Things have changed lately. I suspect you know the reason.
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Things have changed lately. I suspect you know the reason.
Here’s where I am now. It is 11:14 in the morning. Class begins at 11:15; I arrived at 11:03. I have taken attendance in Canvas, our course-management system, arranged my visuals for the day, and made sure the Zoom connection works, asking the four students on Zoom for an audio check. For reasons IT can never explain, this involves logging into Zoom, starting the meeting, waiting for the message that tells me Zoom is not responding, closing the program, then reopening it and reclaiming my status as host. This makes no sense to me.
I am sharing my screen, of course. With sound. It was a while before I realized — that is, before my students showed me — that the default setting was no sound, so that the people on Zoom could see the clips but not hear them. The camera that would give the Zoomers visual access to the classroom does not work. Also, I am advised not to access Zoom via Canvas, even though Canvas’s landing page has detailed log-in-to-Zoom instructions. All this makes no sense to me, either.
And that is when I check my phone and realize that a student has asked for the Zoom link for the day. At 11:14. I announce to her and to the class that these requests have to come in before 11 — it was just chance that I checked my email before starting class.
The funny thing is, I’m not even teaching a hybrid class. I’m teaching an in-person class. At Penn State, we have been in person and masked all year. Masks came off a few weeks ago. So why am I even bothering with this wonky Zoom arrangement that seems to introduce a new glitch every week? Why I am granting literally last-minute requests like this?
One reason is that this is a course in disability studies — the introduction to disability studies in the humanities, a requirement for our disability-studies minor. At the outset of the course, one-third of my students requested accommodations of various kinds, and one asked to attend remotely for medical reasons. I wasn’t required by law or policy to say yes to the request for remote attendance, but I figured that if these students can’t get that accommodation in a disability-studies class, there is something seriously wrong with the world.
Making matters worse, there is something seriously wrong with the world. There is a two-year-old global pandemic to begin with, and now endless atrocities in Ukraine; sales of snake oil (bleach, horse paste, “bromeopathic" patent medicines) are at an all-time high, and roving bands of QAnon addicts and random marauders are waging all-out campaigns against LGBTQ teachers and the books of Black people whose ideas might hurt the feelings of tender white children. Wait, did I say “random marauders?” I meant “elected officials.” To paraphrase the old activist slogan, if you’re not overwhelmed by this point, you’re not paying attention.
We talked a lot about chronic fatigue/illness and the “good days, bad days” phenomenon in which a disabling condition can come and go, come and go. We read Christine Miserandino’s classic essay “The Spoon Theory,” in which Miserandino likens the experience of lupus to having only a finite amount of energy, a fixed number of spoons, to get through the day. Showering and dressing might cost you one spoon — or two. Walking to class or to work might be another. Fixing lunch or running an errand … you get the idea. You might be out of spoons by midafternoon. And advanced spoon studies have shown that over the past two years, the world has decreased its collective spoon production by anywhere from 20 to 40 percent — not even counting the people dealing with long Covid.
As I said to my students in midsemester, “we’re finding that imperceptible disabilities can be harder to accommodate than disabilities like blindness, deafness, or mobility impairments, because people have to disclose them, and that can be an awkward process.” (I had already made it clear that I would not ask any of them to disclose anything they did not want to disclose.) “But we’re also finding — and I promise you I will hate myself in the morning for using this word — that they are extremely … relatable.”
My students related. Some of them were on Zoom precisely because of psychosocial issues — some of which might have been in their minds, some of which might have been in the world. Or, most likely, both. This course was effectively — and rightly — giving them permission to say, “Professor, I’m out of spoons, can you send me the Zoom link for today?”
So every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning, I waited for the requests for the Zoom link. There was the student who had switched to all Zoom, with my permission, but also, always, a few students who (a) got sick, (b) were too stressed to leave their room, or (c) maybe stayed up too late last night doing whatever. I never asked for an explanation.
I figure that if you’re an undergraduate who signed up for a course in order to learn more about disability, and the course is trying to understand the range of imperceptible psychosocial disabilities (and the range of strategies for accommodating disabilities or, conversely, “passing” and “covering” so that one’s disabilities are not acknowledged), surely you should be able to expect that the definition of “reasonable accommodation” should be as broad as we can possibly imagine.
But this is a principle that extends well beyond disability studies. Every professor is required by law to provide reasonable accommodation for students with a demonstrable need, and yet too many of us continue to behave as if federal law stops at our classroom door. Too many of us continue to ban the use of laptops and phones in the classroom, ignorant of or indifferent to the ways this policy can discriminate against students with disabilities; though we know that some of them might use the internet to Google more information about Erving Goffman or Leo Kanner, we worry that some of them might be looking at TikTok posts or YouTube videos, and of course we can’t have that.
Now, too many of us are fretting that Zoom students might be goofing off without our knowledge. Surely, we think, if they were present and accounted for, we could be absolutely sure that they were listening to our lectures and not daydreaming.
