COVID-19 has raised the profile of equity issues related to disability as more and more of higher education has shifted online even though many of these issues were very relevant to many of our students and faculty before the pandemic. In this episode, Jay Timothy Dolmage joins us to discuss how ableism is systemic throughout higher education and ways of moving towards equity through universal design.
Jay is a Professor of English Language and Literature and the Associate Chair of the Undergraduate Communication Outcome Initiative at the University of Waterloo. He is the author of multiple books including Disability Rhetoric, Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, and Disabled Upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability.
- Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. University of Michigan Press.
- Jessamyn Neuhaus, Pedagogies of Care: Nerd Edition. Tea for Teaching podcast. June 17, 2020.
- Price, M., Salzer, M. S., O’Shea, A., & Kerschbaum, S. L. (2017). Disclosure of mental disability by college and university faculty: The negotiation of accommodations, supports, and barriers. Disability Studies Quarterly, 37(2).
- Simpkins, Neil (2018). Towards an Understanding of Accommodation Transfer: Disabled Students’ Strategies for Navigating Classroom Accommodation. Composition Forum.
- Kerschbaum, S. L., & Price, M. (2017). Centering disability in qualitative interviewing. Research in the Teaching of English, 52(1), 98.
John: COVID-19 has raised the profile of equity issues related to disability as more and more of higher education has shifted online even though many of these issues were very relevant to many of our students and faculty before the pandemic. In this episode, we discuss how ableism is systemic throughout higher education and ways of moving towards equity through universal design.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Jay Timothy Dolmage. Jay is a Professor of English Language and Literature and the Associate Chair of the Undergraduate Communication Outcome Initiative at the University of Waterloo. He is the author of multiple books including Disability Rhetoric, Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, and Disabled Upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability. Welcome, Jay.
Jay: Thanks so much for having me.
John: Today’s teas are:
Jay: I’m drinking coffee, actually… got my coffee right here… second coffee of the day.
Rebecca: We welcome rebels. It’s okay. [LAUGHTER] I have Scottish breakfast tea today.
John: And I have an earl grey today.
Jay: Well, I had an earl grey doughnut yesterday. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I think that counts.
John: That’s close enough.
Jay: That’s my contribution.
Rebecca: That actually sounds like a really interesting doughnut.
Jay: It was delicious.
Rebecca: So, we invited you here today to share some of your extensive research around disability, ableism, and universal design in higher education. And I thought it might be helpful if we could start with some definitions. Can you talk about how you talk about some of these terms?
Jay: I think that’s a great question. Because I think the truth is, a lot of people, when it comes to disability, they’re worried about getting things wrong. That’s the experience a lot of people have is “I’m worried I’m going to say the wrong thing. I’m worried that ableism is something that I’m going to be accused of, because I get the language wrong. It’s an issue of representation and I don’t exactly understand all the rules, and so I don’t want to talk about it and I don’t want to think about it. I want to keep it away.” And so I always want to talk with students and with colleagues about those definitions. I think the best way to define ableism is it’s a structural phenomenon. It’s present within the ways that we build our societies. And universities are the perfect example: that we value a particular set of things, most of which are pretty much impossible. But then we structure our interactions, we structure the value systems, the kind of false meritocracies that we build around the idea that we should all be perfect. That’s different than what you might call disablism, which is direct stigma against disabled people, actions that are targeting disabled people to hurt them or discriminate against them that are intentional and that are about our society’s dislike of the idea of disability, in part because we want to push it away from ourselves as much as possible. So, the two things work together because it’s ableism that makes us devalue disabled people. But it’s also ableism that structures a world in which it’s very difficult to admit when we fail, or when we struggle. It’s very difficult to admit that success is not easy and that privilege is not distributed equally. And the truth is, the university is a perfect case because it’s so difficult to dismantle or to address ableism in the university because it demands that the people who are in positions of power understand and admit that they