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Reflective Practice

Institutional Care: Designing for Access

Wordcloud of colored text on black background. Words: 1 Participation 1 Punctuality 1 Compulsory 1 Blackboard 1 Un/excused 1 Mandatory 1 Self-care 1 Textbooks 1 Ridiculed 1 Required 1 Lateness 1 Penalize 1 Writing 1 Chronic 1 Lecture 1 Illness 1 Credit 1 Weekly 1 Stress 1 Makeup 1 Stupid 1 Travel 1 Daily 1 Panic 1 Money

by Andréa Stella

The first day of the Fall 2018 semester, I asked my First Year Writing students to practice rhetorical analysis of a normative object from their college experiences: the syllabus. Students brought syllabi from their other courses and we used them as our source texts. After collectively doing a quick review of my course syllabus and highlighting the parts I was particularly proud of (I accept late work), I discussed with the students places within the syllabus that I consider to be traditional sites of institutional harm: unachievable attendance policies, expensive textbooks, heavily weighted grade-to-assignment ratio, just to name a few. This in-class group assignment turned into a cathartic bonding experience because every student had an example (most more than one):

Pre-Calc: 80% of the grade is based on 4 exams

Intro to Chemistry: 6 absences = failing (both excused and unexcused)

Intro to Biology: “‘Trying hard’, ‘Putting in a lot of effort’, ‘Showing up for every class’, ‘being a nice person’ and the like do not determine your grade. Grades are determined based on the outline below.” Students who miss two classes without an excused absence will be dropped from the course. If you have your phone out thirty points will be taken out of your final grade and an F for the course.

Intro to Psychology: Textbook must be purchased, cannot be printed from a PDF

The list above is a small sample from two of the twelve student groups I did this assignment with. This assignment was born from academic gatekeeping exhaustion.

All of my identities walk into the classroom with me: queer, cis, white, AFAB (assigned female at birth), neurodiverse. I never perform professor  without these identities at the front because it would not only be inauthentic, but actually impossible. My students see my bag of potions — pencil case filled with tinctures, flower essences, stones and pens — the first day.  The students are curious and I always share with them from the start: these things support me through the day. I am not scared to meet my bodymind’s needs in front of my students. For one of my ENGL 21007: Writing for Engineers classes, a student wrote “she’s a witch” on my teacher evaluation at the end of the semester. I knew it was a compliment paid (even if my department chair did not).

In drafting this piece, I realize the distance between myself as teacher and myself as doctoral student: I perform student as a cishet-passing neurotypical person at the start of each semester by shrinking to margins of the classroom and first listening to the professors and students to see where their biases lie, deciding how much of myself is safe to reveal. I know from my own experience that it’s not safe to be traumatized and coping in academia.

I have gone so far as to hide my pregnancy from professors for the past two semesters because I intuit that they will not be able to accommodate my need for extended assignment deadlines or remote class access, and in most cases I have been right. Asking for access exhausts me and leaves me feeling less than: that I am arbitrarily incapable of performing student in the right way because of situations going on in my bodymind. Disability Studies scholar, Jay Dolmage, highlights this anxiety as the “relatively extreme bias of academia: the idea that learning has to happen in scheduled bursts and limited openings” (121).

On the last day of class in the Fall 2018 semester, my professor grilled me about how I planned to be pregnant and do course work because I was enrolled in her Spring 2019 course (unironically, a course about the body). I decided it was better if I dropped the class rather than prove how it’s possible or why it’s important that it’s possible (I need health insurance, baby needs health insurance, please don’t project your disbelief in my abilities onto me).

The replacement course I chose focused on love/hope/caring pedagogy. I read the syllabus the first day of class:

  1.  Be present, be on time, and be prepared to engage (you need to complete the assigned work in order to do this & more than one absence may result in a decreased or failing grade)... 
  2.  If there is an extraordinary situation, and you are unable to attend class, you must notify me prior to the class meeting via email.
  3.  Texting during class (or the appearance of texting) is disrespectful to me and your peers. Please refrain or your grade will be impacted.