Too many of us continue to behave as if federal law stops at our classroom door.
Granted, the Zoom/hybrid model is terrible for some classes. Performing arts. Physical therapy. Agricultural science. Anything with a lab. For courses in those areas, Zoom isn’t a reasonable accommodation, it’s an “undue hardship”; it fundamentally violates the way a discipline is supposed to work.
But my discipline involves reading and writing. And I see no difference between students goofing off in person and goofing off someplace else. If the Zoomers aren’t paying attention at all, then they, like in-person students not paying attention, are only cheating themselves. I don’t like Zoom, but I would rather have students attending by Zoom than not attending at all, which is increasingly common these days.
So I have tried to accommodate everyone and everything, reasonably. A request that comes in at 11:14 is unreasonable, but before 11 — the student who is stuck in traffic coming back from a doctor’s appointment? Sure. The student who is feeling a bit under the weather this morning? OK. The student with a migraine? No question. The student who just found out he has pneumonia? Oh hell yes.
Might there be some students who are taking advantage of this flexibility, students who just don’t feel like getting out of their pajamas, students who don’t want to walk across an icy, windswept campus, students who just stayed up too late last night doing whatever?
I have no doubt that there are. And I am not terribly bothered by this.
Many faculty members have rethought “class participation,” which can discriminate against shy students or stutterers; my syllabus assures students there will be no penalties for not speaking up in class. Students can participate in lots of other nonverbal ways. So why does it matter if students attend remotely, so long as they are doing the rest of the work?
And as for the rest of the work, what do we do about deadlines, about which I was once so strict? Are they still a thing? Should they be?
I used to tell my students that juggling deadlines was good preparation for life after college. I would say that long after they have forgotten what we said about The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, or anything they learned in Spanish or kinesiology or biochemistry, they will still know what it is like to meet three deadlines coming at them at different speeds. It will be a very useful skill. But this year, if papers are a few days late, I’m thinking it’s not that big a deal.
Of course, semesters have to end, but there is some wiggle room in there. Though there are dangers as well. Some people absolutely need deadlines — and they need absolute deadlines. Otherwise the goldfish will swell to the size of the bowl. And some students will feel oppressed by deadlines no matter how many extensions you offer them, so offering extensions isn’t doing them any favors.
Nevertheless, the question remains: In the course of a semester with three or four assignments, does it really matter if an assignment arrives a week late? Two weeks? To a great extent, it depends on the course. Lab Assignment 1 has to be finished before Lab Assignment 2, and in writing-intensive classes that require essays every one or two weeks, even a three-day extension might be a strain. And faculty members have a legitimate interest in not having legions of students frantically submitting all their work in the final week of the semester — whether they’re teaching one class or five. (But especially five.) I’m not suggesting we be infinitely flexible.
If it’s a good life skill to know how to meet hard deadlines, it’s also a good life skill to know that not every deadline has the same urgency.
If you’re worried that flexibility about deadlines and in-person attendance will erode the intellectual standards of your courses, I hear you. I used to have that worry, which is why I had policies in the first place. And I still think that being able to meet three deadlines coming at you at different speeds is a valuable skill. But I don’t think it’s universally valuable or universally transferable.
I liked being a humanities-center director in part because all the deadlines were real: when faculty and graduate students had to be notified about the fate of their applications, when the postdoc offers had to go out, when the seminar room had to be booked and the food and drink for the reception had to be ordered (and delivered). But sometimes deadlines are tweakable. And if it’s a good life skill to know how to meet hard deadlines, it’s also a good life skill — arguably a better life skill — to know that not every deadline has the same urgency, and to be able to distinguish the deadlines that are absolutely necessary from the ones that have a little give at the edges.
And then, finally, there are exams. Fifteen years ago I stopped giving in-class final exams. After getting requests for accommodations from students with arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, dyslexia, and cerebral palsy, I finally asked myself, Why am I asking people to scribble madly for two hours and expecting them to turn in anything like their best work? Now my finals are take-home, with a three-day deadline (a firm deadline — I grade them during finals week), and guess what? The best students do really well, and go back into our readings to find the passages and arguments they need. The students who spend little time and thought on the exams are easier to identify, shall we say. And I’m not reading mad scribbles, which is a blessing in itself as cursive writing gradually disappears from human civilization and student handwriting becomes completely illegible.
This year, I finally realized that this principle would hold for midterm exams as well. I don’t know why it took me so long; all my midterms were in-class, and that posed the same problems for students needing accommodations.
So now I have some new policies. I’ll still take attendance, but I won’t have a fixed penalty. I’m not going to penalize somewhat-late papers or other assignments. I will try to keep students from falling off the cliff, though — there will be guardrails where guardrails are necessary. And though I will still administer pop quizzes, I am officially done with long in-class midterms and finals.
I suggest that for your own classrooms, some of these decisions might be … relatable.