came into those positions through an ableist system. That’s very difficult for people to do. But it’s so important for us to do. And the truth is, I believe, actually, really, really good educators understand that. They understand that the ways that they learned, the ways that they came to particular positions of privilege, were not fair, and that they need to change… that we don’t want to continue to perpetuate a system, like the ones that we learned within, that we gained our privilege within. That’s the last thing that we want to perpetuate. But, for other people that’s very difficult to let go of. And so you see these things very built into the structures and interactions of academic life. So that would be how I define ableism. Universal Design is an anti-ableist approach to education. It begins with the idea that, for example, higher education is uniquely conservative, that we don’t change very much, we’re very slow to change. And the ways that we teach are very outdated, and they don’t educate in the ways that we would hope they do. They reproduce privilege really well, but they don’t educate very well. They don’t acknowledge the diversity in our classrooms. It’s funny, because the values that universities espouse… If you look at a mission statement of the university, it’s all about innovation and dynamic diversity and change and progress. And then classrooms are still running students through tests. And they’re memorizing things. And they’re being timed. It’s very Fordist, right? We want this startup culture. But we have a very assembly line pedagogy. So universal design is the idea that you can design teaching, in this case, Universal Design for Learning, with the broadest group of possible learners in mind. And if you do that, you will be a better educator, it will help all students. It was originally a movement in architecture, and it was the idea that you design a physical structure, like a house or a public building, so that everybody in the community can access it equally. And it’s actually not that hard to do. A lot of architectural features are either decorative or they’re not very functional. I always use an example for students of the doorknob, if the goal is to get to the other side of the door, standard old-fashioned twist doorknob is a terrible technology, a universally designed door would just open for you. Or it’s a doorknob that can turn either way, or a latch that you can hit with your elbow, or the kind of door that you can nudge with your hip as you go through. The goal is to get through the door. So, why would you have an old-fashioned doorknob? And I ask people to think about that in terms of what are the things in your teaching where the goal is to get to the other side of the door, but what you’re actually testing is people’s doorknob acuity, [LAUGHTER] and you’re actually excluding people from getting to the things you want them to get to, which are membership in an intellectual community, a contribution to the classroom, the ability to develop your ideas and try things out. We want students to do all those things, but we create things like participation policies, like timed tests and exams that just make it impossible for a huge group of students to participate. And we often don’t notice that we’re doing it. So, universal design says from the very beginning, let’s plan for the broadest possible group of students, let’s remove as many barriers as we possibly can. And that that’s opposed to the approach to teaching that says, let’s do it the way that we’ve always done it and if somebody needs an accommodation, they have to go get it themselves. And it’s temporary. It’s like Las Vegas… that one thing that I’m changing for that one student in this class this one time stays with that one student in that one class. If we took all the accommodations that we’d ever given, and we said, “I’m doing this for all students now from now on,” we’d become much better teachers. And we’d also stop students having to go through that work of medically and legally verifying disability, that’s a costly process. And it marks students out for kind of being worn out by those processes. And I believe we lose an unbelievable number of students every year in higher education in North America, just because we have the wrong doorknobs.
Rebecca: When you think about it like that, that’s really an incredible way of thinking about it. One of the first things we did when I had my daughter was changed the doorknobs in our house so she could get around.
Jay: Well, it is a different orientation to space once you’ve experienced disability, once you’ve seen the world in that way. And even for non-disabled people, once you’ve looked at the ways that an accommodation helps somebody and invites them into the conversation, and then you don’t want to reproduce that barrier anymore. And the tough part is, as soon as you begin doing that, you kind of have to fight, we have to fight to remove a lot of barriers to education, it’s not as easy as it should be; it should be a lot easier.
