Privacy, anxiety, and the academy -

Privacy, anxiety, and the academy

At the end of the day, students have to be able to do the work.


The case of Gabor Lukacs, the University of Manitoba professor who has been suspended after complaining that a PhD student was permitted to skip a comprehensive exam, raises a whole host of questions about the state of the Canadian academy. For one thing, where is the CAUT and its academic freedom fund? For another thing, given that, by all accounts, Lukacs had only the best interests of the U of M and the academy in general in mind, isn’t a three month suspension awfully harsh? An assistant professor at U of M makes something in the neighbourhood of $70 000 a year based on the salary tables in the faculty collective agreement.  A three-month suspension amounts to a fine that may be in excess of $17 000. Even acknowledging that my estimate is gross pay, not net pay, the sum is staggering. And should a university really be punishing a professor for filing a lawsuit? Isn’t the right to seek redress before a court of law a basic right of every citizen in a free country?

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Still more troubling is the rationale provided by the university. U of M claims Lukacs violated privacy rules when he disclosed details about a student in his suit, but given that his complaint was that a student was unjustly allowed to circumvent a requirement, how could he avoid discussing the student? In any case, the name of the student has not been reported in the media, so where is the harm?

Of course, individuals have a right to a reasonable amount of privacy, but it’s possible things have gone too far. Several years ago, I tried to get my university to include a photo of each student in the instructor’s electronic class list. Such a system makes it easier for profs to learn their students’ names, and it exists at some other schools. But, I was told, even though the computer system could produce such a list, the feature was disabled out of concerns for the students’ privacy. But surely what a student looks like need not be kept private from the students’ own professors! I fought with the registrar for a while over it, and was told at one point it was in the works, but it never happened, and eventually I gave up.

When it comes to disabilities, the lid is kept on even more tightly. Every once in a while I am contacted by our university’s disability office and, from the quality of  the communication, one would imagine it was a matter of national security. I am told that the student has a documented disability — typically a learning disability — and I am invited to indicate the accommodations I am willing to make. Can I see the document? No. What is the exact condition? I am not allowed to know. Who documented it? Based on what? What expertise does the professional in question have in the area of learning disabilities? None of your business, I am told. In short, for all I know, Mr and Mrs Anxious took Johnny to see their family doctor and said, “Johnny gets nervous when he takes a test.” Dr Busy says, “Oh, well, let me write you a note,” scribbles something about “test anxiety,” and, voila, Johnny has ” a documented learning disability.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is always the case, and of course, there are many legitimate disabilities, physical and psychological that should be accommodated. And when it comes right down to it, I accommodate Johnny anyway, because the requests are few, and having a few extra hours in a private room to write a test really doesn’t have that much impact anyway. In my experience, what Johnny can’t figure out in three hours, he can’t figure out in five, either. But I do think that professors have the right to know exactly what they are accomodating for the sake of academic integrity.

Academic integrity brings us back to the case at hand. Like Lukacs, I suspect, I maintain that accommodation should only be allowed when, ultimately, the student is still required to demonstrate the same skills as everyone else.  I fully understand the anxiety around taking PhD comprehensive exams — I took them myself — and they are no picnic. They’re not like writing an undergraduate midterm: each one is a whole year’s worth of reading, packed into three long (or, rather, short) hours of non-stop, hand-destroying, writing. They are intense. On the other hand, your examiners give you a quiet place to write, and no one is looking over your shoulder with a stopwatch and a stick. Moreover,  they test something real. They test a would-be academic’s ability to get a question, and to answer it, on the spot, by using her skills and knowledge.

Now, can you think of a job that requires a PhD, and where people ask you questions and you are expected to respond right away based on your expertise? Oh, wait! I know! University professor! Thinking on the spot is a vital part of the job, and anyone who finds that too stressful needs to find another line of work. Sure, sometimes a prof has to say “I don’t know” or “I’ll find out for you,” but she can’t keep saying “Your question makes me too nervous to respond to you.”  I know many people who are afraid to fly and I would not advise any of them to become pilots. I have a moderate fear of heights, so, no, I can’t help you shingle your roof. I could have been a surgeon, but the sight of blood makes me woozy.

And if learning things and answering hard questions about what I learned made me freak out, I would have learned to handle it (and I know people who have done that, too), or I wouldn’t have become a professor. It’s just part of the job. I know nothing about the individual student in this case: perhaps he is a fine person and I wish him all the success and happiness life can afford. But I still think a degree has to mean something significant. And if you can’t sit down in a quiet place, and answer questions about mathematics, you shouldn’t have a PhD in mathematics.

Barring any surprising revelations in this case, I hope professor Lukacs wins his fight, and I hope the U of M pays him back the money they owe him, and I really hope they apologize to him. In public. I’m sure he won’t consider that a violation of his privacy.

