State of Mind

The Student Accommodation Problem No Professor Wants to Talk About

A stack of books.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Galina Shafran/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Welcome to State of Mind, a section from Slate and Arizona State University dedicated to exploring mental health. Follow us on Twitter.

After the high-profile dismissal of an old-school NYU organic chemistry professor in September because his classes were too difficult, a familiar debate reignited. How hard should college be, and in what ways? Who doesn’t deserve to be there in the first place? What does it mean to receive a rigorous education, and what tangible benefits does such rigor, once defined, offer a college graduate?

Advertisement

Alas, the Rigor Wars echo their cultural brethren and seem to have scattered onto the requisite ideological branches. On the one side—at least according to its detractors—are the loudmouthed progressives who bemoan an outdated punitive, extrinsic collegiate structure that may actually be antithetical to the very concept of learning; on the other—according, primarily, to enemies—are the alleged old-school pedagogues whose monocles are positively befogged at threats to barriers protecting the hallowed halls from the ostensibly unqualified.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Nowhere is this conflict better expressed than in what has turned out to be the most controversial reporting topic in my journalistic career: flexible assignment deadline accommodations.

Of the two dozen professors, instructors, and even administrators I spoke to for this article, exactly two individuals were willing to attribute quotes to their names. Everyone else, from precarious adjuncts to double-tenured full professors and associate deans, demurred, requesting either anonymity or to speak on background.

Advertisement
Advertisement

To be clear, I am not talking about voluntarily offering all students a wider range of due dates and a less-punitive structure about assignment punctuality, though this, too, is currently the subject of extensive discussion in the academy. It’s something I do: I don’t generally penalize late work (but students then lose their chance to revise and resubmit assignments). Since instituting this approach in my humanities courses, the only noticeable difference afforded me is a dearth of very weird (and long!) excuse emails from students.

Instead, I’m talking about flexibility for students with disabilities who qualify for extra time to complete assignments. That question is: How do faculty remain inclusive to students with disabilities while still managing to keep their courses (and grading time) on track?

Advertisement
Advertisement

At most U.S. institutions, students with disabilities can work together with their institutions’ accessibility offices to obtain what are called accommodation letters, sent to faculty on students’ behalf (usually at the start of term). These letters officially request adjustments intended to diminish students’ barriers to learning without overly disrupting the learning goals of the course (remember: Logistical rigor ≠ intellectual rigor). For students who are vision impaired, that might include accompanying every image in online classroom materials with alternative text for screen readers. For students with conditions such as ADHD, autism, depression, anxiety, PTSD, or dyslexia, common accommodations include providing extended or separate examination time, or posting course materials online. Most instructors are happy to do these things—except, I’ve found, when it comes to one request: flexible deadlines.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

To be clear, the objections to this request do not rankle because of some sort of suspicion that disabilities are faked, or an alleged decimation of fairness and arete. The many instructors I interviewed said they are all for an inclusive and accommodating environment. This, instead, is largely an issue of logistics and labor.

The problem arises with the maddening vagueness of the word flexible. “The letters never say how late is OK,” one mathematics professor at a large state university told me. “So, it’s always up to me to be the bad guy, which I hate.” This professor says that the letter is often the final (or only!) communication about the student’s needs, and it contains nothing to specify exactly how many extra days the instructor is supposed to offer each assignment. “It seems like the [university disability office] has made it their job to be Good Cop.” Grading is the most onerous part of college instruction on the best of days—and losing any modicum of control over when assignments come in is chaotic and deeply disrespectful of an instructor’s already-crunched time. Arguably, it’s also not terribly helpful to the student to not know exactly what is expected of them.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

One logic professor at a regional university says he receives such accommodations requests “all the time” and has figured out a way to make them work. He places a note in his online grading portal next to the name of each student who has this accommodation so he remembers not to give them a zero for missing work.

But that simply doesn’t work for faculty who have larger courses with student graders, whose time is inherently less flexible due to their own coursework demands. And in rare but memorable instances, the nebulous request for “flexibility” is downright abused. One high-ranking dean at a major private research university told me about a graduate student who sincerely believed “flexibility” granted them the dispensation to miss numerous meetings of an intensive once-a-week seminar, with no consequences.