John: One could make the case that this is more important now than it ever has been because education is one of the most important determinants of income distribution, and is a primary cause of the growth in income inequality in our country. The barrier there is having more and more of an effect on people’s future income, careers, and so forth, so it is important that we break these down. One of the ideas in your book, Academic Ableism is how ableism and eugenics were deeply rooted in the foundation of education in North America. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Jay: That is such a powerful segue. And it’s gonna be a segue to a bit more of a cynical take, to be honest with you, because I think that the truth is a lot of these systems remain because they’re very effective. And I alluded before to the idea that most people don’t want to reproduce inequitable social structures, but it’s not true. I think a lot of people really do want to perpetuate those structures, and…
Rebecca: …especially because it’s easier…
Jay: …it’s easier, it’s profitable. There’s very little motivation to expand that access, and to challenge that meritocracy, because it’s so functional; keeping people in debt is a powerful motivation. And the data on this is pretty shocking. The average disabled student carries at least 50% more student debt than a non-disabled student. It takes them so much longer to get through school, and we know, for example, these predatory online universities like Trump University. Trump University itself… if people don’t go back and look at that case… and they really should… they were predatory in looking for disabled students. Those were seen as the most desirable students because they would pay tuition and then they wouldn’t finish. And if you have students who will pay tuition and then not finish, you can keep replacing those students every year with new, more vulnerable students. And then, on the other hand, we’ve seen recent policies in the states where state university funding models are hinged around retention. And on the surface, that’s a good thing. In Canada, the funding for the university system is very, very public here. We don’t have much funding hinged to retention. So universities really don’t have much motivation at all to keep students and if students fail out, it’s seen as their fault. The university is not seen as responsible at all. Although if we had real demographic data around the students who we can’t retain, I think it would be shocking. We just don’t keep that data. But in the States, state universities began to have their funding hinged to retention, and instead of that making them better about changing how they teach students so that they could retain a different, more diverse, group of students who are coming into university, they began gaming the system. And you talk about eugenics, I believe that the admissions process at most major North American universities is a kind of proto-eugenics. They’re looking for students from particular zip codes, because those are the students who will come and stay and graduate and donate when they’re finished. These are called Super Zips. And if you look at Ivy League schools, they are pulling 85-90% of their students from a certain isolated group of zip codes. And that’s based very much around the idea that instead of changing how we teach so that we could draw students from a broader area, we want to superzoom man and target just students who fit the prototype of a student who can be successful here. So, it’s very little change, actually. It’s funny because the popular media likes to construct professors and universities as radical places, and in so many ways, they’re the most conservative places in terms of changing. I guess I didn’t really answer your question. I talked more about where I see some eugenic forces working in higher education now, and I think there’s lots of other places to look for that. But, I think a simple way to talk about the history is to say the land grant university mission, at the same time as universities were being built, so we’re institutions and asylums, and one was the place where, very intentionally, the highest classes were supposed to get together, meet one another, marry, and procreate. And the other was a place where people were being sterilized and isolated, and basically imprisoned. And when you look at the influence that prominent eugenicists had over higher education in the United States, these were university presidents. And so, so much of it is very intentional. It’s uncanny to go back through some of the history of higher ed and see those links. But you can still see those sorts of things built into the structure of higher ed nowadays.
John: Going back just a little bit, you mentioned how in the States, at least, public universities argue that they want to increase retention, a cynical interpretation of that may be that they’ve discovered that it is cheaper to retain a student than it is to recruit new ones. But, in general, many administrators really do want to see more students be successful. But that doesn’t always leak down to the faculty level. Many faculty and many departments have the attitude that their job is to sort out students between those who are successful and those who need to be weeded out and sent out of the institution. So, that message hasn’t made it all the way down from the top to all departments. Many departments are very committed to student success, but it’s not as general, perhaps, as we might like it to be.
