The Love Song of Professor Smugs: A Campus Disability Narrative

I’ve never been accepting of authority figures. If you’re disabled nothing’s worse than a junior high school principal unless it’s a college professor—the one who says your “condition” poses a serious problem in his classroom. (Translation: I’m a succubus, scarcely able to teach; who “lucked into” an academic position long ago; who opposes thinking about pedagogy to any degree.) Yes, I’ve met this “prof” more than once, both as a student and as a blind member of the faculty. Yes, he or she is still among us, preternaturally central and in every academic department. Let’s call her Professor Smugger. We’ll call him Dr. Weatherman. (I’m certain there are prodigal and acquisitive meteorologists but most stand before projected maps reading scripts someone else has prepared, wearing suits that wouldn’t pass muster in the former Soviet Union—you know the type if you’re on the faculty.)

They are the gate keepers, the neo-Victorians, even if their specialty is post-post-modernism or they profess to loving Walt Whitman, they believe their classroom is sacred space, rarefied, the very door to the classroom is a portal for the elect. How many times have I heard college faculty say, unguardedly, over coffee, “I teach for the good ones.” “Who are the good ones?” you ask. “You know them,” they say. Usually they walk away. Neo-Victorians see the world in black and white, good and bad, Jekyll and Hyde, civilized and primitive, though as I say, they imagine they’re post-colonial, gender informed, progressive. Cue the sound of screeching brakes. Dr. Weatherman is absitively horrified to find there’s an autistic student in his sanctum sanctorum. Oh Sweet Christ on a Crutch! The autistic kid has a note taker! Hinx Minx the Old Witch Stinks! This will never do! Everyone knows “learning” is a solitary matter.

When I was a graduate student and had readers who helped me conquer mountains of pages, who were variously reliable or unreliable according to the incontestable vagaries of their respective lives, which means I had to work extremely hard to not only schedule my help, but problem solve when help was not apparent, a matter Dr. Weatherman and Prof. Smugger will never imagine, for they believe the disabled student is merely a clay pot, a dingus, I learned that words are a communitarian matter, democratic, sweet, equalizing, and not always easy to attain. Which means I discovered what every writer has ever known. The literary arts are never leisure. Nor are they to be received like an office memorandum.

Department Chairs, Deans, Program Directors, and too many administrators to count believe they’re obligated to “have” the disabled on campus. In this way, their attitude is no more sophisticated than the view that they’re obligated to report staph infections or stolen cars. Authority figures on college campuses don’t by and large feel obliged to convey enthusiasm about admitting or supporting the disabled. As a matter of course the stories of disabled students cross my desk—how else should it be, I’m a reasonably prominent faculty member who belongs to the “crippled” set. I hear the story of a freshman who didn’t get note taking provided for her in a timely way and who in turn failed a class unjustly. The university has so far failed to redress the injustice. Administration deflects. Simple problems apparently can’t be resolved. One is tempted to believe that there’s a pervasive feeling, unstated, but true as rain, that if spoken would sound like this: “Isn’t it enough we’ve admitted them? Now you want us to problem solve? How do you like my Soviet suit?”

My Finnish grandmother, an authority figure if ever there was one, used to say: Tämä uusi suunnitelma on vastoin minun ajatellutapaani. (This new plan goes against my way of thinking.”

If you’ve a disability you know the phrase. Professor Smugger doesn’t like the fact you’re learning in a different key. She knows only one song. Everybody can imagine the title of that song.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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