Graduate student instructors sometimes operate under a lot of external constraints, because they do not have much control over the curriculum they are being asked to teach. That can make receiving an accommodation notification from a student rather fraught. Teaching Basic Writing, a reading and writing intensive course in Fall 2016, brought me a lot of clarity on these limitations, and it started on Day 1: I found my student, “Cam,” pacing the hallway outside our class.
An athlete whose sport was in season during the fall, Cam told me, “Maybe it would be best if I took this class at another time. It sounds like a lot of work.” I agreed that it would be a lot of work and I encouraged him to stick with the class and me as the instructor. During our conversation, Cam revealed that he never thought of himself as a strong writer and that reading was an even bigger challenge. Connecting to his experience as an athlete, I offered, “Yes, we do a lot of writing and reading in this course; but, just like you prepare for game day with scrimmages and gym workouts, we build up to writing a 1,000 word essay by doing small tasks that exercise and develop your writing skills.” Ultimately, the decision was his and I’m happy to report that not only did Cam stay in the class, he excelled as a writer. What he did not tell me at this time, but I learned later through an official notification from our campus’s Disability Services office, was that he needed a significant amount of accommodations.
According to Cam, the most important accommodation (of the ones identified by campus disability services) was being able to access course texts in optical character recognition (OCR) PDFs; this would allow him to use audio assistive technology in addition to extra time for assignments. Because most of our readings were no more than fives pages and were available online, this required very little of me as an instructor. What it also brought up was an ongoing issue I had with the cost of books my students were required to purchase when nearly all of the readings were available freely online.
More forcefully than in any other single class, I realized the importance of universal design for learning (UDL). This curricular design features privilege multiple access points for learning, engagement, and assessment. As Dr. Jennifer Stone puts it, “designing on the front end” with UDL minimizes the need for individual learners to make a special request.
The OCR PDFs that were critical for Cam to access course materials also proved beneficial for multilingual students who were using various translation devices to fully understand the readings, either on their phones or personal computers. Preparing these materials for Cam helped me notice how hearing someone read the text would be beneficial for every student in the class, many of whom are multilingual students and, like Cam, were nervous about composing essays of more than 500 words. They simply did not have the exposure or training. This revelation underscores the need for universal design that learning advocates have long claimed. UDL practices benefit all students whereas accommodations take a reactive approach and only support the student who has requested them.
To develop further my own pedagogy with a more active focus on UDL, I turned to two colleagues who have spent some time thinking about and working on UDL in two different contexts. Sean M. Kennedy, a PhD candidate in English at the CUNY Grad Center and Writing Across the Curriculum Fellow at York College, is currently preparing a workshop on multiple learning styles designed for undergraduate writing center tutors. And Kelin Loe, a PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition at UMass Amherst, has been incorporating aspects of UDL in her first year composition courses for several years now.
Kennedy tells me that in the Writing Center, where tutors work in 25 or 50 minute sessions, they incorporate multiple tactics in each session. He suggests that this practice translates well to the classroom where instructors have regular interaction with students, increasing the possibilities of varying both information delivery and assessment. Speaking to the transformative impulse of UDL, Kennedy says one of the questions driving his own learning in this area is how to “care properly for [my] students’ learning. [UDL] enacts an ethics of care in pedagogy that
Is empowering for faculty and students.” He envisions his classroom as “a practice of co-study, an enterprise of inquiry that is auto-reflective.”
The discussions that Kennedy and I wandered through take practical application in Loe’s first year composition courses where she builds in assessments attuned to UDL. Loe began our conversation with a caution about the “universal” part of UDL, explaining that disability studies scholars find the notion that we can reach them all to be “unproductive” and “insensitive.” Instead, she asserts, “The point isn’t acquiring totality, but being flexible. Give as many points of access you can in a curriculum that works for your body and the amount of hours you are being paid for.”
The focus on writing in this article was not intentional, but it speaks to Loe’s view that “the more one thinks of something as process, it proliferates the access points. Process points to conditioning.” Practically, in her classroom, Loe offers re-writes, which she suggests “registers the possibility or a wide range of reasons that a student might not succeed in an assignment. [It] detoxifies for perfectionism challenges, anxiety, athletes, students with family care obligations [and disrupts] a neoliberal model of deadline driven production in a semester that flows linearly.”
If you’ve just begun thinking about incorporating a UDL approach to teaching, check out these teaching tips and consider weaving them in through a bulk lesson planning approach or collaborating on lesson planning with colleagues who teach the same course as you do. As you do, use this checklist to evaluate your current course design and the revisions you’re imagining.