#cwcon: Beyond Afterthought

This is the presentation I’m giving at #cwcon this year (part of i2, “caption, performance, code: composing accessibility across multiple interfaces”).

***

Given the limited time available in the composition classroom, simply teaching the basics of technologies can feel overwhelming even before we consider the rhetorical production and accessibility of digital texts. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that accessibility is typically included as an additionaltask if acknowledged at all.

When accessibility is addressed, it’s frequently framed within the context of disability and positioned as an accommodation to pre-existing technologies and practices. In this way, accessibility becomes a retrofit rather than a central practice. Jay Dolmage has defined a retrofit as the act of adding a component to an already-built space (20).[1] A classic example is adding a ramp to the back or side of a building, but retrofitting easily transfers beyond physical spaces. For example, if someone publishes a podcast and it’s pointed out to the creator that the podcast is inaccessible to deaf or hard of hearing users, the creator might produce a transcript. This is an example of a retrofit because the accessible component was added on. Stephanie Kerschbaum refers to this phenomenon as “multimodal inhospitality,” which “occurs when the design and production of multimodal texts and environments persistently ignore access except as a retrofit.”[2] We can also imagine this as an accommodation because the transcript now accommodates disabled audiences. Melanie Yergeau argues that retrofitting occurs when we’ve assumed normative bodies as our default audiences and designed our digital texts with those bodies in mind. The production of inaccessible digital texts reproduces ableist assumptions about who we include—and exclude—as our audiences.

Today I want to focus on how practices that are typically used to accommodate digital texts help us make rhetorical choices about how to represent content, voices, and sounds and think critically about how those choices affect real audiences. And though captioning is in the title of our panel, I’m going to focus on transcription, which I think tends to get positioned as the least sexy, most mundane accommodating practice.

There are a lot of benefits to incorporating audio into our digital texts. It allows composers to experiment with voice, sounds, music; to incorporate multiple voices and emphasize dialogue; and to convey certain moods and tones that written text can’t. As Heidi McKee notes in “Sound Matters,” although we’re immersed in sound and it’s a critical communicative mode, we tend to privilege visual design when teaching multimodal assignments (336).[3] If we exclude sound from these discussions, we also exclude critical discussions about the accessibility of sound. So while we should encourage students to think critically about visual design, we should also make sure that sound receives the same careful attention. Kerschbaum warns, “Many multimodal texts exclude disabled audiences because they are not commensurable across multiple modes, thus rendering the text inaccessible.” For example, a text that relies solely on audio—like a podcast—necessitates an accommodating component to be accessible. In most cases, this accommodation is a transcript. Transcripts have more potential than simply an afterthought, though.

I’m going to focus on podcasts, although most of what I’ll discuss can be applied to any texts with audio components. Computers and writing scholars have contributed greatly to scholarship about the potentials of using podcasts in the classroom,[4] and writing center scholars have written about their pedagogical potentials.[5] Although podcasts have been of interest to scholars for almost a decade, there’s a dearth of scholarship on transcription[6]. But if we ask students to produce projects that involve audio, like podcasts, we must also emphasize the accessibility of producing these texts, which may involve transcription.

Podcasts are accessible in the sense that they’re readily available for people to download or stream but are not necessarily accessible in terms of users easily or equally accessing that content. In “Accessible Podcasting,” Sean Zdenek notes that access in podcast discourse is commonly equated with availability.[7] A podcast we can easily access is not necessary accessible to disabled users who may benefit from transcripts, text descriptions, or captions.

There are a number of tools available that, even without much technical experience, users can immediately record and publish podcasts. With this quick, do-it-yourself appeal, taking the time to write transcripts may seem unappealing. However, as Jennifer Bowie notes, requiring students to submit transcripts with their podcasts acknowledges and includes non-hearing audiences or low-vision or blind users who use accessibility software.[8] And in terms of taking too much time, she argues, “Usually students write out transcripts before they start recording the more formal assignments anyway, so it is often little extra work for them to submit these along with podcasts.” At the very least, students often already have something written that they can use to form a richer transcript.

As someone who’s not deaf or hard of hearing, I find podcasts super inaccessible. This may be ironic because I work on This Rhetorical Life, but I don’t listen to podcasts because I don’t process auditory information well and struggle to focus on audio. That’s why I’m grateful at conferences when presenters offer full-text copies or even handouts for their presentations. It’s also why I actively live-tweet at conferences to focus my attention. Making audio accessible, then, is not only important for deaf and hard of hearing audiences but also for people who don’t process or focus on audio well, people in a time crunch for whom skimming a transcript is more useful, or for people with poor internet connections who may have an easier time downloading a PDF than streaming audio. When we imagine that disabled users are the only people who benefit from accessible practices, we conflate accessibility with accommodation.

And while we should pay attention to how transcripts benefit users, it’s also important to consider how transcription can benefit the composers.

When we position transcribing as part of composition—a process of making choices about what content is included and excluded—we shift its purpose from an accommodation to a rhetorical and creative act. Transcription allows us to critically examine the audio elements we value and those we tend to ignore. For example, fillers and silence are not typically elements that are included in a bare-bones transcript intended only to indicate verbal data. The same is true for silence. As Cheryl Glenn has argued, not all silences have rhetorical meaning, but we too often dismiss silence as passive rather than as a “tactical strategy” (xi).[9] She notes that even though the delivery of silence is always the same, “the function of specific acts, states, phenomena of silence—that is, the interpretation by and effect upon other people—varies according to the social-rhetorical context in which it occurs” (9). The indication of silence as [pause] may look the same across transcripts but may have very different discursive meaning. In the podcast I’m going to discuss next, Elaine Richardson’s pauses are filled with many types of meaning. The silence of thinking is much different than the long pauses when reflecting on the violence of black and brown bodies or her memories of being a sex worker. If we transcribe only to communicate dialogue, though, these non-verbal “fillers” are silenced.

“A One-Woman Show with Elaine Richardson”

So I want to focus now on an activity that I used in a composition pedagogy graduate class to highlight some of the many rhetorical choices involved with transcription.

We began by playing the first 1.5 minutes of the Elaine Richardson podcast. When I asked what people had observed as important, they referenced many of the things I expected: the spoken dialogue, particular words that were emphasized, and who was speaking. Students also reported that they had used italics, caps, and asterisks to try to indicate shifts in tone. Perhaps more surprising—or less standard in a transcript—were suggestions about how to indicate temporal shifts of voices layered on top of each other, which gave us an opportunity to discuss the limitations of trying to preserve content across different media.

When asked what was left out of their observations, one student remarked that she was unsure whether or not to represent the Black Vernacular English of the speakers. I chose this clip because it’s playful and performative; it includes long pauses, snaps, and hands hitting the table; and the speakers dip in and out of BVE as they engage with each other. This created space to discuss audience (How would different audiences read this representation of voice?) the politics of how we represent voices that are not our own (Is this accurate or ethical representation?), and rhetorical considerations about style.