Jay: Yeah, and I think there are alumni forces as well. And it’s this kind of Stockholm Syndrome or something. It’s like if it was difficult for me, I need to make it difficult for other people. But also what is the value of a degree? The value of a degree, for some strange reason, seems to be hinged to how difficult it was. And I don’t just mean a difficult in terms of the intellectual tasks that are being asked to do but just like a kind of war of attrition. If I made it through, even in a kind of mental health sense, through all of the stress, the unneeded, unnecessary, stress of so many of the rituals of higher education, then that somehow prepares me to be successful. It’s interesting, University of Waterloo where I work, we have a lot of that… we have a lot of stress. And we’ve had a mental health crisis on campus. But it’s this disjunction that I’m hoping people on campus can begin to see because we also have co-op, almost all of our students go and work co-op jobs. And so the skills and the traits that they develop as students in terms of being able to compete with one another, being able to work on their own in an isolated way, and handle stress on their own without asking for help… The help-seeking behavior of students across North America is going down, not up. No employer wants that. No employer wants somebody who can’t work with other people and won’t ask for help when they need it. And yet, this is a value that we’re seeing in NSSE surveys across North America. Those ideas of not asking for help, because that’s seen as a weakness and not working with other people. So there’s a big problem. That’s something that’s broken. Even the members of the board of governors who are all the industry, people, they should want that to change too. So I’m hopeful that we can make arguments to have some of that culture change. And some of it is simple stuff. There’s really no reason for so much investment in timed tests and exams. That’s certainly my soapbox issue, because it does not increase student learning in any way. There’s no research out there at all that shows that students study harder or retain more information, or perform better by having a timed test or exam. And yet, universities are run around the scheduling of these type tests and exams. It’ll be interesting given what’s happening with COVID, and us moving online in ways more than we’re used to, in any case, and the stresses on students will be higher than we’ve seen before. It will be interesting to see whether something like timed tests and exams become almost all that we do and these surveillance technology companies step in. And online courses really just become testing mechanisms. Or if we can find another way to do that. That I think is going to be a real challenge. Because sometimes when you boil things down, that becomes the only thing that a course is there to do, which is to test things. And there’s not a whole lot of learning that can come out of that. And I hope that students know that they shouldn’t be paying $40,000 in tuition, just to take a bunch of tests. They could just do Facebook quizzes for a year, if that’s what they’re looking for.
John: One positive sign is we’re trained in grad school, through this weeding out process, through this elite structure, and we’re trying not to ask for help. But one thing, and we talked about this in a podcast a little while back with Jessmyn Neuhaus, is that we’ve seen people coming in asking for help with the sudden transition to online teaching in ways that they never have before. We saw over twice as many people attend our workshops this year, and some of them I’ve been at this now. institution for 30 years, I’ve never actually seen them at a workshop or ask for help before, and there’s a lot more of that. And one of the things we’re hearing, from at least the people who are attending workshops in teaching centers, are getting the message that perhaps proctored exams and surveillance technologies may not be the most effective way of assessing student learning, especially in an online format. So there’s at least some hope there. But we also have a lot of people demanding better proctoring systems that will monitor everything that students do and their eye movements and everything else.
Jay: But as you were saying that first part, I was really nodding and my eyes were wide, because I agree, I hadn’t really thought of it that way. But, you’re right. I’m seeing many more of my colleagues saying, I don’t know how to do this. And to me, that’s a great modality for any educator, let me get this straight. I don’t want my colleagues to be experiencing as much stress as they’re experiencing right now. That’s horrible. And the amount of stress that faculty are feeling right now is unprecedented, and we haven’t even reached late August… classes have not even begun yet. It’s terrible. It’s really going to become an issue. But if there’s a way to be more, and I do have a suggestion about this, too… I know that myself as an educator, I only became good as a teacher when I stopped teaching the ways that I learned. And I stopped just thinking my job as a teacher is to tell people things I know, or to do all the things I’m already good at. Because those things work for me, necessarily means they’re not going to work for a broad cross section of people. Other learners are not going to be like me, I give this analogy a lot. But if you’ve ever lived with somebody else who’s writing towards a deadline… you know, has a big project that they’re working on, and you watch the way that they work… It’s so frustrating, right? You just want them to do it exactly the way that you would do it. And they’re not doing it that way. And you’re having to live with it and watch it and then they succeed, and it gets done. And you’re like, “oh, okay,” that’s an instructive experience, right? And in a classroom of 20 students… 25…40.. you’ve