07 May 2009

Margaret Soltan and Jim Crow

I need to begin this by saying that Dr. Margaret Soltan of George Washington University is probably a brilliant teacher and a lovely woman. A perusal of her page on RateMyProfessor and her circle of friends suggest both. I also think that she is a fairly strong and effective writer.

But I stopped reading her blog and her column long ago, and I would never take a class with her, despite the fact that we share many similar passions in the literature of the English language. I consider her a person who actively discriminates against people based on immutable characteristics of their humanity, a person who divides the world into first and second class citizens based on their similarity to herself. And I find that repugnant.

Dr. Soltan is hardly the only member of a university faculty I place in this category, but by making herself a spokesperson for her position she has effectively become a George Wallace standing in the doorway.

This is not an attack. It is an explanation. And I bring it up now because of a blog conversation inspired by Dr. Soltan at Easily Distracted. The blog at Easily Distracted starts with a typical Soltan hit-and-run against technology in the classroom. In this case quoting another prof who was incensed because a student in his class used a mobile to look up a word the prof had used in a lecture (yeah, really). Now, I'm historian and ethnographer enough to fully understand why a conservative Protestant theologian would object to any variation in the carefully linked structures of Calvinist Religion, Capitalism, and Gutenberg Technology. That's a received faith in authority and the unquestioned role of immutable text. And I understand that Dr. Soltan also teaches at a "private" university (though it is a "public university" by definition of Section 504 in terms of discrimination against students with disabilities because it receives - substantial - federal funds) and students have choices both within and without GWU...

But I'm not speaking of the legal complexities here, I'm speaking of morality...

I came to the Easily Distracted conversation because Carl Dyke at Dead Voles brought me in by referencing a blog post of mine on Technology and Equity in the conversation.

Now, 18 months or so ago I challenged Dr. Soltan on this. I told her how allowing technology into the classroom as universal design made people with "disabilities" far more equal. How it eliminated the humiliation of unwanted and inappropriate disclosure (all said in detail in my post Humiliation and the Modern Professor). And how her anti-technology stance bordered on illegal re: the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504. She responded that, "of course," she would offer accommodation to "documented" students.

Sew on that yellow Star of David

That is not an acceptable response. When we adopt Dr. Soltan's attitude we make it very hard for a lot of students. Students are forced to choose between disclosure and using the tools they need, and I can tell you, from much evidence both 'scholarly' and personal, that many, many students will choose to avoid the tools which come with disclosure. And that many of those students fail.

So, here's the impact of Dr. Soltan's opposition to the general use of technology in her classroom: (1) The further students are from being 'just like her' in abilities, learning styles, and learning preferences, the less likely they are to succeed in her class, because she requires that only her own technological tools be used. (2) Students with "disabilities" or significant learning differences are forced in to perhaps unwanted disclosure by her rules, which may have important consequences for their futures. (3) All students will be prevented from learning how their preferred toolbelt intersects with the world of English literature. Bad for all, disastrous for a specific class of students. Just as racial segregation was at the University of Alabama.

And I am done with this - Dr. Soltan might be horrified if, in order to use 'the facilities' at a meeting, everyone had to get up and declare their gender and sexual preference. She'd possibly be offended if, in order to enter a restaurant, she was forced to declare her medical record. Perhaps she'd be bothered if we did not let her drive to campus without publicly declaring that she was too unfit to walk. In all these cases, we assume that people in society can make personal and tool choices without needing to announce personal information or beg permission from authorities.

But Dr. Soltan is willing to do the equivalent to her students - not only that - she's willing to encourage others to do the same - in other words, she is willing to stand in the schoolhouse door and call the TV camera in to watch her block access.

That's shameful.

- Ira Socol

A blog commenter asked why it was wtong to make all these issues public: I replied -

"What I don’t want is anyone forced into unwanted disclosure in this society, especially in the US, where disclosure of disability can limit job opportunities and even access to health care. So, it is not important to me whether you take notes on a laptop because you have dexterity issues or problems forming letters, or issues with attention. I don’t need to know if you have digital books because you are dyslexic or have MS and can’t carry physical books, or even if you just prefer those.

"We can talk preferences and diversity, absolutely. But I do not insist that students proclaim their disabilities, their sexual preferences, their gender, their racial make up, or even their birth socio-economic status. That information is welcomed and greeted without judgment when offered, but I do not teach - or live - in a world so perfect that I am sure no harm will come from these revelations.

"Listen. I’m a doc student in a “Top Ten” School of Education’s Special Ed program (not a Prof -sorry), and there are still situations where I would rather appear insolent than disabled. So if asked why there is an earbud stretching from my laptop to my ear I might say, “I’m listening to music instead of you,” rather than, “the computer is reading to me.” Because I know that with certain university faculty, the former is sadly preferable to the latter."


Tim Lacy said...


I like Professor Soltan's take on a number of topics---excepting the one you've brought up here. She's an astute person who tracks a number of important issues, but she's wrong on classroom technology.

I think the problem might be that she views it from a visceral/aesthetic and manners angle, not seeing that sensual learning tools might need to be enhanced. I mean, I doubt she would object if a student with a cast on his/her ankle walked in with unsightly crutches, or a motorized wheelchair. She also wouldn't object to a student wearing a visible hearing aid or ugly eyeglasses. I just don't understand how she can be so, well, unthoughtful and lacking in empathy about the need for ability enhancement.

Her retort might be that people who use the devices I just mentioned above do not abuse them to distraction in front of other students. Well, the potential for distraction is a small price to pay to create a healthy learning environment for every student.



irasocol said...


This is what disturbs me most about Dr. Soltan (and many others). I began reading her because I found a "similar soul" - a lover and appreciator of Joyce, for example. But how can you love and appreciate Joyce without understanding the ways cultural leaders separate and diminish those who are different?

See, she wouldn't attack the rights of any of those "others" - but I suspect they match up as worthy of sympathy in her constructed world view. But I become a "Bloom" to her "Dublin" - and just don't count no matter how essential I might be.

Her lack of understanding leaves me baffled. Since an attempt at quiet conversation failed to bring her to engage, I hoped this headline might.

- Ira

Anita Strang said...

Well said! One of our students is using a laptop provided to him because of his multiple needs including learning disabilities and low vision. He has benefited greatly from this access BUT frequently wants to do assignments without it because it makes him different. What you say is so true - if when he gets to university he needs to substantiate his need for the technology he will probably just go without. I am eager for the day when all our kids have access regardless of their "need" for it (we would provide access to all if we had the funds to purchase the technology).
I am a good reader but I frequently use the odiogo you provide to read your blog entries just so I can read more when my eyes are tired. I would have been more productive during University if I could have used text-to-speech to read university texts. Crazy that that people think that doing so is less valid in some way.

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