After discussing these observations, we practiced some actual transcription. Although I think this is a stressful and generally inaccessible in-class activity—unless students can type, use headphones, or listen on their own—I wanted to illustrate the choices and challenges that factor into transcribing even just 30 seconds of audio.

Once I played the clip multiple times, we discussed the similarities and differences across people’s transcripts. I was surprised to hear that no one felt that they had accurately transcribed the audio. I knew that this would be a difficult clip, but I had assumed—maybe because they were graduate students, some of whom transcribe for This Rhetorical Life—that it would be easier for them. However, there were a number of challenges trying to represent particular sounds through text: snaps, claps, “filler” sounds, the emphasis of particular words, screams, time lapses, singing and background noise, tonal shifts, and even editing glitches.

 

This clip (0:35-01:10) is complex despite its brevity. This is an excerpt from the transcript for TRL, which isn’t perfect but illustrates one method for textually representing this audio:

SD: We had a chance to sit and chat about the George Zimmerman trial, the memoir itself, African American rhetoric, and even RuPaul.

SD: [Chatter] What was I going to say? I guess we can get, get st—

ER: [Chatter] We gon make it happen.

SD: [Chatter] Yeah, we gon make it happen. It’ll be all right.

ER: [Singing] Make it happen.

SD: [Chatter] So is it recording?

ER: [Singing] [claps] I know life can be so tough [snaps] and you feel like [snaps] givin up. [Directed to Seth] You remember that? [Singing] But you must be strong. [claps] Baby, [snaps] just hold on.

SD: Okay, here’s my first question. This is easy. From PHD to PhD—

ER: Oh! So we goin? We rollin?

SD: We been goin!

ER: [Screams] Oh noooo!

SD: We been goin.

ER: Oh no! This is the real beginning. [laughs]

 

This is an example of horizontal transcription, and we don’t have rules for how we indicate non-verbal data such as laughter or interruptions. Horizontal transcription is what we likely expect from a transcript: dialogue written like a playscript where each person speaks one at a time and, generally, only verbal content is recorded. This method can be limiting, though, because it “communicate[s] what was said, but not when or how or with what intent” (Gilewicz and Thonus 27).[10] Vertical transcription has rules for signifying temporal shifts, silences, and gestural and non-verbal data, which Gilewicz and Thonus argue is more precise for capturing the dynamic nature of a speech act:

 

((background music))

S: We had a chance to sit and chat to talk about the George Zimmerman trial, the memoir itself, African American rhetoric, and even RuPaul. ((to self)) what was I going to say? I guess we could get, get st…

E: We gon make it happen.

S: Yeah we gon make it happen, it’ll be aight.

E: ((sings)) Make it happen

S:                         [((to C)) so is it recording?

C:                         [((to S)) yeah

E:                                           > > I know life can be so tough ^ ^ and you feel like ^ ^ givin up. ((to S)) You remember that? ((sings)) But you must ^ ^ be strong, > > baby just ^ ^ hold on.

S: Okay here’s my first question. This is easy. From PHD >> to >> PhD

E: Oh! So we goin? We rollin?

S:                                [We been goin!

E: ((screams)) Oh no!

S:                         [We been goin! This is the, this is the…

E:                                                 [Oh no!

C:                                                  [((laughs))

E: This is the real beginning. ((laughs))

C:                                                [((laughs))

 

Having people transcribe even just 30 seconds of audio made clearer the number of decisions that can factor into transcription, and it raised questions about how we represent time, non-verbal utterances, and voice. For example, we discussed the different ways to represent rollin/rollin’/rolling—each subtly creating a different representation. Rollin’ creates the illusion that something is missing and, thus, isn’t the proper word, whereas rolling is the “standard” representation of the word but is not actually the word Elaine Richardson uses. Even this brief activity allowed us to talk about the different factors that can go into a task as seemingly basic as transcribing. This isn’t to say that this much effort must go into transcribing, nor should it be an activity that shames people for not considering these elements before. Rather, it’s an opportunity to highlight the functional, creative, and rhetorical choices that inform what is traditionally positioned as an accommodating process.

concluding thoughts

When we assign multimodal projects, we need to stress accessibility both in the assignment guidelines and in the evaluation criteria so that it’s clearly an integral part of the process. More than that, though, we need to emphasize accessibility along the way, offering more than a single “day of access” where we talk about the ethics of producing accessible texts. I try to model what I want from students: offering print handouts, posting class notes, captioning any videos that I use or create as examples. By folding accessible practices into our curricula, we emphasize the importance of accessibility as an ethical practice but also as a rhetorical practice. Accessibility can’t be ignored if we want to engage with responsible and ethical digital composing practices as scholars and teachers.

 

 

[1] Dolmage, Jay. “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door.” Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggemann. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 14-27. Print.

[2] Yergeau, Melanie, Elizabeth Brewer, Stephanie Kerschbaum, Sushil Oswal, Margaret Price, Michael Salvo, Cynthia Selfe, and Franny Howes. “Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Space.” Kairos 18.1 (2013). Web.

[3] McKee, Heidi. “Sound Matters: Notes toward the Analysis and Design of Sound in Multimodal

Webtexts.” Computers and Composition 23 (2006): 335-54. Print.

[4] Bowie “Podcasting in a Writing Class?” and “Rhetorical Roots and Media Future” 2012; Jones 2010; Zdenek 2009; Reid 2008; Dangler, McCorkle, and Barrow 2007; Krause 2006

[5] Cosby and Thompson 2009; Lape 2009; McKinney 2009; Vee, Shapiro, Karls, and Hughes 2009

[6] Bowie 2012; Zdenek 2009; Gilewicz and Thonus 2003

[7] Zdenek, Sean. “Accessible Podcasting: College Students on the Margins in the New Media Classroom.” Computers and Composition Online (Fall 2009). Web.

[8] Bowie, Jennifer L. “Podcasting in a Writing Class? Considering the Possibilities.” Kairos 16.2 (2012).

[9] Glenn, Cheryl. Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

[10] Gilewicz, Magdalena, and Terese Thonus. “Close Vertical Transcription in Writing Center Training and Research.” The Writing Center Journal 24.1 (2003): 25-49. Print.

#cwcon: Accessible Tools, Accessible Methods

This is the 4-minute spiel I’m giving at #cwcon (today! G.9), part of a roundtable titled “Everyday Methods: Tools of the Digital Scholar.”

***

What tools are available, and what practical and theoretical concerns might inform our assessment or adoption of such tools?

My everyday tools are so commonplace that they hedge on the mundane: Twitter, Google Drive, and the built-in speech-to-text function on my iPhone. They’re worth mentioning, though, because they’re tools that contribute to what the authors of “Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces” call an ethics of accessibility, which accounts for the material needs of students and recognizes the need for writing curricula to be respectful of and responsible to difference. This ethic connects not only to our classroom practices but also to the scholarship that we produce and the literacies and technologies that we privilege.

