Sunday, October 16, 2011

It's complicated

I've been following the story of the college instructor who fell into conflict with a student in her class, possibly but not definitively related to her inability to properly deal with his stutter. His side, hers.

Nothing about the story's straightforward, which is, I suppose, what makes it compelling. On the one hand, it's about college. On the other, the professor in question is an adjunct who stopped, years ago, at an MA, and the student a tenth-grader taking her community-college class, factors that could make the interaction closer to something that would go on in a high school.

More interestingly: On the one hand, it's about disability. Without announcing to the class exactly what a student suffers from (and see Flavia on this), a good instructor must both accomodate behavior that will seem unusual to the rest of the class, and make the class work for other students as well. This is not something that's yet come up in classes I've taught, but in one I took, there was a (male) student I can only guess was somewhere high-functioning on the autism/Asperger's spectrum, whose blurting included loud, really projected belching. The (female) instructor was in every sense a pro, and dealt with it beautifully, and the other students, all or nearly all grad students from various fields who'd already taught classes themselves, were not going to have the confused reaction a more typical class might have had. College students are not going to necessarily know how to differentiate between Asperger's and awkward/entitled. I mean, I couldn't, either, from a medical perspective, but once you've logged a certain number of hours in classrooms, once you've logged a certain number in life, you start to be sensitive to at least the possibility that someone behaving strangely maybe can't help it. And a stutter, unlike Asperger's (although some online are noting that these two often go hand in hand), will be obvious as something not readily controlled, even to other high school students.

On the other, in cases like these, there's a gender component - a possible "mansplaining" angle. But can someone whose inappropriate timing and choice of words stems from a diagnosed disorder "mansplain"? Seems doubtful. To semi-address Flavia's question, while there will always be "mean girls" and mean boys who live to make fun of "weird," there's another possibility in cases like these that only becomes clear when you take gender into account. However nerdy and eccentric, and even (to a degree - search for "Asperger's" and "girls" for the ample literature on this) whether technically on a spectrum or not, girls are expected to be social and act "normal." Contrary to popular belief, this does not come naturally to all girls. The penalties for behaving strangely and looking unkempt are simply much higher for girls than they are for boys.

Meanwhile, there's a space for boys who come across as somehow different, but are maybe (or maybe not even) especially good at math, or even especially knowledgeable about something else. They may be bullied (and Dan Savage has discussed how his straight-but-nerdy brother was bullied more than he was for being gay-but-not-so-nerdy), this should not be ignored. But under certain circumstances, by certain teachers, often by parents, extreme geekiness in boys is interpreted as a sign that underneath the messy, unwashed hair lies the brain of an Einstein. A girl whose natural inclinations are along these lines will shampoo, condition, and blow-dry. A theoretical female student in Flavia's class may be someone who'd be a "that guy," a "too-brilliant-to-bathe," had she been born male, but she doesn't have the option. She may on some level resent male students she interprets as falling into this category, without considering the possibility that they have a disability, noticing only that they're viewed as budding geniuses. She may even herself have the very same disability, but have learned to compensate for it while quite young, maybe even never to have been diagnosed, because that can apparently happen with girls. Point being, whatever his personal struggles, "that guy" may irritate male classmates, but could well be the object of envy for some female ones, and may inspire something along those lines in female instructors, many of whom are, of course, grown-up geeky girls.

The problem remains, as Flavia notes, that an instructor can never announce to the class which students are merely "that guy," and which should be dealt with with utmost sensitivity because they've been diagnosed and are suffering. Nor, given the ambiguity of diagnosis, do we ever know for certain that various "that guy" students aren't undiagnosed cases, nor that over-diagnosis hasn't so labelled male students who might be better classified as "too brilliant to bathe." And sometimes, as with the boy with the stutter, a student may both have a diagnosis and feel entitled to participate in a lecture class on account of being young, on account of having been home-schooled, etc. Confusing! Are we all sufficiently confused?

So my own approach, if I ever confront something like this in class, would be to model myself after the instructor who dealt so smoothly with the belching student. Be so blasé that students follow your lead. Keep your calm, and be respectful, but without an over-the-top, 'Look, I'm being respectful of the badly-behaved student' attitude. Acknowledge all blurting/over-participating students sometimes but not quite as much as they'd like. Before the semester is even under way, make some general remarks about the need for everyone to get a chance to speak or, if it's a lecture, about how much speaking is appropriate, both so that no one feels individually picked on, and to pre-reassure the rest of the class that non-blurted remarks will get heard, too.


Flavia said...

In re: the gender angle:

My sample size is too small to draw any kind of real conclusions from, but I've noted that in the classes where I had female students who seemed to be on the spectrum, it was the female students whom she most annoyed. And in the most recent class in which I had a male Aspergers-y student, it was one of the male students who was most visibly irritated. (Though I haven't noticed this in other classes with male students.)

