Committing to Access: Freeware, Literacy, and Universal Design

When I first began working on this project with Maggie, one of goals for bringing New Media Pedagogy to our classes was to increase access—or thought of another way, reducing barriers to access. We started with bringing an audio essay project to our Basic Writing courses, ENG095R. The first barrier we were dealing with was the unspoken sense in our program at the time that New Media or multi-modal pedagogy was fine for First Year Writing Students, but that Basic Writing (our program used the more problematic term “Developmental”) classes needed to focus on print-based, alphabetic text. So, bringing New Media projects into our classes was already an act of removing barriers that excluded some students from what the rest of the student population had (potential) access to (I say potential access because although a significant number of FYC instructors included New Media projects such as designing infographics, using Prezi to summarize readings, or re-mediating a paper into a video, many others did not—and still do not—choose to include New Media projects in their classes; the key thing is they all had the option). As we planned that initial audio project we also wanted to reduce the technology barrier by using software that was free and multi-platform—hence our use of the Audacity audio editor. Maggie and I, along with our colleague in the Writing Center Jason Peerce, wrote about this project and some of the pedagogical decisions behind it in the Proceedings of the 2017 Pedagogicon; our contribution, “I Hear What You’re Saying: Bringing New Media Pedagogy to Basic Writing,” appears in a special section in The Journal of Faculty Development, vol. 31, no. 3, 2017, pp. 63–67.

Moving forward to planning our ePortfolio course, continuing a commitment to access remained at the forefront of our planning. It’s also an area we continue to work on and develop. We carried over the notion of access as giving students voice, as helping students to see their ideas and concerns as belonging and being valued in the academy. We wanted to expand students’ (and colleagues’) ideas of what “counts” as academic writing. As Bess Fox notes in “Embodying the Writer in the Multimodal Classroom through Disability Studies,” multimodal writing has the potential to change perceptions about what writing is, and to give students authority. As she notes, in a summary of Cynthia Selfe’s 2009 College English article, “an ideal of writing as an intellectual rather than physical or embodied practice may also prevent students from imagining themselves as ‘real’ writers and from imagining the writing they produce in the classroom” (Fox 268). Fox argues that traditional alphabetic texts reifies a mind-body split by causing the labor, the “mess,” of writing to become invisible—that it makes the body become taken-for-granted, unnoticed, and so “naturalized” (in the sense of the word the Norman Fairclough uses when explaining that ideology is “naturalized” in discourse). This is where New Media or Multimodal Pedagogy can intervene:

Unlike alphabetic writing, which also relies on touch and sight and sometimes sound and also requires revisions that are undone and redone, the body in multimedia writing is not yet “naturalized” and is thus not yet invisible; it is instead an expected and accepted part of the creation process. The messy physical work students do in multimedia writing does not contradict ideals of writing in which the body is invisible and the mind dominant. Such an understanding of writing as physical promises to expand students’ writerly identities. Once students see writing, both multimedia writing and alphabetic, as physical, they may be closer to seeing their own messy writing practices as, indeed, writing. (269)

Fox, in her discussion, argues that Multimodal assignments by themselves do not immediately disrupt restrictive notions of authorship (that is, moving away from notions of students as not authors, and towards students as authors). She finds the answer to this limitation as needing to theorize writing, to theorize Multimodal production as writing, with students. I believe that we’ve accomplished something similar in our classes not by adhering to a particular theoretical approach that we present to students and ask them to apply, but rather by having regular, ongoing discussions with them about the work we are doing together in the class. Through regular discussion and written reflections (about every project), we guide students through developing their own theories of what Multimodal composition is, how it is writing, how it fits with their school, extracurricular, professional, and personal lives. This is liberatory—and access-producing—because it gives students time to carve out a space and an identity for themselves as writers. It provides a path of access to the identity of “writer.”

We also wanted to push access through literacy. Stephanie Vie has argued that the “Digital Divide” is no longer only about access to computers and reliable internet (although, those continue to be issues, especially in the rural areas that many of our students call home), but even more about literacy. Do students have access to the literacy skills-training they need to use and thrive with digital tools and environments? Our use of Multimodal composing projects, along-side using library research tools, helps our students to develop their digital- and information-literacy skills concurrently. Before our course redesign, we observed time and again that although our FYC students grew up immersed in digital technology to a level well beyond what we were exposed to as children and young adults, that they were often hesitant and fearful of trying out new technologies. The projects in our curriculum helped students not just to learn about new modes of writing, it also helped them to develop their comfort level with technology and with uncertainty. This is another key kind of access—access to the confidence and state of mind that can support them in future challenging situations.

We also wanted to incorporate Universal Design principles into our classes—something that goes well with New Media pedagogy and writing for the web. As Patricia A. Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers point out in “Reversing Notions of Disability and Accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy and Web Space,” by going beyond alphabetic text-only teaching, compositionists are supporting ways of thinking and process that acknowledge many talents and ways of knowing; as they write,

In a way, universal design helps us see text-only pedagogies as “disabled,” not those individuals who don’t happen to use writing-as-a-mode-of-learning in the same way their English teachers do. Universal design helps us imagine writing pedagogies that tap into various people’s talents in debate, dialogue, visualization, drawing, and movement – all of which can be used to invent, organize, and revise conventional texts. (Introduction)

In the planning stages of our curriculum, we wanted to include multiple ways of knowing and doing research—for example, finding, making, and curating images as a way of thinking about a topic and building an argument. We also wanted to include explicit attention to some UD principles in the project expectations—which is why our video project included a tutorial on how to add subtitles to YouTube videos (and to not just rely on the auto-generated ones).

I’d like to go further with using UD in my classes—and here on this blog, too. While Frank, Maggie, and I have talked with students about things like alt text for images (which Dunn and De Mers point out is important for all users), we haven’t evenly applied that technology here on our site yet, or in our course materials, and students haven’t been consistent with it in their ePortfolios (likely as a result). Maggie and I have shared concerns about our audio essay/podcast project because it assumes certain types of hearing ability, and so in future classes we will likely combine that project with an option to vlog instead (and we’ll post the assignment to the resource bank when we do). Reading Fox’s article, I’m inspired to try her idea of assigning a usability analysis, where “students can write usability reports of existing websites or of their own multimedia projects or project proposals” (279). This could be a great revision exercise for all kinds of courses and projects.

Designing courses and assignments for access is time consuming but rewarding, much-needed work. Including it in course design also opens up great opportunities to have conversations with students about different kinds of access—what we as instructors are doing, how they as writers can increase access, and how they can agitate and demand more access for themselves and others.

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