Even in scholarship that advocates for more inclusive modalities and technologies, the focus is often on access. When accessibility is addressed, it’s typically framed within the context of disability and positioned as an accommodation to pre-existing technologies and practices. In this way, accessibility becomes a retrofit rather than a central practice.

Accessibility can’t be ignored, though, if we want to engage with responsible and ethical digital composing practices in our own scholarship and classrooms. So for the next few minutes, I’d like to emphasize the value of the seemingly mundane—the accommodating tools that allow us to transcribe and caption, the speech-to-text apps that allow us to compose in new ways, the technologies and platforms that shift our attention to accessibility.

Accessibility, like literacy, is embodied, dynamic, and full of rhetorical potential. Accessible literate practices—like transcribing and captioning—are opportunities not simply to accommodate texts but to allow students to make choices about how they represent content, voices, and sounds and to think critically about how those choices affect their audience.

Once students have produced their videos, a basic service like Amara allows you to upload videos and assess the accuracy and effectiveness of the automatic captions provided. It’s not the most efficient, but I always use iMovie: manually typing captions, selecting time frames for each, and making decisions about typeface and font styles. Exploring these tools (and others! Windows Movie Maker, Overstream, MAGpie, Google Video) with students foregrounds accessibility as a necessary part of composition and encourages more ethical digital composing.

And this takes me back to an ethics of accessibility and the everyday tools (Twitter, Google Drive, speech-to-text technology) I initially mentioned. I’m going to just rapid-fire explain why they’re useful, specifically for engagement and invention practices.

One way I try to directly address accessibility—and that tech can help—is creating alternative forms of participation. I encourage students to use Twitter to post content relevant to our readings and class discussions, and it makes class more accessible by creating an alternative venue for students to engage and contribute. I also encourage it for collaborative note taking.

Each semester, students sign up to take notes for each class period, and I create a space where they can post them. This past semester, we used Google Drive, which was fun because other students could watch the notes in real-time and pitch in. Because these tools are readily available and familiar, this is an easy way to adapt a common accommodation (note taking) and make it a shared responsibility that not only becomes a class resource but also reinforces the idea that accessible practices benefit all students.

And with that in mind, I’ll end on a tool that’s traditionally been positioned as assistive technology: speech-to-text apps. I frequently talk through ideas using my notes app or even the free DragonSpeak app (which records about 60 seconds of speech). For me, and for many of our students, and maybe even for some of you, writing is difficult and frequently doesn’t take shape in the normative ways that we assume it will.

Speech-to-text technology allows me to tease out ideas whenever they occur, but it also offers a different platform to work through ideas in their developmental stage. I haven’t done this yet, but I’m increasingly interested in using audio to record student feedback and also as an in-class exercise—a speech-driven “free write” that may be more inviting particularly for students who struggle with writing, consider themselves bad writers, or engage with ideas better verbally. (Check out Toau, Capti Narrator, and Voice Dream!)

If we want to be ethical, responsible digital scholars and instructors, we need to address accessibility, and I’d love to hear if there are others ways y’all already do this.

[the absence of] good news

One of the hardest things for me about being a Ph.D. student is not knowing who to share good (academic) news with. Lots of folks share stories about the struggle to explain (& sometimes justify) their academic interests to family. My mom was a professor of business & marketing, but I know she would have understood my work and the more general experiences of what it’s like to navigate academia. A couple weeks ago, I thought to myself, I need to call her.

She died nearly five years ago.

As I prepped for my exam defense last week, I was trying to think through the narrative of my exam process (the written comps, the annotated bib, the article). In many ways, it was the most grueling academic process I’ve experienced. And in many other ways, it was a series of “aha!” moments that allowed me to understand what I value as an academic, as someone invested in disability/studies and teaching.

Within this narrative about my exam experiences my focus on disability and accessibility, I thought it was appropriate to pay tribute to my mom and brother.

A black & white image shows two people sitting on the floor. On the left, my brother sits, staring down at a card, laughing. To the right, my mother faces him, smiling widely. Her head is bald from chemo.

brother & mother

I included one of my favorite photos of my brother & mom together with this statement:

Disability has always been a lens through which I’ve viewed and understood people and environments, my family, and myself. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes disability as “the most human of experiences, touching every family and—if we live long enough—touching us all” (5). Similarly, Simi Linton describes disability as a central tenet of the humanities, something we must all critically address. Yet despite the scholarship that constructs disability as a pervasive cultural category, many people come to it for personal reasons: they or someone close to them has a disability. Michael Bérubé addresses this in his foreword to Claiming Disability:

“Part of the reason I changed my mind so dramatically [about disability’s role in the liberal arts] has nothing to do with anything I’ve read; when I became the father of a child with Down syndrome, I realized immediately and viscerally that disability can happen to anyone—including someone very close to you, and including you, too” (x).

I’ve always been aware of my personal connections to disability—growing up with an autistic older brother, negotiating my own depression and anxiety, taking care of my mom when she couldn’t get out of bed or drive to the store. Disability has always been a central component of our family and thus very personal. It wasn’t until I was in my Master’s program, and had Jay Dolmage as a teaching mentor, that I realized disability could be something more. And once I came to Syracuse, I was able to take classes in the Disability Studies Program.

I wondered if it would be strange to include this in an opening statement to my oral exam defense, and my voice wavered as I read it. But as so many have argued—feminist and disability studies scholars, scholars of color—the personal (is political!) is academic. My personal narrative is so interconnected with my academic narrative, my personal interests with my academic interests.

I wondered, too, if it might seem strange to write about this on my blog, which—generally—has served as an academic space. But it’s also been a space to reflect on my feelings about things like Mother’s Day and the overcoming rhetoric of breast cancer.

Spring semester always seems harder. There’s less of a break to re-energize you. There’s more work to do somehow than there was in the fall. The winter, if you live somewhere like Syracuse, can test your will to get out of bed. Your dog is depressed. You’re depressed.

Even the smallest things in April trigger memories for me that don’t happen any other time of the year. Visiting Days taking place these past couple days reminded me of visiting Syracuse three years ago. I’ll never forget the long conversation about my mom at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge with Tim. It was so strange to me that this person I didn’t know wanted to talk to me about something that I didn’t realize was still so incredibly painful two years later. I still point to that conversation as the deciding factor that made me realize Syracuse could—and would—be my home for the next four years.

With the end of the semester creeping closer, I know all of these things will get worse. I’ll get busier once my IRB research is approved, as I write my dissertation prospectus, when my students turn in final feasibility projects. These things will happen simultaneously with events reminding me of my mom, like driving back to West Virginia my senior year for the last Easter I celebrated.

It happens every spring semester.

