Students respond to professor’s accommodations article

BY ALLYSON HUNTOON ’19

On March 26, professor of psychology Gail Hornstein’s article “Why I Dread the Accommodations Talk” was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ‘Advice for Faculty’ column. The content of this article has fallen under scrutiny by some readers, especially Mount Holyoke students.

The article began with a narrative about a student called “Lee,” who was described as clad in an “old black motorcycle jacket” and sporting a “punk haircut.” The student in the story said that she gets panic attacks and asked the professor to sign an accommodations form allowing extended deadlines on assignments when needed. In response, the professor explained the difficulty and rapid pace of the course, expressing that she wanted the student to do well. She then “set the letter aside” and asked the student, “What do you usually do to calm down before an exam?” 

In an interview with the Mount Holyoke News, professor Hornstein said that she created this “Lee” character as a composite of the many experiences she has had with students coming to her office with accommodation letters. “That’s no one person,” she said. 

Isaac Donovan Teaney ’19 found this example troubling, nonetheless. Teaney said that asking the student what she does to calm down “perpetuates this false narrative that there’s a coping mechanism out there that will ‘cure’ whatever ails you. Although coping mechanisms can be helpful, they are not helpful for everyone … and students with accommodations probably have tried those mechanisms before and are tired of hearing others’ input.”

The article proceeded by explaining professor Hornstein’s belief that not all people with the same diagnosis should receive the exact same accommodations, and that professors should talk with students to determine what they need outside of their accommodation letters. Letters are issued by AccessAbilty Services, granting students accommodations specifically tailored to their needs based on the nature of their disability, and must be signed by a student’s professor if they wish to use their accommodations in the course. 

Obtaining and utilizing these letters is not an easy process, according to Kate Thornburg ’17. Now a senior, she reflects on her experience seeking academic accommodations as a sophomore for a physical condition, IBS, which would require her to leave class suddenly when needed. An accommodation letter would allow her to leave class without facing academic penalties. 

“At least for me,” Thornburg said, “the accommodation I was looking for was like a back up … so that [the professor] doesn’t judge me or think about it.” 

In order to get these accommodations, she had to register with the AccessAbility Services office, present a letter from her doctor, meet with them, determine what specific needs she had and ask each of her professors to sign the letter granting her permission to fulfill those needs. All students requesting accommodations must undergo this lengthy process, and when Thornburg presented her letter to faculty members, she was shocked when one of 

hem refused to sign. 

“It was a really hard class that I was struggling with, so it made it so much worse,” Thornburg explained. “He said that I could leave class, but he would not sign the letter.” This professor no longer teaches at Mount Holyoke, but it was not the only time that she has found it difficult to work with instructors to ensure her academic security while living with a disability.

“I think the big reason accommodations exist is so you don’t have to go to a professor and explain yourself every time something happens related to your needs,” said Thornburg. “Especially when you have a disability that you or others consider embarrassing, it’s hard to say ‘this is what AccessAbilty has given to me’ and have the professor say ‘no.’ That’s a terrible situation to be in.”

When students read professor Hornstein’s article, many students feared faculty member’s refusal of their requests, as Hornstein’s account of dealing with the student seemed somewhat unconventional. 

In an interview, however, professor Hornstein said, “The reason I wrote [the article] is because I think faculty have been very confused about how to take an accommodation letter and have it actually work within the context of the particularities of their course.” In the article, she wrote about the quick pace of the course in which Lee was enrolled and that getting behind because of extended deadlines could create more issues. She wrote in the piece, “Of course we must take their individual needs into account and make sensible accommodations when warranted. But it’s also our responsibility as faculty members to uphold educational standards, to ensure fairness and to model resourcefulness for all students, no matter their background or life challenges.” 

When speaking with Mount Holyoke News, professor Hornstein said, “Of course, I and every other faculty member are going to provide whatever is in the letter … It never occurred to me that anyone wouldn’t assume that. I left that implicit, but I shouldn’t have.” To a student like Thornburg whose accommodations had been questioned by professors in the past, this was not an obvious assumption.

Professor Hornstein said, “I apologize for writing in such a way that it turned out not to be clear,” adding that she did not choose the title of the article. “All my work, my writing, my research, my teaching, but especially my writing in advocacy and research is focused on making sure that people who have experienced any kind of emotional distress in their lives are taken seriously, that their viewpoints are listened to, that their needs are responded to appropriately,” she explained. 

She also expressed disapproval of faculty members who sign an accommodations letter and make no effort beyond that. “I was trying to convey the sense that students are whole people who I care about as whole people. It’s a personal process, both for a person to go through getting an accommodations letter, but also going through the specifics of that particular course.”    When she received feedback on the article from students, she understood why people would feel worried, adding that if she could have chosen the title of the article, she would have gone with “something like ‘How to Make an Accommodations Talk Meaningful.’” The title chosen by the editor, “Why I Dread the Accommodations Talk,” was taken from a sentence in the third paragraph in the article which read, “The reason I dread such encounters is that they have become formulaic and often defensive — distant from the actual needs and talents of the student thrusting the form at me.” 

Professor Hornstein apologetically insisted multiple times that it was her responsibility to write more clearly about this topic. In the piece, when she wrote that she had set the accommodations letter aside to talk to the student about her needs, she explained now that she was “setting the letter aside so that we weren’t only having a bureaucratic, formulaic conversation,” and had the intention to honor its provisions. 

When professor Hornstein’s article was published, students were reminded of the difficulties that they have experienced in dealing with the accommodations process again and again. While there are a wide range of views on this topic, professor Hornstein said, “I certainly was trying to open a dialogue. Not talking about it doesn’t help.”

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