-photo courtesy of ccarlstead


Privacy, anxiety, and the academy

  1. “I fully understand the anxiety around taking PhD comprehensive exams — I took them myself — and they are no picnic. They’re not like writing an undergraduate midterm: each one is a whole year’s worth of reading, packed into three long (or, rather, short) hours of non-stop, hand-destroying, writing. They are intense.”

    If answering students’ questions is anything like this, professors would have nervous breakdowns within a few years.

    Very few professors would regard answering students questions as particularly stressful. For one thing, the consequences of being wrong, while embarrassing, are not career defining. In fact, career is hardly impacted at all. And yet, many professors would agree, as you did, that comprehensives are intense. The two are not in the same league.

    Moreover, graduate students spend much of their time answering undergraduate students’ questions without breaking a sweat, even while they panic about comprehensives. And that almost certainly includes the student in question.

    Furthermore, there are career options for PhDs that do not include becoming a professor, or any kind of one-time sink-or-swim event like a comprehensive exam.

    You can’t on one hand admit comprehensives can be traumatic (or at least intense), and then on the other say tweren’t nothin’; I do it every day, and twice on Sunday.

    • Sam, thanks for your uncommonly well-reasoned feedback. And you’re right, there is much more at stake writing a particular comp than answering a particular in-class question.

      Still, I think the general point — that comps do test something worth testing — still holds. Further, I would say that what is nerve-wracking for a graduate student is not necessarily so for an experienced professor. If I was told now that I had a year to read renaissance drama and all I had to do was answer a few questions at the end, I would jump at the chance. It would be like a vacation. But it wasn’t thirteen years ago. Put another way, the first steps towards expertise are always the hardest. I’m sure every airline pilot is dreadfully nervous on that first flight, but not on the one thousandth. Likewise, an operation that might be routine to the practiced hand of the chief surgeon is not so routine to the young intern. When my Shakespeare students (or colleagues at a symposium) ask me hard questions about Hamlet, I can handle them, in part, because I learned to handle them as a graduate student, held to the same high standards as my classmates.

  2. Many universities no longer require comprehensives for Mathematics and even more don’t require them for other sciences. At the UofM, Mathematics is the only dept in Science that still requires them. Imagine that you’re doing your PhD in nuclear physics, but you need to write 3 exams on particle physics, proteomics and organic chemistry. Thats what the Math comps are, they test an entire undergraduate degrees worth of material in topics outside your own field of research. Not only that timed exams are a terrible way to test knowledge of high level math.

    Furthermore, this article didn’t mention if the students thesis was strong or how the defence went. Ultimately a PhD in math should almost entirely based on the strength of the thesis. Math PhD’s aren’t meant to produce teachers, they’re meant to produce researchers and increase the sum of human knowledge.

  3. 1. The sort of skill you’re talking about is not what’s tested in a written comprehensive exam. Answering students’ questions on a course you’re teaching ought to be a piece of cake. It’s easier than writing an exam on the course, and it would seem the student has been adequately successful at that. Your renaissance drama and especially your Shakespeare course is more focused than a comprehensive exam that covers all the material in an undergraduate program. (And I wonder if you’d treat it like a holiday if your job was on the line, and maybe one of your academic rivals was on the committee evaluating your answers.)

    2. The sort of skill you’re talking about *is* what’s tested in the oral thesis defense. Being able to answer questions on your feet about your research field is an important skill for anyone planning to do research, and it would seem the student passed the thesis oral, since it’s not part of the court case.

  4. The issue around privacy and confidentiality with respect to accommodation is grounded in pretty substantial case law. Students and educators do have rights and reponsibilities.

    In Ontario, students must present with documentation from a qualified medical practioner to get appropriate accommodations. It is not nearly as simple as you suggest as getting a “doctors note”. There are significant standards that we would use to define these accommodations. In many cases this would be a psch.ed assessment that has been completed within the last five years.

    In terms of protecting personal information, human rights and privacy legislation is very clear. Students have the right to limit access to personal health information. In Ontario this is strictly enforced so that students only have to share information with written consent and this includes diagnostic information. So should students share with you their accommodation requirements? Yes. Do they have to disclose their disability? No.

    So my question would be, by knowing a students actual disability how would that change things for you?

  5. I am registered with the learning assistance center at my university. I have a panic disorder that makes me panic whenever it is quiet. I learned about this disability in high school, I just thought I had A.D.D as whenever I would write a test I would distract those around me by tapping my pen on the table or kicking my foot against the chair (anything to make noise). Since being quiet is part of writing tests, it was pretty frustrating to get through them. I would speed write them and end up failing because my only priority was to get the hell out of there, regardless of whether I answered the questions correctly or not. After talking to a counselor about it we figured out what accommodations would work for me. Now I write my tests in a room by myself (silence on my own is fine, with other people I can’t stand it). The room is equipped with a video camera and an invigilator looks in through the window at me every so often. This accommodation has worked wonders for my grades, and finding the right one has definitely led to great success.