I definitely read neurotypical students' irritation as being more about policing their fellow students' adherence to social norms (since in most cases the spectrum-y students aren't really disruptive, or the irritation persists long after the disruptive behavior has been curbed)--and it makes sense to me that students would be more vigilant about such social-norm policing when it's another student of the same sex.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That's interesting, and does make sense. Certainly with homophobia, gay boys will have it worse from other boys, gay girls (often, if less dramatically) from other girls.

There was a girl at my high school who in retrospect was on some spectrum (as well as a national geek-celebrity, which adds another dimension), and I think if she got it worst from anyone, it was probably from kids almost as geeky as she was, nothing gender-specific. The kids who took more of a 'leave her alone!' approach tended, if I'm remembering right, to be confident in their non-geekiness.

I guess I was thinking of the general annoyance women I know often feel at "too brilliant to bathe" as a phenomenon, and thinking that this would probably spill over into some women (on the spectrum but undiagnosed, as well as neurotypical-but-geeky) misreading Asperger's as mansplaining. Beyond even just classroom settings, it's often not so easy to distinguish extreme male entitlement from a disorder. Factor in that apparently many women on the spectrum, for better or worse, learn to pretend not to be on the spectrum and to "pass" (not all, the students you refer to, but they say this happens), and this is where things get complicated. There's a gendered dimension that one doesn't normally think of when discussing how to properly accomodate disability.

PG said...

And sometimes, as with the boy with the stutter, a student may both have a diagnosis and feel entitled to participate in a lecture class on account of being young, on account of having been home-schooled, etc.

I'd read the first article but not the follow-up and figured most of the trouble came from the kid's being home-schooled. The follow-up reinforces that impression. So it's less to do with male entitlement, and more to do with the sense of entitlement that comes with getting most of your instruction from a person whose attention you can demand at will. More like only-child-syndrome than anything on a neuro-atypical spectrum. I've encountered lots of home-schooled kids (it's very popular in Texas, which is a low-regulation on this as well), and while many of them are bright and charming and well-socialized, many others are bright and annoying and have been conditioned to think whatever they have to say is The Most Important Thing To Be Said. The professor's remarks about the class that she'd tried to do more as a lecture with minimal student participation, but that the student seems to have taken particular offense to as an instance of her ignoring his raised hand, rang true to this impression.

Also, I think there's sort of a gap of educational class/status between a homeschooled 10th grader taking a college class, and his classmates for whom this is college-college. I suspect the teacher, who's apparently done very well as a community college professor, may have been over-sensitive to trying to keep this "outsider" from dominating her class, which probably had plenty of students who didn't have an actual disability like a stutter but are less practiced at articulating themselves.

PG said...

Also, I hope the reporter who decided to publish the professor's name, without getting comment from her and knowing that the college wasn't really backing her, feels some responsibility/guilt about the resulting wave of vilification of the prof.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


First off, yes re: the second comment. What some readers outside academia commenting at the NYT don't seem to get is that this woman is not protected by tenure, let alone coming at this from some kind of beyond-tenure capacity in which she's immune to what's said about her and has job security for life. It's entirely possible that she dealt with everything properly, weighing the needs of her class but also taking time to handle this student's particular case, reaching out to him, yet now she's vilified for all. It's also possible something was off about her tone/handling of the situation, and the kid correctly picked up on it, and there were previous instances of this, and the school's aware of it. But from the available info., it seems like she dealt with the situation delicately but not super-delicately, and the kid, unprepared for a college-lecture situation, if not class outside his own home, period, expected super-delicately.

Also yes re: the difference betw a community college student and a precocious high schooler. If you're an adult with a family and a job, having your precious moments in the class monopolized by a 16-year-old is probably annoying in a way it isn't if you're a precocious 18-year-old. Although somehow I imagine the 18-year-old would make more of a fuss - something about small differences seeming the greatest. But it makes sense that the prof would have this in mind.

As for homeschooling vs. gender, it would be interesting to see whether boys or girls are more likely to be homeschooled or even, more to the point but more difficult to find out, why parents opt to homeschool girls vs. boys. I wouldn't be shocked if homeschooling that's about protecting children from premarital sex (and drugs and rock'n'roll) is more often of girls, and if the parents who think their child is too much of an eccentric genius to handle school, too much smarter than the teachers, are boys' parents. There's obviously going to be regional variation (the homeschooled folks I know tend to be more of the too-brilliant-for-school/hippie-parents variety), but I don't think we can use the fact that this kid's having been homeschooled enters into his conduct to dismiss the role of gender.