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Oral presentations, and obstacles

March 31, 2010

This started out as an e-mail draft to Nigel, trying to explain what I was talking about earlier tonight. Somehow, the topic of thesis and dissertation presentation/defense came up, with differences between how this works in Sweden and the US. I had trouble making myself clear on how disablism/ableism* can cause some problems with that kind of thing, which kinda illustrates a point!

It struck me that it might not make a bad post, instead.

I’ve been putting this together at least as much out of frustration at having trouble saying what I meant, as to explain what I did mean. 😉 It was aimed at somebody maybe not as familiar with disablism/ableism as most readers here will be, and I’ve left it that way.

A brief description from Harvard’s psychology department looks fairly representative of the oral examination procedures I’ve seen at US universities.

First there’s a 15-25 minute presentation to the committee, then comes the Q&A session. Sometimes it’s pretty much a formality, sometimes you’re going to get seriously grilled, with any audience allowed/encouraged to ask questions too–it depends on the university, and the department.

What are they trying to determine, when it’s not just a formality (and sometimes when it is)? One decent summary:

The oral presentation is designed to give the department a final estimate of the candidate’s ability to think clearly and cogently, to marshal data logically and relevantly, to evaluate the literature of the field soundly, and to present research effectively.

That sounds fine and dandy, until you run into a candidate who has trouble demonstrating any or all of these things verbally, in realtime.

Gaps between written and verbal expression abilities–under stress or no–can also be interpreted in any number of very negative lights. Hell, the next paper linked below specifically mentions proving that you’ve done the work yourself, as part of the oral defense. I have been accused of not having written things under far less serious circumstances, because of this kind of performance gap. And that’s only one really harmful interpretation.

Some of the accessibility barriers I was talking about earlier are summarized very well in An accessible viva, based on apparently similar UK procedures.

The viva is not a test of memory, of a student’s command of the spoken word or the effectiveness of the student in engaging with the examiners.

It is too frequently taken that way. Along with the old “if you knew your stuff, you’d have nothing to be that nervous about; you’re acting weird and nervous, so you can’t possibly know your stuff” type assessment (like dealing with cops, really). Even when you’re not actually nervous, as such–and that paper follows that common set of misconceptions in its focus on increased performance anxiety as a barrier. (Not that you can’t have a vicious circle of overload and anxiety. Wonder why that might happen?!) Then there’s the old “oh, but everybody gets nervous”. Not everybody gets overloaded to the point that their short-term memory and auditory processing shut down, they can’t retrieve the words they need, they just stand there blinking like an owl, and so on.

They’re going rather Polyanna with the tone, to my mind. The focus is more on legal requirements than on attitudes. Yes, people who have trouble retrieving information, communicating, reading, hearing and interpreting questions, etc. should get the kinds of reasonable accommodations they recommend. I was initially thinking along similar lines. But, that’s still not enough to level things out in a lot of cases, unfortunately.

BTW, all of this also assumes that you know what is causing the problems you’re running into, know what kind of accommodations might help you work around them**, and have a documented formal diagnosis reflecting this. And then that the disabled student services office takes you seriously, and provides the backup they should. All of which already assumes that you can get medical papers to wave at them. For instance, I would have one hell of a time getting an ASD diagnosis under the NHS, since I have no parents available to interview about my behavior as a small child. And my position is privileged in a lot of ways.

There are so many ways a person’s ability to make a seemingly intelligent accounting for themselves and their work in realtime can break down. And some of the disabilities covered in An accessible viva, like blindness and deafness, are more easily understood to need accommodations than “just” being dippy and weird.

This can pose a big enough problem normally, as described in College Accessibility for ASD People.

I have had that professor, and worse ones. (Never mind some experiences in compulsory education.) I have had them just as bad as Wendy Portillo (wow, she got her tenure back). Graphictruth offers an excellent point in Neurotypical should not mean “abusive asshole.” Don’t you agree?:

I would go further and suggest that various responses to the situation – accusing the parents of simply being “after the money” or that “kids like that” should be kept away from “normal kids” – show the obvious result of employing abusive assholes. It defines “abusive asshole” as a respectable standard, one to be emulated.

Call me crazy; many have – but I have a problem with “abusive asshole” being seen as “normal.”

They’re just usually not as blatant once you hit the university level. That doesn’t mean they’re not still abusive assholes.