  6. “Many universities no longer require comprehensives for Mathematics and even more don’t require them for other sciences.”

    While this may in general be true, Toronto, UBC and McGill, likely the top 3 graduate programs in the country, all require such comprehensives.

  7. “While this may in general be true, Toronto, UBC and McGill, likely the top 3 graduate programs in the country, all require such comprehensives.”

    Toronto allows exemptions if the student scores A on the core courses. I suspect this is not unusual.

    Waterloo (a top math school) and Queens have orals with strong emphasis on the research program, at least in applied math.

    But the lukacs case will not likely be argued on the merits of comprehensive exams in graduate programs, but about the regulations in place at the time, and the jurisdictions of administrators. It’s probably a strong case.

  8. Todd, you write that “by all accounts, Lukacs had only the best interests of the U of M and the academy in general in mind” when he sought legal action against his own university.

    Not so: the Maclean’s article by Carson Jerema quotes the U of M president as saying Lukacs “engaged in a pattern of behaviour with regard to [the] student which the university considers to be harassment.” I can’t imagine why Lukacs would harass this student, or why the president would *call* it harassment, but neither position sounds particularly altruistic to me.

    When I read between the lines, this case sounds like a petty power struggle between a Dean and a prof, with a student caught in the crossfire. Policies of academic integrity, disability accommodation, and privacy are the ammunition, not the cause.

  9. I work at a Canadian University and while I am not an academic, I have worked in that instituion for more than 20 years. I have seen time and again how some students will try to circumvent program requirements by claiming an issue that may or may not be valid.

    Mr. Lukacs was intereviewed this morning on CBC’s The Current and the argument that struck me most from the interview was this: The student has managed throughout his academic career to write exams and progress to the level of a PhD candidate requiring a Comprehensive exam. It is my understanding from that interiew that it was only AFTER he failed the first comprehensive that his diagnosis of extreme anxiety disorder was presented. While I am the LAST person to negate any type of anxiety disorder, it is highly suspect that this disorder only became apparent AFTER the student failed the PhD Comprehensive.

    Further, while some institutions may waive the Comprehensive exam,in most institutions it is considered to be a valuable tool in evaluating the theoretical and practical knowledge of the students research to date. As Mr. Lukacs stated in the interview, the thesis and comprehensive combined represent the depth and breadth of the students knowledge. In my opinion, the students disability should be accomodated but not used as an excuse to waive academic requirements. If we do this, we may as well award degrees in a box of Cracker Jacks.

    As someone stated above, an airline pilot may be terrified of their first flight. Are we going to waive that requirement because he’s too anxious and then let him fly a plane?! I hope I am never one of his passengers if that’s the case. While some may argue that this is a Mathematics student and they are hardly in a life or death profession, the argument remains. Undermining the value of a PhD degree undermines all academic degrees and devalues them in they eyes of the people who are supposed to be able to trust in them. Just because you pay for your education, does not mean you are “entitled” to the degree. You still have to earn it, no matter what hurdles you have to overcome.

    Do we have issues dealing with Mental health in this country? ABSOLUTELY! And kudos to UM for attempting to do the right thing. However, IMHO, and as someone who has been involved in mental health for over 35 years, this situation does nothing for the future understanding of mental health issues. Brushing the anxiety disorder aside and using it as a crutch, instead of giving sound medical and therapeutic assistance to overcome the disability is what should have been offered to this student….NOT a free pass.

  10. I feel I agree with Mr Pettigrew on the fact that, if you cannot do the job at the end of the day, then you should find another line of work.

    Like someone said, with a PhD, you don’t have to teach, but a PhD does give you the credentials to do so. So the person in question could go on being a teacher, and i think it would be highly hypocritical to make students take this exam when he actually didn’/couldn’t take it himself. We could even wonder, if the person would even be capable of teaching and prepping students for this exam, when he wasn’t able to accomplish it himself. Maybe another university with lower standards would be better suited for him, or another line of work.

    And i really liked Twister’s point of view:
    “Brushing the anxiety disorder aside and using it as a crutch, instead of giving sound medical and therapeutic assistance to overcome the disability is what should have been offered to this student….NOT a free pass.”

    It seems that this is what happened to Jenn who had the anxiety disorder and found a way to accommodate it. She was still able to accomplish what she needed to do. Because for all we know, the accused student in question maybe couldn’t get the discipline to study a years worth of material for the exam. This is why a PhD is hard and not everybody has one.