An hour ago, I started making a mental list of things I needed to remember to get through the semester:

  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Let others help you when you need it.
  • Celebrate every step along the way—no matter how small it may seem.

#4c14

This is the presentation I’m giving at C’s this year (today! B.30), part of a larger panel titled “Critical Disability Pedagogies: Hacking the Curriculum, Rewriting Spaces.”

***

“Dis/Ability as Inquiry: Hacking the Fixed Curriculum”

Although there are benefits to a shared, fixed curriculum, it can sometimes butt heads with the values and needs of the instructors and students who exist within it. I’m sure we’ve all felt limited by a writing curriculum that dictates particular assignments or that crams 15 learning outcomes into a single semester. Adding anything on top of these constraints can seem impossible.

As Jody Shipka notes, “The often-repeated claim is that there is not enough time in the semester to cover what instructors traditionally have been expected to cover and that adding on additional lessons or tasks to teach other communicative modes and/or to teach students reflective skills (metacommunicative awareness) would make doing everything or doing anything, virtually impossible” (136).[1] It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that accessibility—which is typically included as an additional task in the classroom if acknowledged at all—is not typically valued or foregrounded in our pedagogical considerations. We may not even think about accessibility until we receive an accommodations letter from a student, at which point disability and issues of access are made visible in the classroom.

The composition classroom has long been a space that desires a particular form of writing and, as Robert McRuer has criticized, a particular type of student body. In Crip Theory, McRuer argues that composition requires standard writing produced by standard bodies within a system that upholds able-bodiedness as the norm.[2] The result is a final “perfect” product that is so fetishized that messy, embodied processes cannot be acknowledged at all. In response, McRuer asks us to crip composition: to imagine what exists beyond standard academic writing, to make space for non-normative bodies, and to value different embodied ways of learning and composing.

In “Writing Against Normal: Navigating a Corporeal Turn,” Jay Dolmage begins to do some of this reimagining. Echoing McRuer, Dolmage argues that composition has historically been disembodied—ignoring embodied composing processes in favor of texts and words. We must pay closer attention to the divergent, diverse bodies that exist in our writing classes by developing pedagogies that “not only affirm the body, but that affirm all bodies” (110).[3] This means examining and valuing messy composing processes rather than focusing on products that mirror ideal, normative bodies (125).

For this presentation, I want to offer strategies that reimagine curricular standards in order to create more accessible classroom spaces that reaffirm students’ bodies and embodied ways of learning and composing. First, I’ll offer some reflections on teaching a dis/ability-themed composition course within a fixed curriculum. Then, I’ll address some practices that can be useful in any composition course.

Disability as Inquiry.

In their introduction to Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggemann highlight the benefits of incorporating disability in our writing classrooms. Disability raises a number of important questions about critical literacy skills and how we can understand writing as embodied and value bodily difference, resonating with McRuer and Dolmage’s desires to value messy, embodied writing processes.

Perhaps the most important question is this: “How can inclusion of disability improve the teaching of writing?” (3).[4] Lewiecki-Wilson and Brueggemann argue that disability as inquiry “makes sense, not just because students with disabilities are already present in our classes, but also because close attention to disability discourses sharpens critical thinking and improves literacy for everyone” (4). Students gain awareness of their rhetorical choices and how those choices affect people and practices.

I chose a disability theme—Everyday Representations of Dis/ability—for my sophomore-level, research-based composition course because I knew it was something students didn’t have much exposure to as a critical research inquiry, it intersects well with other critical areas, and I’m passionate about it.

Still, I anticipated a lot of pushback from students.

Some of the criticism about disability research is that it’s not relatable. Simi Linton argues that disability and disabled people specifically have frequently been studied “in their particularity, which is not considered generalizable or relevant to nondisabled people, or they are studied as deviation from the norm in order to increase the knowledge about and stature of the norm” (73).[5] I didn’t want to create a space where we were studying disability in a way that would distance students from disability or that would reaffirm particular bodies—assuring my students that they are, indeed, the norm.

I felt particularly constrained because the first unit only allowed for four shared readings. Recognizing the importance of the first unit as an introduction to the inquiry, I felt pressure to choose readings that were foundational, that covered a wide range of topics, and that students could relate to—something we consider for any class.

I settled on texts that would cover a range of themes: from an introduction to disability studies (Simi Linton’s “Reassigning Meaning”) to reflections on advocacy and themes of pity and charity (Laura Hershey’s “From Poster Child to Protestor”) to a more popular exploration of stigma, self-advocacy, and technology (“Escape” from This American Life) to texts that represent popular media representations of mental illness (Liza Long’s “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” and Ari Ne’eman’s “In Grief, Stereotyping Mental Illness”).

Although I could talk at length about all of these, I want to highlight “Escape” because it’s one of my absolute favorite texts to use. In the TV show “Escape,” host Ira Glass explores the life and daily struggles of Mike Phillips, a 27-year-old man with spinal muscular atrophy. This brief snippet into Mike’s life disrupts many assumptions about what someone with a severe physical disability can accomplish—that he can go out to coffee shops, that he can get piercings and tattoos, that he can have a sexual relationship. In this way, “Escape” is shocking because it puts pressure on popular representations of disability—of the disabled as bedridden or sad or deserving of our pity. It’s one of the texts that I’ve found most effective in getting students to think critically about the representations of disability they’ve encountered and how those have shaped their own assumptions, and it always leads to a really interesting, awkward, productive conversation.

Throughout this unit, I was surprised by how receptive everyone was, and I asked students to reflect on the course mid-semester. Students responded to the following prompt: Comment on the expectations you had coming into this class. What is your previous experience with research and/or writing classes? How did you feel about the course after reviewing the syllabus and learning about our inquiry: Everyday Representations of Dis/Ability. What concerns/reservations did you have about our course inquiry?

The majority of the responses focused on students’ unfamiliarity with the topic, which, for many, caused initial concern.

  • I was skeptical of the course topic at first but became more comfortable as we started to examine it.
  • It’s not the most interesting topic, but so far I find it more interesting than I thought I would.
  • I do not know that much about disabilities but I found a way to connect it to a topic that I find interesting.
  • When I read the syllabus and found out the topic is disability, I was a bit disappointed because my friends had more interesting topics. […] Now I am really interested in the topic of disability.
  • I never really thought about disability extensively, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write about it. I was relieved when I realized it was a lot more “broad” of a topic than I thought.
  • At first, I was a little hesitant about our inquiry just because I did not know how the course would be approached. So far, I have enjoyed coming to this class and learning about the representations of dis/ability. I feel comfortable with taking part in our class discussions.
  • I was surprised by how much I was able to learn about the class inquiry. It was a pleasantly flexible topic.
  • I gravitated more to this topic b/c I didn’t know too much about it. The topic was at first confusing but once we started discussing things in class I started to fully grasp it more.
  • I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to connect to the class topic until your support for my writing allowed me to make one. […] The first unit was key in helping me understand what a disability can be, which also led me to rediscover my own disability.

