Not included in his own education

17 Oct

According to County College of Morris history professor Elizabeth Snyder, allowing a student with a stutter to participate in class discussion “infringe[s] on other students’ time.” When undergraduate Philip Garber, who does stutter, persisted in raising his hand to answer the questions she would pose in class, she advised him that “it would be better for everyone if [he] kept a sheet of paper on [his] desk and wrote down the answers”  (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/11/education/11stutter.html?_r=1).

Still, Garber raised his hand high… albeit unrequitedly. When Professor Snyder simply refused to call on him, he went to his dean for advice. The dean told him to transfer to another class, where he is now participating verbally in discussions.

Regarding Garber’s experience, Kathleen Eagan, Communications Director at CCM, explained, “As we do with all students seeking accommodations, we have taken action to resolve Philip’s concerns so he can successfully continue his education.” 

This is only ten sentences into The NY Times article, and Garber has been erased, blamed and misrepresented–all by the school that is likely receiving some money to educate him.

  • When his former professor advises him on what would be best “for everyone,” she clearly means everyone other than Garber, who happens to think that what would be best for him is to participate in class discussions. It would appear that for Snyder, “everyone” comprises the students who answer quickly and don’t waste each other’s–or her–time. In her gradebook, Garber is the entry she skips over or fills in with a neutral grade when it comes time to assess participation. Garber is the student she hopes to silence and forget so she can get on with teaching.
  • Snyder isn’t alone in pinning the blame on Garber. When Garber turns to the dean as a last resort, after Snyder allegedly told him,“Your speaking is disruptive,” what does the dean do? Tell the student to accept the situation and move on. Instead of pinning the injustice on the professor, the dean blames Garber for being in the wrong class at the wrong time. Apparently, having a stutter means you deserve what you get. And good luck.
  • Then there’s the college’s official position on the whole series of incidents, which misrepresents Garber’s actions and the school’s most fundamental responsibilities when Eagan refers to Garber and other students “seeking accommodations.” Seek, some might. Garber did not. Garber wanted the regular treatment, no accommodations. If anyone, it was Snyder who wanted to accommodate him–right out of the classroom. But by casting Garber and other students as “seeking accommodations” (read: special privileges), the school can suggest with a shrug that it’s doing all it can, but some students are just really needy (and there’s only so much we can reasonably do). While there’s a truth to the limits of learning diversity that any institution can meet, it is unfair to deny a student whom you have admitted to your learning community access to their education.

As troubling as Garber’s experience is, it is not just about him. He may have been the only student with an evident stutter in his history class, but I’m willing to bet he’s not the only one who needs a little (more) time to process. I wonder about the message his classmates received in watching how Snyder treated him… and how he ultimately left. I wonder about the pressure on them not to “infringe,” not to appear slow or ineloquent, and not to disrupt class with their own learning and communication needs.

** Thanks to my colleague SK for this article.

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