” to “yo, our students are adults and are deserving of respect” to scores of disabled students sharing their horror stories about how they’ve been pushed out of academia by professors like this man.
I have occasionally thought about what my life would have been like if I had first gotten sick during undergrad, rather than grad school. In many ways, grad school’s a great time to get a serious chronic illness; I basically disappeared for a year, and nobody noticed or cared. Being a healthy undergrad is hard; having a chronic illness is incredibly hard. Being a disabled undergrad? Eek. Reading these heartbreaking and enraging threads on Twitter, it’s really driving home to me how screwed up our system is.
Because here’s the thing. I was one of the top undergrads at my Very Fancy University in my year. Not just in my subject — I was indeed the top student in my department — but across the entire sciences division. I won a Very Fancy Independent Fellowship to fund my PhD. I have perfect scores in various standardized tests. Yes, tests, plural. I also come from rural middle of nowhere, and while I own’t deny that my background includes a lot of privilege, it also includes a lot of hardship. I am a hard worker, and I am smart, and having a neurological disorder changes neither of these things.
But yet, reading these stories, it’s clear that my chronic illness would have prevented me from succeeding in, if not finishing, my undergraduate degree. During the year between when I first started showing symptoms and when I was finally diagnosed, I wouldn’t have been able to access the resources of the disability office, which means my “accommodations” would have been at the mercy of each individual professor. And it’s clear from Twitter that this wouldn’t have gone well. Even today, when my symptoms are reasonably well-managed, there are days when I can’t stand up without passing out, when I’m in too much pain to move, when my medications make me throw up for hours on end — as an undergrad, how would I have managed mandatory attendance policies? What would happen if I had to miss an exam? Or for another example: I can’t stand up for long periods of time — how, exactly, would I have done my required laboratory classes? Or, for another one of my classes, a class which I absolutely loved and which inspired the research that became my PhD — there was a weekend field component. The field component wasn’t graded and wasn’t part of the exams, but attendance was still required. Between my balance issues, my vision issues, my fatigue issues, and the fact that my medications have to be very carefully timed, there’s no way that I could have participated in the field component. Could I still have taken the class?
And if I had said to these professors, “hi, I have this neurological disorder, here’s what I need from you in order to succeed in your class,” if I had gotten back an answer of “well, then, you don’t belong in science,” an answer so many people are giving on Twitter today, what would I have done? I was a fairly insecure undergraduate, a queer woman from rural middle-of-nowhere looking around at straight, white men from rich, posh, urban places. I had, and to some extend still have, pretty substantial impostor syndrome, convinced that someone had made a mistake in letting me into this Very Fancy University. Would I have believed these powerful professors, experts in the field I was so desperate to enter, and switched my degree to something less demanding, or even transferred to a less prestigious university whose students’ backgrounds more closely matched my own?
Moreover, the university where I did my undergrad is well-known for being pretty terrible when it comes to mental health, something that I struggled with during graduate school. (Surprise: severe, chronic pain + serious, incurable diagnosis + all the normal isolating shit that comes with being a foreign graduate student = poor mental health.) Whereby “pretty terrible,” I mean that if they suspect you have a mental health problem, you are suspended from the university with essentially no notice — which means you lose your health insurance, your housing, your visa if you’re a foreign student, your access to anything on-campus (like, say, your academic and social support networks), and so forth. To be reinstated as a student, you have to re-apply, and the process is draconian and can only occur once a year. And I’m not just talking “danger to yourself or others” mental health problems. I’m also talking, say, eating disorders.
So, students lie, and they don’t get the help they need. Would I have done that? Would I have even survived that? (Some don’t survive. Surprise: incentivizing students to lie about their health doesn’t work out well for anyone.)
The accommodations I would have needed as an undergraduate would not have been unreasonable. Flexibility when it came to deadlines and exams. Exemptions from attendance requirements. A way to do laboratory requirements while seated and a discussion of whether unexamined, ungraded field trips were actually a necessary part of a particular course. Clear requirements about what I had to disclose and an expectation of privacy for the information I did disclose.
You want science to be filled with the best and the brightest, right? Then please remember that not all scientists need to be able to stand up for long periods of time. Not all scientists need to be able to function in the early morning, or late at night, or on a regular schedule, or whatever else it is that you’re trying to force your undergrads to do. Not all scientists need to have had their life and their physical and mental health completely together from ages 18 to 22. Not all scientists need to be able to jump through arbitrary hoops that you put in place to make yourself feel powerful.
Your students are adults. Please respect that. You don’t know, nor can you tell, nor do you need to know, which of your students are homeless, which of your students are suffering with a serious health condition, which of your students are dealing with an abusive situation at home. It is your job, as a teacher, to create an environment which is conducive to your students’ learning, and that means all of your students. Sometimes creating an environment maximally conducive to learning will involve laying down the law — hey, boundaries are really great things! — but if “laying down the law” is your primary goal, I think you’re doing it wrong. Try respect. Try compassion.