There’s a re-occurring admission of being skeptical or hesitant, confused, even blatantly disinterested. I was surprised to see in all of these responses, though, that students significantly warmed to the topic. At my university, students can’t view the course topic prior to enrolling, and this a common complaint. I was pleased that students saw their own interests intersecting with disability but wasn’t expecting students to make any sort of 180’s in terms of their feelings about disability. I was surprised, then, to read responses that did highlight that kind of adjustment in critical awareness:

  • Outside this class, I think the understanding of how disabled people feel about being isolated/treated differently will help.
  • I’ve been trying to stop saying “retarded” which is something that I learned from this class.
  • This class has been the most impactful English class I have ever taken.  It has definitely made my view of disabilities shift from a very passive (not really caring) view to a proactive and more open view. I now don’t view them in a oh-I-feel-really-bad-for-you-now-because-of-your-disabilities. I am WAY more comfortable talking with people with disabilities now because of this class.

For me, these responses highlight the potential of exposing students to topics that they haven’t encountered. I’ve received some of the most interesting research topics, papers, and projects in the disability-themed courses I’ve taught in part because students don’t have pre-determined opinions and arguments. For example, I don’t receive generic papers about sports. Instead, I’ve read interesting analyses about the representation (or the lack thereof) of paralympic athletes, disabled athletes in movies, and disabled student athletes in heartwarming news segments. This isn’t true for all of my students, but most were critically examining their own assumptions about a new topic, which made their research fresh and interesting.

Disability as an inquiry encourages critical thinking, improves literacy, and allowed me to foreground accessibility in very direct ways: providing a context for why I require collaborative note taking, try different multimodal invention strategies in the classroom, and ask students to make accessible digital projects.

This isn’t the only way to foreground accessibility, though. When I first started talking, I mentioned that many of us feel constrained by a fixed curriculum, and what I’ve said so far may sound well and good, but maybe you’re really into your social media inquiry or critical race inquiry. Or maybe incorporating disability as a topic sounds like one more thing in an already jam-packed curriculum. So now I’d like to offer some strategies for hacking a fixed curriculum to increase accessibility that can be applied more broadly.

Hacking the syllabus. 

An easy way to signal to students that you’re interested in accessibility is by writing it in stone, so to speak, in the course syllabus. Lots of disability composition folks have written about this—most recently, Tara Wood and Shannon Madden published a piece in Kairos titled “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements.”[6] Because we all adhere to institutional policies, we often can’t manipulate an accommodation statement. We can, however, create a supplementary statement. As Wood and Madden note, considering the location of such a statement and the header are important. If an accommodation notice is at the very end of the syllabus and is labeled “Special Needs,” for example, the outdated language and placement may signal to students that accommodations aren’t really valued. If it’s true that only half of college students report their disabilities, and many forego accommodations for fear that their instructors and peers will treat them differently (427),[7] it’s important to think carefully about how we address disability and accommodations.

For the disability-themed course I taught, I had an accessibility statement listed first under “Course and SU Policies” that read:

Accessibility. This is a course about disability, welcoming different learning and composing styles, and questioning the “normal.” If we can do something to make the classroom more accessible, please let me know immediately. You are also welcome to contact me privately to discuss your academic needs.

This was immediately followed by an “accommodations” header. This kind of strategy would be useful in any classroom, and I’ve adapted it slightly for other courses:

Accessibility.  This is a course designed to welcome different learning and composing styles as well as create an inclusive space. Let me know if I can make the classroom more accessible.

Because it’s in the syllabus and we address it on the first day, it signals to students that it’s something I take seriously, and I’ve found that more students without formal accommodations are willing to talk to me about their needs.

Hacking Participation Requirements.

In our curriculum, participation is 10% of the student’s overall grade, and I’ve always felt weird about grading students for their in-class participation. I’ve never been a talk-in-class kind of student. I was always engaged, but my instructors usually didn’t see it that way and my participation grade frequently suffered.

After teaching a disability-themed course the first time around and not accounting for alternative forms of participation, I created a participation statement for my syllabus in the next disability course I taught and have incorporated it in other classes, too.

Participation. Not everyone is a talk-in-class-every-day person, and participation isn’t limited just to talking in class. Participation also means coming to class prepared, engaging with the material, being a thoughtful peer reviewer, [tweeting regularly,] and posting class notes.

In my civic writing course, for example, we used Twitter to post artifacts relevant to our readings and class discussions. That’s the first time I incorporated tweeting on a class-wide scale, and I was surprised by its success. Half of the students probably tweeted less than 10 times the whole semester, but I had two students in particular who rarely spoke in class and would go home and tweet about our class discussion, post relevant readings, and also pose questions about the homework. I found Twitter particularly relevant for a civic writing class so my students could follow interesting accounts and real-time conversations about civic issues, but I don’t use Twitter in all my classes.

I do, however, use collaborative note taking in all my classes.

At the beginning of each semester, I circulate a sign-up sheet and ask two people to sign up to take notes for each class period and create a space on our course site where they can upload their notes. This is an example of the description I give them:

Everyone takes in and processes information differently. I may say one thing, and you all may hear something different based on your own understandings, interpretations, and beliefs/assumptions. For that reason, multiple people will sign up to take notes on each day of class. If it is your day to take notes, you will receive participation points for the day.

I’ve had students submit notes that ranged simply from bullet points of what I write on the chalkboard to rich narrative accounts of everything that occurred during class. Usually they type them, but sometimes they handwrite them—doodles included. The rhetorical benefits of this assignments are awesome yet initially unintended. When I first required it, I was really trying to imagine assignments and activities that were more accessible and universally designed. Note taking is a pretty common accommodation, and collaborative note taking addresses that specific need while also making it a shared responsibility (rather than focusing on the one student who requires it). It asks students to be responsible to each other by contributing to a shared resource. And ultimately, it reinforces the notion that accessible practices benefit all students.

Hacking In-Class Activities.  

The last strategy I want to address is hacking fixed curricula through multimodal activities. In many ways, multimodality supports accessible practices with its attention to multiplicity in various modes and media and its focus on flexible processes and products. Multimodality also has significant overlap with Universal Design for Learning (UDL).[8] Adapted from Universal Design (UD), the idea that all spaces must be physically accessible to all people, UDL focuses on creating equitable and flexible pedagogies for all learners.

UDL’s principles—multiple means of representation, actions and expression, and engagement—emphasize flexible and adaptable practice. Collaborative note taking offers multiple means of representation because it provides the same information (what was communicated in class) in a different form (as notes online). It also creates a space for students who may not be active talkers to process what’s happening and to actively engage in a different way. Multiple means of action and expression, which emphasizes knowledge making through composing, can be addressed through our in-class activities. There are many ways to do this, but I’ll offer two that I really like: a research question gallery and multimodal workshop.

