Gary Day

September 29, 2006

I did think of writing about a document someone from somewhere gave me recently entitled Supporting Students with Learning Differences and Disabilities but didn't want to spoil your enjoyment by giving away the ending. At this point you might exclaim: "Hang on! Are you saying that this publication is a work of fiction?" Well, it's certainly not a thriller, I grant you that. Let's just say that Hollywood shows a better grasp of history than this does of, oh, many things.

In a way I suppose it's closer to philosophy. Supporting Students could easily take its place alongside masterpieces such as Arthur Schopenhauer's On the Suffering of the World ; except that is written by a well-meaning committee rather than a confirmed pessimist. So, although the document recognises that "people rarely get through life without experiencing difficulties", it does at least offer advice on how to deal with them. For example, when someone is distressed "hand them tissues and wait".

And, unlike some philosophical works, it's very good at explaining things. Do you know why you cry? It's because you occasionally feel "frustrated", "tired" and "confused" - perhaps brought on by having to read documents such as this. Indeed, the more I read the more difficult it became, just like a real piece of philosophy. I felt I couldn't "cope", I felt "humiliated".

Especially reading the section on how to manage "the angry student". I checked the title. Supporting Students with Learning Differences and Disabilities . No, it hadn't changed. I must be thick then. Because I just can't work out how shouting at Shakespeare is going to make you learn why Iago behaves the way he does in Othello .

I have made better progress towards understanding why anger can be a liability when you are trying to learn, but I am still struggling with the idea that it's a disability. I will persevere.

Although whether this will be enough to enable me to grasp simple instructions for dealing with "the angry student" is another matter. Maybe you can help.

Picture a young scholar in a towering rage. Your first reaction may be one of delight that such a creature is capable of animation at all. But let that pass. Nor do we need to know why he or she is coming at you with a chainsaw. This isn't method acting, it's staff development. It makes no difference if it's because their course has been cut or because they like to watch beheadings on the internet.

The point is, he's mad. Head thrust forward, eyes blazing, arms extended, chainsaw screaming. Got that? Good. Now, can you make sense of the advice given for dealing with this situation? "Adopt a non-threatening posture.

Match the student's posture." I have paced the floor at midnight pondering this. As I have Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt's argument that closing hospitals actually improves services. But the only thing it has got me is blisters.

So I gave up on that and moved onto the next bit, entitled "What to do if a student seems mentally disturbed". Now I thought the whole point of university was to disturb students mentally, to shake them up a bit, to make them see that there is a world elsewhere. Wrong again. If they show any signs of intellectual life, which I agree is unlikely after the schooling most of them have had, then they are regarded as suitable cases for treatment.

Still I ploughed on. I read about how to support someone with attention deficit disorder. Wait a minute. That's me, surely? I have all the symptoms. My mind kept wandering from disclaimers about "not dumbing down"

to what was for tea. I read about Asperger's syndrome. That's me, surely? I have all the symptoms. Like most academics my thinking is "rigid and inflexible". I read about dyscalculia. That's me, surely? I have all the symptoms. I too have "difficulty in keeping track of time" and as for my "reading of maps", well. And there were still another six disorders to be described. I couldn't go on. My sense of reality was fracturing.

"No, it's not you," laughed my new friend the giant giraffe, "it's them."

He said that whoever wrote these documents assumed academics were so stupid they had to be told that one of the reasons people eat is because they felt hungry. "If they have so little sense of the intelligence of their audience, how can they possibly have any idea about the syndromes they describe?" I was about to reply but then remembered I wasn't going to write about this document. Yet I have. Odd that. I do the things I don't want to do, and don't do the things I do want to do. I wonder if there's a name for that condition. Oh yes, of course. Life.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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