March 22, 2022

WILK | In (Self) Defense of Accomodations

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Last Wednesday, about Cornell 700 students were sitting in front of screens at around the same time. We were taking the prelim for HADM 4300: Introduction to Wines. Time-slotted within the mosaic of countless other prelims last week, it was joke material. 

The 135 question exam opened and closed in under two hours. And after, I felt a selfish comfort when my roommates looked as shaken by it as I was, but as we were debriefing, a difference dawned on me. Confidence aside, they had at least completed the exam. Or came close. My exam closed on me, cutting me off hardly more than halfway through it. I sunk under the weight of an invisible dunce cap, I was joke material.

Desperate for comic relief from elsewhere, our fingers reached for phones. My friend dove into the Cornell subreddit and scrolled right into a Cornell sociology professor’s rant-turned-post. She read a whirlwind of screenshots aloud to me, starting with an announcement in which the professor forewarns his students not to request extensions on an upcoming assignment — reprimanding the entitlement, shamelessness and disrespect he attributes to such requests. He instructs students not to put him “in the awkward position of having to tell [them] to take responsibility, grow up …. ” Listening, I had whiplash. Seconds prior, I had been aching over the fact that I might be in dire need of Student Disabilities Services accommodations for a test about a drink. And as my friend read out the professor’s admonitions, I was suddenly sick at the idea that I felt entitled to extra time with anything.

Needing assistance, and the shameful denial of any need for assistance, is an ebb and flow I am intimately familiar with by now. Immediately upon my acceptance to Cornell, I had an unbearable, inexplicable spidey-sense that a mistake had been made. It has since been confirmed, several times over. There are defects in my design that if I knew how to disclose, would have disqualified me from being here. For forever, I’ve been chalking up some serious complications to my own stupidity. Or slowness. It was when I came to college that I started wondering, and worrying, if my slew of shortcomings could be classified as something else. I still don’t have a definitive answer, just the dying hope that a diagnosis could’ve helped this all go differently. But accommodations lose all appeal when needing extra adjustments deems us deplorable in the eyes of our professors and society at large.

In a later correspondence to students, the same professor claims his announcement was an “exercise.” Likening his notice to a social experiment on white fragility, he asserts that reactions to his announcement only prove the privileged, entitled nature of students and extensions. This second address is longer and perhaps even more hostile than the first, and he concludes it by imploring the students he jabs at condescendingly to take up their concerns with him. Even hearing the announcement from the safety of outside his listserv, I felt my stomach churn over the absence of good choices. There are times when the act of offering options is just to drape sheep’s wool over attitudes as aggressive as lions. 

It has been noted both by former professors and current students that Cornell has practices meant to exclude people with mental illness. Admissions screen for their mention and stamp them out. Extensions of sympathy from the university are slights of hand, because between up-front honesty and handling things yourself, any move is a losing one. Students and faculty are made to feel irrational and non compliant for treating mental disorders or disturbances like something to hide, to wrap in shame, and tuck away and deal with alone. However, the more I know about administration’s attitudes regarding accommodations and those who require them, the more it is impossible to tell helping hands from headhunting. It is excruciating when mental illness turns you into someone incompatible with the demands of each new day. It’s worse when everything you do to manage is misunderstood as a dirty play in an entirely different game.

College has mostly been a solo contest of keeping my academic struggles as private as possible. I’ve bitten my tongue and tried to disappear completely before attempting to communicate because I thought it was better to be a failure with my dignity intact than become something worse — a burden who couldn’t accept defeat silently. My inbox has gone ignored because the dread of assignments and answers I couldn’t deliver on time ate me alive. I expected that admitting my difficulties would work against me. It is a strange cocktail of vindicating and pulverizing to know that they do indeed.

The unnerving post-prelim realization that I’m stuck on a different page than my peers was not unique to my wines class, though the shame was especially tannic that time. For a while after, every lighthearted dismissal of the test was laced with humiliation. In between laughs, I wondered, like I have a million times before, what was wrong with me. I don’t know how much more time I might have needed during the exam for my standards of poor performance to be on par with those of my classmates; all I know is how asking for it would reflect poorly on me. To read that Reddit post about the professor railing against the shamelessness he sees in those seeking accommodations was to have my worst and most persistent fears as a student written into reality, I can’t imagine how it affected those in his classes. As troubling as it was to read, his attitudes are more at home in this environment than struggling students could ever be.

Alecia Wilk ‘22 (she/her) is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.