If somebody in a position of power over you decides that you’re dippy and weird, and projects all kinds of bad intentions onto you–and considers it OK to get hostile and treat you differently because of that–no number of letters from Disabled Student Services is going to change their mind. They’re more likely to decide you’re hiding behind diagnostic labels in a weaselly and smartassed manner, shirking your responsiblities out of laziness and somehow undermining their authority. (I did not say it made sense.)

That particular professor, at least, did not seem to be operating on the assumption that having $DISABILITY means you are incompetent, and should not even be in college–if allowed out in public lest you bug other people with your weirdness/unsightliness/whatever–much less go into the particular field you are studying. That kind of lousy attitude is, unfortunately, not unusual either. People who think that way may have trouble getting away with the more open forms of discrimination these days, but that only helps up to a certain point. They can still try to hassle and bully you, and some feel not only entitled but obliged to do so.

Imagine that one of these professors who despises you for no good reason somehow ends up on your evaluation committee. It happens. Further imagine that it’s one of the “grilling is good” setups, and they either (a) can just about pass off their personal hostility as academic rigor, or (b) don’t give a shit what the other committee members think about their blatant hostility.

It’s bad enough if they don’t know you at all, but take an immediate visceral dislike to your perceived weirdness and dippiness. Yes, I have had people react that way to me on first meeting, some in positions of power. Further imagine that you’ve had enough dealings with them before that they know just which buttons to push to make you look really bad, with deniability. (“If she can’t handle a few simple questions, how can she expect to hack it in this field?!” works especially well in parts of the humanities, AFAICT.)

Yeah, I have known a couple of people this sort of thing has happened to, fairly well–one in the humanities and one in engineering, with known learning disabilities. I would not be surprised if both of them were also at least ACs; this was the mid-’90s. Both of them squeaked by, with the openly insulting jerks voting against their thesis or dissertation. In both cases, the jerks encouraged audience questions as a bullying tactic. (Thinly veiled: “I may not be able to scuttle your thesis, but I will make things as hard as possible on you, because you should not even be here.”) The engineering guy went on a bender for days afterward, and I could understand why. Those were two who were not too ashamed to talk about their experiences, and I was around to hear it.

Even better? This kind of behavior is tolerated and excused. Few people lodge complaints, because they’re highly unlikely to be taken seriously. (What can you even point at, specifically, in a lot of cases? He smirked like Horatio Caine and used a rude tone of voice?!) A lot of people think you deserve to be treated like that for acting weird. That’s disablism/ableism for you.

That’s a worst case scenario. Even if you don’t end up in that bad a situation, just having trouble with oral presentations–much less realtime Q&A–makes a really bad impression on a lot of people. Easy oral communication + “good” eye contact == intelligence + integrity + competence + all that jazz.

There is the frequent perception that everybody can demonstrate what they know in the same single way, under the same circumstances, and that it’s somehow a level playing field. In this case, it’s fully institutionalized; there is only one available way of demonstrating what you know, deemed sufficient for everyone. If it doesn’t work for you, you’re the one with the problem–not to mention screwed.

Even if the people in charge are aware that you are disabled and might need some accommodations, that is not necessarily going to stop them from making these snap judgments–and deciding you’re slow on the uptake, at best. And maybe aren’t very smart/don’t belong/can’t hack it/etc. because of your known disability. (That’s without throwing in things like race and gender, to further complicate things) Even if you pass, that doesn’t make the experience any easier or less frustrating or humiliating.

So, yeah, between experiences with other, less important oral presentations (not to mention job interviews) and hearing some awful stories, I would hesitate to put myself in this kind of situation. (But, then, I am not looking forward to the upcoming visa interviews, for some similar reasons.) It’s unlikely to come up for me–if only because I avoid formal educational settings now–but it does for an awful lot of other people. And it’s not right.

That’s an extended version of what I was trying to say. 🙂


* I don’t like either term. “Ablism” might work better with my synesthesia, but hey. I’ll use both for clarity.

** Yeah, this can be a problem. In college, I had no idea what might help, and didn’t get that many suggestions. (Heck, I could barely imagine that things could be better, and thought it was all my fault.) The few accommodations I got (for “depression and anxiety”)–such as untimed testing–were helpful. Since then I have learned a lot more about what’s going on, not to mention what would probably help.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2010 10:41 pm

    I have also encountered people, both in school and out, who took immediate and severe dislike to me for no good reason at all and usually proceeded to do these massively manipulative power plays on me where I couldn’t keep up language wise sland when I could answer anything I said was wrong. And at some point I realized I am just not capable of handling bad-faith interactions.


  1. Keep it Underground – Music Board of Ireland (1 of 2) :The Longtail Music Catalog

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