Advertisement
Advertisement

But some accessibility offices do work closely with students and faculty to make expectations clearer. Indeed, one of the few individuals who consented to go on record with me was Norma Kehdi, senior director of the Accessible Education Center at the University of Oregon, which also happens to be my employer. Kehdi agreed with the professors who said that the main issue with flexible deadline accommodations is lack of communication about them.

Advertisement

“The reason that flexible deadlines are part of the AEC’s toolkit,” she says, “is that course deadlines can create a disproportionate barrier for students with disabilities, while not necessarily being critical to the key learning objectives of the course.” However, Kehdi is quick to emphasize that deadline flexibility is “not a blanket accommodation that allows for unlimited flexible deadlines. A student [at the University of Oregon] must make a request in each instance that a disability-related extension is needed, with a proposed submission date.” That is: The letter is meant to be the beginning of a conversation with faculty—not the whole conversation.

Advertisement

In addition, “this accommodation is considered reasonable for students with acute, unexpected, or episodic conditions for which they provide medical documentation.” That means it isn’t supposed to be carte blanche to turn work in late throughout a student’s academic career. Furthermore, Kehdi tells me, the average extension time at the University of Oregon is one to three days, and that it’s the student’s responsibility to request an amount of time that the instructor then deems reasonable. “In some instances,” she says, “a student may consult with their AEC access adviser to discuss how long of an extension should be requested.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

So, again, the problem seems to be a communication breakdown. The high-ranking administrator I talked to about the once-a-week-seminar debacle put it well: “Flexibility without accountability is not a possibility.” Again, nobody I spoke to was even remotely dismissive of students with disabilities; everyone wanted to help them achieve their academic goals. And yet: Almost to the one, they wilted at the thought of speaking on the record, for fear that any pushback to disability policies whatsoever would make them appear ableist.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The good news is that there are solutions to this issue that shouldn’t be too difficult to implement. Best of all, of course, would be for institutions to have immaculately communicated, clear policies that tell everyone—students and instructors alike—exactly what flexible deadlines actually mean in practice. For those whose schools don’t offer that, the clearest answer is to include language in the accommodations paragraph of one’s tediously long syllabus that clearly states something like: Flexible deadline requests are the initial step in a dialogue; it is your responsibility to reach out to me with the length of extension you need. And, sure, the students might not read it—but it’s a crucial way for faculty to cover their own behinds at grading time, or at least point to when they start to get letters.

Advertisement
Advertisement

There is also, of course, a case for shifting the status quo, incorporating a more intrinsically motivated pedagogy writ large, where there are no additional penalties for (reasonably) late work. Instead, students experience primarily natural consequences—i.e., getting behind and not understanding what’s happening in class. That’s the approach of Marty Wilde, a lawyer and professor pro tempore (Latin for yep, still an adjunct) at the University of Oregon School of Law, and also technically my state congressman for a few more months. There’s “no point in penalizing” students further, Wilde says, for doing something—getting behind—that will already penalize them both in college and the “real world,” where, of course, deadline extensions are more common than you might think. (But what about journalism? you ask. Bless you for thinking this is still a proper industry.)

Advertisement

Both these solutions seem reasonable to me (who uses them), but equally instructive in all of this is how cagey just about everyone was to talk about such a banal subject! That reluctance to talk about it has itself led (if you ask me) to immense misunderstandings about what flexible is actually supposed to mean. If poorly communicated flexible deadline accommodation requests are disturbing someone’s ability to teach well (which it sounds like they are!), then why won’t anyone talk about it? Is everyone really so scared to be branded as ableist to just push back a tiny bit and go: Wait, how many days are we talking here? My labor isn’t something you should take for granted!

Definitions of rigor are, indeed, allowed to change with the times; college faculty should, indeed, continue to accommodate students with disabilities to every reasonable extent. But there has to be some room in the discussion for a reasonable amount of pushback without anyone being labeled an ableist, be-monocled dinosaur—and, apparently, fearing for their job.

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

Advertisement