Inspired in part by Jay Dolmage’s revision gallery, I like to set up a gallery once students have narrowed their research questions. This activity gets students to push on their ideas and interact with their peers’ ideas in a way that let’s them “see” their work in a different way. For this, I bring in large paper, tape, and different colored markers. Students write their research questions at the top of the paper and tape it to the wall. Then, they write why they chose the topic, note what they already know about it, and list questions they’d like to answer through research. Once they’ve written for a solid 15-20 minutes, they move around the room, reviewing topics and questions other students have generated. I ask them to do two things: 1) add a question they think would be interesting that isn’t listed and 2) check one question they find most interesting.

Everyone leaves feedback directly on the page, so students get a visual sense of what aspects of their research topics other find interesting and useful. While some students get 15 checks on one research question and none on others, other students get a mix of 3-4 checks per question, and I tell them to think about how particular questions appeal to people differently. Because I’m not asking them to give too much in-depth feedback, too, this is an opportunity for students to get a lot of responses.

Another activity I like to use is a Jody Shipka-inspired multimodal workshop. This activity asks students to reimagine their written arguments, which is useful if you have a unit that asks students to translate an argument to a new medium or to compose a multimodal project. I bring crafting supplies and ask students to bring at least 5 objects that they can use to compose an argument. I ask students to do some pre-writing, but the majority of the time is spent composing, and I ask them to consider what arguments their objects can communicate that an essay couldn’t and what the potentials and limits of their objects are.

I had a student tell me once in conferences that she was more of a “hands on” learner, and during this workshop I watched her very carefully create a text representing the different learning styles we should embrace in the classroom to be more inclusive to autistic students. This activity always fascinates me because on multiple occasions I’ve watched students who don’t actively “participate” (ie. talk) in class take the entire class period to carefully complete their composition. It critically engages students in their topics in a way that is more physical, tactile, and can be useful for kinesthetic learners or students who struggle to invent on paper.

Conclusion.

In closing, I want to emphasize the importance of foregrounding accessibility in our classrooms. In this presentation, I offered practical strategies for engaging students in critical thinking about disability, integrating multimodality into the classroom, and centralizing accessibility within a fixed curriculum. Although accommodations are important, they shouldn’t be the default for making our classes accessible. We should consider the small, everyday practices that we can to make our classrooms more accessible. Even in fixed curricula that can be constraining at times, there are ways to hack our practices to make our classes more accessible to students, and I’m interested to hear if y’all have other suggestions for how to do this.


[1] Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2011. Print.

[2] McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. NY: New York UP, 2006. Print.

[3] Dolmage, Jay. “Writing Against Normal: Navigating a Corporeal Turn.” Composing (Media) = Composing (Embodiment): bodies, technologies, writing, the teaching of writing. Ed. Kristin L. Arola and Anne Frances Wysocki. Logan: Utah State UP, 2012. 110-26 Print.

[4] Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia, and Brenda Jo Brueggemann, ed. Disability and the Teaching of Writing. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2008. 40-55. Print.

[5] Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability. New York: New York UP, 1998. Print.

[6] Wood, Tara, and Shannon Madden. “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements.” Kairos 18.1 (Fall 2013). Web.

[7] Walters, Shannon. “Toward an Accessible Pedagogy: Dis/ability, Multimodality, and UD in the Technical Communication Classroom.” Technical Communication Quarterly 19.4 (2010): 427-54. Print.

[8] CAST. The National Center of Universal Design for Learning. Center for Applied Special Technology. 2011. Web.

 

Chemical Spills & Professional Communication

I’ve been working on the syllabus for my WRT 307: Professional Writing course. I finally finished it and started piecing together our course website yesterday—work that was interrupted around 5:30pm when I saw a FB post from a childhood friend warning folks in our hometown not to drink the water.

Yesterday morning, a tank of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol—a foaming agent used in coal prep—began spilling into the Elk River and is currently affecting 9 counties and approximately 300,000 people. Although people in the Charleston area started complaining about the licorice smell around 7am and the smell was identified as coming from Freedom Industries around 9:30am, I didn’t see a single report until after 5:00pm. Though the story was constantly updated via The Daily Mail, crucial information was missing from the initial reports, such as the 5 (now 9) counties affected by contaminated water provided by West Virginia American Water.

When I saw my friend’s post, I immediately checked Twitter for verification. I assumed that my family knew about this and texted my dad that I had read about the spill. He texted back, “What?” He had been boiling water for spaghetti when I texted him and hadn’t heard a word about the spill.

Governor Tomblin issued an order not to use the water to do anything but flush toilets or put out fires: “Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.” Local restaurants, schools, daycares, nursing homes, and even some hospitals are affected and have been advised to close.  The president of WV American Water apparently  emphasized that “the company is not positive the water is dangerous, but they determined there’s the possibility.” Side effects include mild burns and “non-stop vomiting.”

I couldn’t stop reading news articles yesterday, and it has consumed most of my day today, too. Although I realize it’s not the water company’s fault that this happened, they are absolutely at fault for not issuing a warning until ten hours after the spill occurred. They are also at fault for jumping the gun and issuing a statement that they could treat the water, which was later revoked.

Kanawha River, June 2009

Sunset over the Kanawha River, June 2009

I adore West Virginia. I got a tattoo of the state outline on my 20th birthday with a heart where Charleston is. I defend it aggressively when I hear people make jokes about it. My WV twang comes out whenever I cross the Mason-Dixon line. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to read stories like this—to see how companies treat their people, how recklessly chemicals are stored that have unknown impact to people, water, land, or animals.

It has, however, been amazing  to witness all of this from NY—to see friends posting on Facebook which hotels are open for people to take showers, where the water distribution centers are, who has an extra case of bottled water that they’re willing to share with a friend who uses powdered baby formula. When communication breaks down on a macro-level, it’s interesting to see how communication and community grow stronger through social media.

A picture of Bart Simpson holding a three-eyed fish. Text reads, "It's an Elk River Thing."

People always joke about the 3-eyed catfish in the Kanawha River. (photo via Instagram)

It’s the communication that really has me outraged. Am I surprised that there was a chemical leak in Kanawha County, which we called “Chemical Valley” when I was growing up? No.

My mom used to say that Kanawha County killed people, and sometimes—particularly when I read things like this and think of the  number of power plants around when I was growing up (and that are still there, although fewer in number)—I believe that. But that seems like all the more reason to be prepared for things like this to happen. The lack of appropriate response is absurd.

In my professional writing theory course at WVU, we read Beverly Sauer’s The Rhetoric of Risk: Technical Documentation in Hazardous Environments. Influenced by the legal, technical, and ethical responses of companies to large-scale technological disasters, the book is essentially a workplace study on mine safety.

