I wrote this essay as part of my coursework for the Graduate Certificate in Online Writing Instruction program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
I have worked in writing centers for almost eight years, and I have seen my share of assignments and teaching practices from the perspective of a writing consultant, an outsider to the classroom. In this position, I’ve also heard the perspectives of other students and other writing consultants. What I’ve learned is that those in positions of power, whether that be writing center administrators or instructors, often make incorrect assumptions about their students: the most problematic are assumptions regarding student abilities, learning styles, and identities. In a successful writing classroom, each student should be able to access the content, learn the content in a way that works for them, and transfer that content to other areas.
At the core of my teaching philosophy is accessibility and Universal Design (UD), including Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) (CAST, 2018; Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, 2014; Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability and Center for Students with Disabilities, 2018). With these frameworks, I acknowledge that every student who will enroll in my courses will be different, meaning that they will have different learning styles, abilities, identities, prior knowledge, and motivations (Hitt, 2012; Kiedaisch & Dinitz, 2007). According to Hitt (2012), by seeing all students as different from each other, instructors can avoid singling out “the multilingual student” or “the student with a disability” as being more different than everyone else. To embrace this difference, at the beginning of my courses, I invite all students to anonymously share their learning preferences or needs, and I make reasonable adjustments throughout my courses whenever possible. But, as an instructor, I also see it as my responsibility to prepare for these differences from the beginning of my course design, rather than remediating at a later time or placing the burden of disclosure on the student (Dolmage, 2008; Micciche; 2014).
When designing a course, I plan ahead to present course content in multiple different formats, such as text, images, and videos. However, I also understand and hope that I will have students who have disabilities, so I also ensure that each of these formats is accessible to assistive technologies such as screenreaders. In making this a regular part of my course design, I am both reducing the need for most students to disclose their disabilities (out of respect for their privacy or to prevent shame) while also benefiting all students in my course. For example, providing edited closed captions and transcripts for videos benefits students who are hearing impaired, as well as students who prefer textual instruction, are sensitive to sound, or need to complete coursework in quiet areas.
Another way I approach accessibility in my teaching is to choose readings that are available in multiple accessible formats, such as searchable PDFs, Word documents, and HTML web pages. This, again, means that students using assistive technologies have a variety of platforms through which to access course texts, while also allowing all students the ability to search readings, highlight while they read, and record notes in comment bubbles. Students can interact with the content in various ways according to their learning styles. Universal Design can intersect with feminist pedagogies here when readings also represent multiple, diverse perspectives, such as different economic, racial, ethnic, and language backgrounds, as well as different abilities and disabilities (Dolmage, 2008; Micciche; 2014). Readings that provide multiple perspectives consistently throughout the course can show that there are no “normal” or “usual” narratives and challenge students to listen to others’ perspectives and to consider what has influenced those perspectives.
In designing my course curriculum, I also aim for assignments to be accessible to my students by providing choices and options, whether that be letting them choose their topic of interest or letting them decide how to create, design, and present their assignment (McAlexander, 2003). Providing options lets students complete assignments in ways that are engaging to them, align with their skills or interests, increase their intrinsic motivation, and challenge themselves at an appropriate level. An example would be letting a student create a portfolio that is solely text, a series of recorded videos, or a website, giving them the ability to experiment with technologies and build technological literacy.
A common assignment that I like to implement is weekly self-reflection, where students can reflect on the course readings and make connections. Self-reflection is a helpful quality for everyday life, and I think this habit can come from practice in the classroom. Self-reflection also helps to facilitate the transfer of skills and knowledge between contexts (Adler-Kassner & Wardle, 2015). In this way, I can know what knowledge students are bringing with them to my classroom, how they are complicating or rethinking that knowledge throughout the course, how the course is connecting to their other coursework or their personal lives, and how the course can be relevant once the semester is over. Most importantly, self-reflections apply feminist and expressivist pedagogies by encouraging students to share their experiences and to learn from the experiences of others (Micciche; 2014).
These reflections and other work in my courses acknowledge that experiences are a form of knowledge and that students can use personal experience to directly inform or support an argument, in addition to research and literature. As an instructor, I play an important role in pushing against institutional standards, which often ignore or don’t account for the wide range of personal experience that our students will have. Incorporating personal experience into one’s writing can often make that writing more accessible, especially when talking about complex theories or concepts. Thus, combining personal experience with research/literature is a vital writing skill that I believe should be taught in the writing classroom.
At the same time that I am implementing accessibility in the design of my course, I am also teaching my students the importance of preparing for difference. This means my philosophy is to both teach accessibly and teach accessibility. As I mentioned earlier, I use several different technologies to present content in my classroom and offer multimodal options for completing assignments. I pull from online writing instruction (OWI) pedagogy in that I choose technologies that are user-friendly and serve a specific purpose (Warnock, 2009). However, no matter how common or user-friendly these technologies may be, I still provide tutorials and resources for all the technologies used or suggested in my courses, such as the learning management system, Word, Google Docs, PowerPoint, and PDF readers. I also believe in taking this a step farther.
