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). 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. 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). 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). 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). 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.” 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), 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). 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.
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.