I remember being fascinated by this book  because even if you know very little about WV, you know it’s coal territory. Boys are recruited out of high school to work in the coalmines, and communication (particularly written communication) is so crucial in those high-risk environments—filling out appropriate documentation, writing reports, proceeding appropriately if and when there is a disaster.

Though what happened yesterday isn’t necessarily a writing issue, it is most certainly a communication issue—How is it legally or ethically possible that several hours passed before a warning was issued? Why does no one know how this chemical impacts people? Why is there no plan in place for what to do in this situation?

I think this would be useful to bring up in WRT 307 next week. It’s interesting to think about how information has been communicated through professional channels (newspapers, press releases) versus more informal channels like Facebook and Twitter. It’s also useful for thinking about how to communicate clearly under pressure.

I think I’ll call the lesson, “what not to do in a high-risk communication situation.”

2013 in Review (WordPress Edition)

Like last year, I thought this WordPress report would be fun to share, even though I definitely neglected blogging after passing my written comprehensive exams this summer. Hoping to start this year with a fresh outlook on life in general and work (finishing the exam process! writing a prospectus!) specifically.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

#UDdiscon 2013

This is a full-text copy of my paper for the Disability Disclosure in/and Higher Education Conference, taking place at the University of Delaware. My presentation is titled, “‘I Know It’s Touchy, But Should It Be?': Diagnosing Students in the Writing Center.” It’s an extension of my talk at C’s last March, which I’m continuing to process.

***

 

This time last year, I was at a writing center conference, choking back tears as I walked out of a crowded presentation about the increasing number of students with Asperger Syndrome who frequent university writing centers. I had been listening to a presentation about some of the telltale characteristics of autism spectrum disorders and how tutors should respond to these traits. These were things like, “Don’t encourage outlining because autistic writers struggle to connect their ideas” and, “Autistic people have bad handwriting, so you should offer them the opportunity to use the computer.”

At the end, the speaker said that AS “is an obstacle that can be overcome if the student wants,” adding that tutors can aid in this process. Much to my dismay, the Q&A quickly became a mix of whole-hearted agreement and discussion of how to identify students who seem suspicious and may become violent.

Cue my eyes welling up as I asked a question and then awkwardly walked out.

This anecdote is just one of many that emphasizes the need to diagnose students. It contributes to a larger narrative that positions disability as dangerous if left undisclosed, that encourages tutors to do the diagnosing (or to at least encourage students to self-disclose), and that contributes to the idea that the writing center is a space where students can be fixed by identifying traits of particular disabilities that contribute to “bad” writing.

The premise of my talk is that disability gets constructed as something that must be disclosed in order for consultants to feel comfortable and safe working with disabled students. This emphasis on diagnosis, however, often leads to fixed practices and reinforces the remediation model that writing centers have historically worked to position themselves against.

The questions, then, that are driving this talk, that I certainly can’t answer here but am curious if folks have thoughts on, are these: Why do we feel the need to diagnose students—or coax them into self-disclosing—before we can tutor them? Why has the writing center—as a space for one-on-one, individualized instruction that has historically fought the remediation label—become a space of remediation for disabled students?

***

From their inception as writing clinics—spaces to remediate struggling or deficient writers—writing centers have fought a remedial label. Nancy Maloney Grimm describes WCs as vulnerable and thus eager to check in and adapt to student and institutional needs in order to bolster the way they’re perceived. Grimm notes that when adaptive responses develop from a defensive place or a place of anxiety, “we repeat patterns rather than change orientation” (534).

And there is certainly a lot of anxiety about disability.

Writing center scholarship about disability—and attitudes about it, as well—are still deeply entrenched in medical model notions of disability. As we know, medical models insist that students must be “fixed” or “cured” of their individual deficits. In the WC, this coincides with a “remediation” model of tutoring practices that target disabled students as remedial. Although disability isn’t a hot topic, when it is mentioned, it has frequently centered on learning disabilities (LD) and how tutors can cope with LD students.

An interest in LD—at least in The Writing Lab Newsletter—began in 1984 when George Gleason’s article, “A Reader Asks…” prompted a spirited discussion about identifying LD (See Gills, Lauby, and Scanlon) that was picked up again a decade later (See Brainard, Mullin, Baker) by folks still wanting to identify, target, and treat the characteristics of students’ disabilities.

This focus on identifying characteristics has significant medical undertones that have been reified through the articles that are reprinted in guides for writing center directors and tutors.

For example, in her anthologized essay that was originally published in 1994, Julie Neff suggests practices that could help LD students but nevertheless positions such students as Other. She writes, “Although learning-disabled students come to the writing center with a variety of special needs, they have one thing in common: they need more specific help than other students” (382). This cues tutors that they need to treat LD students differently—an idea that is emphasized in the essay through a medical discussion of the causes of LD. Though Neff is convinced that writing centers can serve the needs of disabled students, she relies on medical discourse to support that point, reinforcing the need to diagnose.

Another example is Steve Sherwood’s 1996 article, “Apprenticed to Failure: Learning from the Students We Can’t Help.” In a reflection of a failed session, Sherwood writes, “I had no training in helping students cope with learning disabilities, much less with the effects of a severe brain injury” (49), concluding that we’ll continue to encounter LD students who “despite our best efforts, we can’t help” (56). Sherwood ultimately argues that tutors aren’t trained for working with LD students and that writing centers aren’t spaces that can help them. Tanya Titchkosky identifies this as a “You can’t accommodate everybody” attitude, one that sees particular bodies as “‘naturally’ a problem for some spaces” (35).

Now, it’s important to acknowledge two things here. First, both of these articles are from the mid-1990s, and writing center scholarship has certainly progressed since then, so at the outset, it may seem unfair to point at them as representative texts about disability. Second, positioning disability as individual deficit is common in a lot of early disability scholarship in any discipline. Comparatively, it’s rare to find texts that position disabled students as completely beyond the help of tutors. This is possibly because of writing centers’ historical attention to alternative modes of knowing, composing, and learning. It’s also possible that a resistance to pathologizing students is reflective of the larger resistance to the “remediation” label that writing centers fight.

That said, I wanted to highlight these two articles because they’re from well-respected writing center scholars who’ve made a significant impact on the discourse and values that circulate in the discipline. Neff’s article has been reprinted and anthologized. These articles both reflect outdated notions of LD students, yet they’re consistently given as examples of disability scholarship and taught in tutor training classes, extending the influence of such attitudes to contemporary times.

***

Shortly after my trip to the writing center conference last year, I participated in on an online discussion about working with students with disabilities through PeerCentered, which is an online space for folks interested in writing centers to talk about issues they find important.

The conversation ranged from topics like how writing centers work with campus disability services and how to make spaces and resources more accessible to whether or not it’s the role of tutors to diagnose students.