I found these policies antithetical to a love/hope/caring pedagogy, but I couldn’t drop the course without having another course lined up because my fellowship and our health insurance depend on my enrollment. A week into the Spring 2019 semester I was frantically crafting an independent study proposal and praying that someone could pick it up—doing all of this while navigating my other jobs, pregnancy, and mental health. Even my strategy of choosing women professors based on the assumption that women understand the body as inextricable from the mind has failed again and again, and I’ve discovered that access emerges from unlikely sources: my white cis male department chair. In an exemplary showing of allyship, he agreed to run an independent study so that I could keep my credits and have the flexibility I needed.

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The yoking of my personal identities and my scholarly field (Composition and Rhetoric) has led me to become a fledgling autoethnographer. I research ways to support my own access needs and in turn use these approaches with my students. I take notes on my course instruction before, during, and after class. I schedule time to review these notes throughout the course of the semester in order to gain insight on how I can best serve my students. I do check-ins with my students about what is working for them throughout the semester. And most importantly, I always ask how can I support you — a phrase that was never uttered by my professors in ten-plus years of higher ed.

I initially built my classroom pedagogy around how I wish I were treated as a student. Now after three years of adjunct teaching, I am grounding my intuition in theory that draws from disability studies and decolonial frameworks. I am using Selfe, Yergeau, and Brewer’s concept of transformative access (119) to reconsider the way students are presented with and experience access. I used to believe that giving the option for accommodation  was enough, but accommodation actually denotes retro-fitting a classroom/syllabus policy rather than building access directly into the structure.

My syllabus and pedagogy are continually evolving, but what I have come up with so far is this:

Attendance policy: please get the work done, be involved in whatever way you can, I am here to support your learning. I understand what it means to have other classes, jobs and outside commitments; let’s talk about how you can engage with this course in the most effective way for you.

Late assignment policy: let’s make a plan for you to complete the work within the time frames I’ve set out; if that’s not possible for any reason,  let’s come up with a solution that works for you.

Technology policy: please use whatever device you have when and how you need to. This includes: taking notes on your phone, messaging classmates, using social media as a reward for getting classwork completed (fifteen minutes of writing and then set a timer and scroll through insta for three minutes).

Policy, Assignment, and Procedure Revamps: 
I teach First Year Writing, Writing in the Sciences and Writing for Engineering. My accessible syllabus means that first and foremost we get to have a critical discussion around institutional policies, institutional harms, and who is impacted inside of these systems (pretty much everyone who is not white cishet neurotypical). 

I never feel taken advantage of. The traditionally punitive demands of a syllabus are brut ways that faculty can avoid access-oriented conversations, so by removing those restrictions the students show up in ways that expand beyond entering a classroom and slumping into a seat. The students are honest with their struggles and thoughtful with their coursework.

I am an adjunct. I need time to grade and sometimes it takes me a while to get student papers back. By offering a suggested submission date and then allowing for submissions after that point, I am able reduce the bottlenecking of my workload. There are always students who want to submit assignments early/on time because they have other work due for other classes -- this also opens up the discussion about time management.

As my pedagogy continues to develop, I have learned that being vulnerable and honest with my students, while scary at first, leads to more authentic classroom relationships during the course of the semester. By demonstrating that it’s OK to show up messy—something at which I excel—my students feel that they too can practice scholarship alongside their humanness. Acknowledging our bodyminds, even in courses that are not traditionally inclusive of such discussions (Writing for Engineering, for example), adds richness that moves it beyond the expectations of a two-dimensional first-year college course. In these radically transparent classes, our vocabulary to support ourselves as bodyminds with needs and pain grows and—hopefully—transfers to life beyond the classroom.

Texts Cited:

Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press, 2017.

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