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Inaccessible Literature in Higher Education

lenasolano's picture

In my senior year of high school, my history course was taught by a former professor at a well-regarded liberal arts college. While everyone agreed he was a great teacher, his class was notoriously the hardest humanities class offered in the school. This was because he assigned readings by Foucault, Hume, Descartes – honestly just the most dense academic literature he could get his hands on. He would cold call us every class to break down each sentence and explain its meaning and context in depth. Needless to say, this model was not disability friendly. The literature was written in a language few of us could understand, we’d spend hours laboring over each and every word, desperately trying to make sense of gibberish. ADHD and/or dyslexia made it all the more painstaking. Feeling stupid was unavoidable, especially when the select few in the class seemed to get by skimming the readings before class and bullshitting their way through our discussions. On top of it all, we had to contend with the ever-present anxiety of knowing that any second we could be called upon to announce to everyone whether we were intelligent, or dumb and lazy. 

As difficult as this was, within the first hour of my freshman year writing seminar at Haverford, I was abundantly grateful for that teacher. He was always very up front with us; he told us that if we weren’t able to get through these sorts of texts by college, we would swiftly fall behind, and lose the confidence to continue our education. As narrow minded and harsh as it was, he might have been right. Haverford, among many others, professes a commitment to expanding access to higher education; instituting programs and creating positions to bring in and amplify historically underrepresented voices. However, the school has not taken any steps on an institutional level to implement accessibility into the structure and materials within our classes.

My instinctual advice for the school would be to eradicate these cognitively inaccessible texts entirely from syllabi. Unfortunately, I don’t think this would be feasible nor as productive as I’d like. In order to be taken seriously and advance in the world of academia, you have to be proficient in this language. Not being able to comprehend and replicate this style of thought and expression discredits any argument or contribution you try to assert. We are supposed to be empowered to dismantle the system, break down the barriers that uphold a capitalist, white, cis-het, non-disabled social and academic hierarchy. Are we supposed to do this using the master’s tools? Though we may not all fit into the traditional academic mold, being at this school alone bestows us privilege and distance from the deepest harm caused by exclusivity and inaccessibility.