The CCCC Committee for Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction (OWI) (2013) suggests in Principle 2 that “An online writing course should focus on writing and not on technology orientation or teaching students how to use learning and other technologies” (p. 11). I heavily disagree. A student’s understanding and use of a technology can affect whether or not the content of their assignment is accessible to others, whether that be their peers in the classroom or a larger audience. Documents and websites are usually not designed accessibly because the writers (1) don’t think of others who are different from themselves and/or (2) don’t know how to make documents or websites accessible. Thus, I see it as my responsibility to teach students how to use technologies in advanced ways and to prepare content so that it is accessible to people of multiple abilities. If a student will or could choose to use a technology in my classroom for a rhetorical purpose, they will also learn how to use it accessibly. I aim to raise an awareness of accessibility that will be relevant regardless of the students’ discipline or professional goals. As suggested by Universal Design, a students’ decision to make their documents more accessible, such as using heading styles, can both benefit them in their own composing process and benefit all of their readers as well.
Feedback and Peer Review
While students work towards learning goals and assignments in my classroom, they will receive direct, individualized feedback (CAST, 2018; Hewett, 2014, 2015). This is where I see Universal Design intersecting most with my expertise from writing center work. Students in my classroom will have several opportunities to receive feedback before final submission of a major writing project. They will have opportunities to practice, fail, and revise when learning new genres of writing and new technologies. They will also have the opportunity to learn how to provide and apply peer feedback. My experience with training student consultants in the writing center has prepared me to teach students how to provide peer feedback to each other. Collaboration and feedback are relevant in many professional and academic writing contexts, so I want my students to get this experience while in my classroom.
In implementing peer review, I take processes directly from that implemented in many writing centers. Before getting feedback, students write what I call a “writer’s note,” which is addressed both to me and to their peer. In their writer’s note, students share where they are in their composing process, where they may be struggling, and where they are confident and not confident with their writing. The writer’s note gives students practice in articulating what they want to receive feedback on in relation to the assignment rubric, which also incorporates self-reflection and self-assessment. The writer’s note then helps their peers (and me) to focus feedback in the areas of their concern.
While I would instruct students in basing their writing concerns on the assignment’s assessment criteria, I understand that other factors can influence a student’s focus at any stage in their composing process. I avoid classifying writing concerns as “global” vs. “local,” because this classification is subjective and context-dependent. For a native English speaker with a privileged background, grammar may never be their writing concern in an early draft, or a final draft. However, for a student who speaks multiple languages or hasn’t had a privileged educational background, grammar may be a struggle and a point of self-doubt. In some cases, it may impede clarity early in the process. There are also power relationships involved with one’s written and spoken grammar, which cannot be ignored. What writer’s notes can reveal are the reasons behind the student’s concerns, which are even more important and are another point for instruction and guidance.
The writer’s note is also a place for students to note how they would prefer to receive feedback. In my classroom, students can receive feedback through a variety of methods, such as in-person or through writing, audio, or video. The combination of instructor and peer feedback allows them to receive feedback through more than one of these methods. This again provides options for learning so students can receive feedback in a way that works for them or find their preferences by receiving different types of feedback (Hewett, 2014).
I would prepare students to provide feedback to each other through methods that I’ve employed as a writing center consultant. One practice that I like to use is what Hewett (2015) calls the “what, why, how, and do” method. With this method, students answer four questions when responding to their peers: (1) WHAT is the problem that they are commenting on? (2) WHY it is a problem? (3) HOW can the writer fix the problem? And (4) what can the writer DO to prevent the problem in the future or find other instances of the problem on their own? I’ve found that remembering these four questions can help students to think about why they are making certain suggestions and to share their perspectives as readers and peers. These four questions also help students to look for patterns of issues, rather than every instance of an issue, and to find places for genuine praise as well.
Overall, my teaching philosophy brings accessibility to the center of the writing classroom and uses the field of writing center studies to further instruct students in collaboration and composing processes.
Adler-Kassner, L., & Wardle, E. (Eds.) (2015). Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Dolmage, J. (2008). Mapping composition: Inviting disability in the front door. In C. Lewiecki Wilson & B. J. Brueggemann (Eds.), Disability and the teaching of writing: A critical sourcebook (pp. 14-27). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability and Center for Students with Disabilities. (2018). Examples of UDI in online and blended courses. Retrieved from http://udi.uconn.edu/index.php?q=content/examples-udi-online-and-blended-courses
CAST. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/
Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. (2014). What is universal design? Retrieved from http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/
CCCC Committee for Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction. (2013). A position statement of principles and example effective practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI). CCCC. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/owiprinciples
Hewett, B. L. (2015). The online writing conference: A guide for teachers and tutors. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Hewett, B. L. (2014). Online and hybrid. In G. Tate, A. R. Taggart, K. Schick, & H. B. Hessler (Eds.), A guide to composition pedagogies (2nd ed.) (pp. 128-145). New York: Oxford University Press.
Hitt, A. (2012). Access for all: The role of dis/ability in multiliteracy centers. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 9(2). Retrieved from http://www.praxisuwc.com/hitt-92/
Kiedaisch, J., & Dinitz, S. (2007). Changing notions of difference in the writing center: The possibilities of universal design. The Writing Center Journal, 27(2), 39-59.
McAlexander, P. J. (2003). Using principles of Universal Design in college composition courses. In J. L. Higbee (Ed.), Curriculum transformation and disability: Implementing Universal Design in higher education. Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy: Minneapolis, MN.
Micciche, L. R. (2014). Feminist pedagogies. In G. Tate, A. R. Taggart, K. Schick, & H. B. Hessler (Eds.), A guide to composition pedagogies (2nd ed.) (pp. 128-145). New York: Oxford University Press.
Warnock, S. (2009). Teaching writing online: How and why. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.