Forum participants expressed anxiety about being able to successfully work with a student (and to meet that student’s needs) if they didn’t know what disability the student had. This concern comes from a good place: the desire to meet the needs of students. However, it’s tricky (or “touchy”) for a number of reasons.

First, there’s the idea that we’re not qualified to work with disabled students, so there’s a desire to refer them to disability services. Then, there’s the idea that if we are qualified to work with disabled students, we can only do so if we know or can determine their diagnosis. This assumes not only that a diagnosis is vital to working with the student but also that particular disabilities benefit from particular practices. There are instances, of course, where this is true and some scholars have picked up this idea in responsible ways—for example, Rebecca Day Babcock’s scholarship on working with deaf students. The issue emerges when we assume that all students with a particular disability are a homogenous group who benefit from the same practices.

Although some in this online discussion did argue that the writing center isn’t responsible for diagnosing students and that students should self-disclose only if they choose, the insistence on diagnosing and disclosing was overwhelming.

***

Now at this point, it may just seem like I’m saying writing center practices are completely out of hand or that disabled students are always targeted and treated poorly. This isn’t the case. I’m not trying to vilify writing centers, directors, or consultants. As I mentioned before, writing centers have a rich history of fighting against the label that they are sites for remediation, focusing instead on individualized instruction, alternative pedagogies, and creating inclusive spaces.

There is tension, though, because current conversations about disability don’t often mirror the push against remediation for which writing centers have historically advocated. There’s tension with giving all students who frequent centers one-on-one attention but not feeling qualified to do that with particular student bodies. There’s tension with feeling like we need to diagnose students or make them disclose to us before we can help them learn.

I think about this every time a colleague tells me they have a disabled student, lists the characteristics of that student, and then asks me what I would do to address those issues. I think about it when colleagues ask if they can refer their disabled students to me in the writing center—as if I’m the only one who can assist them. I think about it when I sit in on conference presentations, participate in online discussions, and read scholarly articles.

And I certainly don’t have easy answers to this because—again—I know these come from places of good intention. My colleagues want to help their students succeed; writing center consultants want to help students with their writing.

As Laura Hershey reminds us, though, good intentions aren’t always quite good enough. She writes, “It is an uncomfortable truth … that actions which are intended to help a certain group of people may actually harm them. By harm, I mean—among other things—that these actions may reinforce the already devalued status of people with disabilities in this society” (230)

No one wants to hear that their good intentions are harmful, particularly not in a highly public situation or context with unfamiliar people like a conference or discussion forum.

So while I don’t think this is the solution, I think one way to address these tensions is on a local level. Motivated by my less-than-pleasant experiences trying to grapple with the desire to diagnose students last fall, I spearheaded an online reading group this past spring for other folks who work in our university’s writing center. It was voluntary, of course, but about 10 people volunteered to participate, which is a good number considering professional development isn’t required.

This group gave us a chance not only to read some of the medicalized discourse that circulates but also check out some of the more progressive texts that address disability. We read three texts over the course of the semester: Neff’s anthologized article that I referenced earlier and two articles about universal design (Kiedaisch & Dinitz, Dunn & Dunn de Mers)—one focused specifically in the writing center and the other expanding to the composition classroom, too.

I didn’t want to dictate our conversations because I wanted to have a genuine dialogue. We started with the Neff article, and I posed a number of discussion questions ranging from what we can gain from thinking about the “causes of LD,” what assumptions are made about the abilities of LD students, and the benefits and dangers of attempting to identify LD characteristics.

The responses to these readings and the ensuing dialogue were both critical and nuanced. My colleagues pointed out the things that obviously date this text and were quick to note that LD students not only are adaptive but that the tutor can help not by diagnosing but by adapting her techniques to deliver information and feedback in different ways, something Shoshona Beth Konstant advocated for as early as 1992 when she wrote, “Use combinations of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic techniques—the multisensory approach. Say it and draw it; read text aloud; use color to illustrate things” (7).

There was also attention in these responses to disclosure, perhaps because I specifically asked about the politics of trying to identify disabled students. What I found really interesting about this conversation is that even though everyone agreed that the article was dated, that Neff didn’t give LD students enough credit, and that the tutor’s role should be to adapt with the student (rather than attempting to diagnose and fix the student), this undertone that disclosure would help the session persisted.

A similar persistence occurred in the online PeerCentered forum. When I asked another participant why we needed to know the diagnosis as long as we knew how best the student learned, they responded that disabled students don’t know how they best learn. Although my experience is limited, I’ve found that the students I work with who self-disclose are also the ones who can consistently communicate what does and doesn’t work best for them. Try as I might, we just danced around this issue with others jumping in to agree/disagree.

In the more local context of my writing center’s online reading discussions, though—perhaps because we know each other and all work in the same place—there was more space to put pressure on these ideas. One person wanted to know how we create environments that are safe for disclosing yet immediately followed up with a question of whether we need to know specifics about particular disabilities or whether our standard student-centered practices are sufficient.

This private, local environment fostered much more critical discussion to the desires for diagnosing and disclosing. Working at this local level might be more useful for addressing attitudes about disability as they manifest within our actual writing center spaces, on the level where students are. Being self-reflexive, reading current scholarship, and offering a safe forum to discuss scholarship and our practices are small yet productive ways to address these desires.

***

I imagine one takeaway from my talk today is that I’m against students disclosing in the writing center. And this is both true and not true. I’ve had many students disclose to me, and it has been useful, but it has been useful specifically because they disclosed in order to direct our time together. I’ve presented about this before, but we often default to practices framed for students with particular abilities. The standard read-aloud model, for example, privileges able-bodied students who hear, speak, and can focus for long periods of time.

Even as someone who does not claim a processing or auditory disability, I hate reading students’ papers aloud during a session because then I have to skim them quietly in order to take in the information. When students disclose to me, it’s often in the context of “I have [insert disability.] It would really help me if we did [this thing]. Can we do that instead?”

Students who don’t respond to our standard practices are frequently positioned as different, dangerous, beyond the help of peer and professional consultants. I feel like desires for students to disclose largely hinges on our desires to know whether or not they will react to our standard practices, which has significant overlaps with accommodation. That is, we agree to change our standards only once a student presents us with formal notice.

When we focus on diagnosing students (or getting them to disclose to us), we assume that we know what is best for them. We also assume that, once they have disclosed, that we will know what to do with that information. Unfortunately, what seems to commonly happen at this step is either a one-size-fits-all approach that assumes all students with “x” disability learn “y” way or a referral to disability services, which positions the student as unable to be helped in this space.

My questions for you all, then, are about how we address these desires for disclosure:

  • Why do we feel responsible—as instructors and as consultants—to diagnose students?
  • How do we take our good intentions and channel them into good practices?
  • And though I’ve mainly focused on the reasons why disclosing may not be in students’ best interests, what are the benefits to creating writing environments that encourage disclosure? How do we do this in ways that don’t alienate students?

Thank you.