Stuttering, Academic Freedom and the Elizabeth Snyder-Philip Garber Case

The New York Times has published two articles involving a history instructor and a student at a community college, County College of Morris in Randolph, New Jersey. A tenth grade precocious high-school student Philip Garber Jr matriculated in a history course and apparently another class at the college. The instructor, Elizabeth Snyder, attempted to suppress his participation in class due to a stuttering problem. The incident has gone viral as harsh critics of the professor claiming discrimination and bias reaches frenetic levels of engagement.

A professor has the right to determine who speaks in her class. There is a dispute whether Mr Garber was discriminated against for failing to be recognised in a class despite an effort to participate by raising his hand throughout a seventy-five minute class. He was not discriminated against if other students were not permitted to participate in class discussion. He was the victim of discrimination if he were the only student that Professor Snyder failed to acknowledge after raising his or her hand. There is a dispute over the facts; there is no dispute that Mr Garber did NOT speak out of turn and always requested recognition prior to participating in class discussion. This is a critical point. The two articles in the New York Times suggest the student did not disrupt the class by engaging in interruptions. He did not challenge the instructor’s authority to regulate the flow of speech in the class.

A professor does not have the right to require a student, who is attending class on a regular basis, to submit questions in writing as an alternative to oral communication. Ms Snyder asked Mr Garber to submit questions in writing before or after class by e-mail or other written methods. During a class issues emerge that cannot be anticipated beforehand so asking questions before class in writing would deny that spontaneity of responding to ideas generated during class. A student should not be compelled to submit questions in writing before class in order to clarify issues that may have been generated in the previous class as well. I did not see an option, seemingly in the interest of the student, in meeting directly with Professor Snyder prior to or after class. Apparently direct contact out of class to respond to questions is not entertained as an alternative venue.

Mr Garber stutters that requires a longer period of time to articulate statements in class. If the instructor were able to demonstrate that the learning process of the class was severely compromised by an excessive monopoly of classroom time spent by Mr Garber, that would be significant. If by asking questions or making comments on the material, so much time was consumed that it interfered with the capacity of the instructor to present her material, alternative arrangements might be indicated. However, as one who stuttered for a period of time in elementary school with the letter “w”; as one who is a history professor; as one who has had students who stutter, I find it unusual that a professor could not conduct class despite the additional time it might take a stutterer to complete a statement.

I suspect Professor Snyder was uncomfortable in providing additional time for Mr Garber, a gifted high-school student enrolling in college-level courses, to finish his speaking because it was different and a challenge to the usual order of a classroom. I think this issue became one of control of time management. I think the historian’s effort to censor ALL oral communication, or limit the student to one oral participation per class, was due to impatience and some anxiety over the moments that all students were listening and hearing this talented individual participate despite serious communication deficiencies. This appears to be a problem that might have warranted a more conciliatory resolution.

Stuttering is clearly a disability but it is rarely so severe as to compromise unduly the educational mission of an instructor’s course. Professors need to recognise that and make reasonable adjustments to the “other”: a different person with a different set of challenges that deviate from the norm. I do not think a professor should ban a student from participating in class due to stuttering under any circumstances.

I think a professor in principle has a right to discuss with a student the number of times he or she can participate if there is a perception of excessive frequency. I would emphasise that placing numerical limits on oral-participatory events should apply to all students. If it is once or two or three times, it must apply equally to all students or one could be accused of prima facie discrimination against a student with disabilities.

A professor has the academic freedom to manage her classroom. She has the right to determine who speaks in what order and when they speak in class. She does not have the right to censor student speech unless, again, it is disruptive of the mission of the class. Students have the academic freedom to ask questions and to challenge the instructor by taking “reasoned exception to the data or views” presented by an instructor. (AAUP Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students).They can be given extra time if there is a disability as long as it does not unduly dominate class time.

In short, a student who stutters should not be denied the right of classroom oral participation. A student regardless of his or her capacity of speech could be asked to limit the attempts at recognition to speak if it is applied to all students. Ideally professors don’t set numerical limits on class participation but one cannot dismiss the action out of hand if there are legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons in doing so.

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