got a really wide variety of ways of getting to that goal and it’s unlikely that your way is going to work for the majority of students, it’s better to pool all the different ways and learn from them all than it is to expect students to do it exactly the way that you do. So if we’re all approaching this fall with an attitude of, “Oh, this is different, I’ve got different new things I need to learn,” I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that university administrators are acting like fall’s going to be normal. They’re in fact, promising students an exceptional experience… my own university President is and we can’t deliver that this fall. There could be so much stress alleviated if administrators could just say “Fall is going to be different. We’re not going to be able to do all the things that we’re usually able to do.” Once we get students back on campus and we can begin doing some of the things that we do around building community and a sense of belonging for students, then we can deliver that experience again. But, it doesn’t help anybody, incoming students, their families, instructors, staff, it doesn’t help anybody to act like we can deliver an excellent experience in the fall? And it would actually really help everybody if there was some kind of a statement that said, “Listen, it’s gonna be tough this fall. There’s so many things we can’t do that we do really well. We’re all going to be learning as we go.” So many instructors, this will be their first time being able to teach this way. And if we had that kind of a statement, at least this is my opinion, I think it would alleviate a lot of the stress the faculty and staff are feeling. And I think that students will, in the end, be happier. What I fear is going to happen is that students are paying full tuition in the fall, they’re going to come, they’re going to believe that they’re going to get something exceptional, and they’re going to be very disappointed and upset, and they will take that out on instructors and they’ll be upset, they’ll be asking for their money back. So a lot of it is about the message that we can send around the fall. I also think it’s okay to say, it’s in fact ethically required as educators, that we tell students that some of them shouldn’t come this fall. Some students should not be there. If you had a tough time with finishing high school online, don’t come to university in the fall, I think it’s completely okay to say that. If that was difficult for you, then delay, defer. A lot of universities are offering the students the ability to do that; that could be a good option for you. Parents should know that, students should know that, that that’s not a failure in any way, and it could be a good decision for you. I’m hopeful that we’re going to be able to support any students who decide to enroll in the fall, but it is going to be different. And the key is a lot of those supports that we have around counseling, around supporting students who are first-generation students, those things are not going to be there. And we build those things into our campuses… not enough of them… but we build them there. And there’s not a lot of foresight around how those things are going to be replicated online.
Rebecca: Yeah, the extreme amount of unknowns make everyone more anxious: faculty, students, and what have you. And I think, historically on campuses, there’s a tendency to keep both mental health and disability as things to keep close, and it’s an individual burden that we don’t share with others. People are sharing their stress. But if that stress is really becoming a mental health concern, people are being more quiet about that or keeping that inside. And it’s not a community discussion. But, I think that historically has happened to faculty, students, and staff in our institutions, because we don’t embrace the difference. We don’t embrace disability at all. So, how do you think this is impacting not just right now in this moment, but in general.
Jay: So, I’ll say a couple things about that. And I’ve had the opportunity to visit campuses and see some practices that really work. And this is really just talking about the accommodation model, which I’ve already said is necessary, but it’s just the beginning. Because it really is just accommodating each individual student, but the universities that do the accommodation model really well, they reach out to students very early. They give students the opportunity to understand what resources there are for them, and they give students the opportunity to begin setting up their accommodations, begin talking to people at Disability Services very early, like now. Lots of excellent universities. Give students the opportunity to visit campus and visit the disability services office now, instead of waiting until the classes begin, and the other practice that a lot of offices have is that they’re very liberal around documentation. If you don’t have a diagnosis now that’s okay. If you’re an undocumented student, and it’s difficult for you to get a diagnosis, that’s okay. We’d rather you have the accommodation. We don’t believe that anybody would go through all these hoops to fake it, not in the environment of higher education where admitting to having a disability is highly stigmatized. And that’s only logical. But, I fear some of those things will be more difficult to do. It will be more fraught and stigmatizing to disclose a disability when there’s not an office, when the contact that you have with instructors is minimal, and you can’t feel them out and understand where they’re coming from. Neal Fitzgerald has done this excellent research at the University of Wisconsin around how students negotiate disclosure and don’t disclose and students need the right to have a safe environment in which to sometimes not disclose, and a lot of those cues and the decisions and choices students make around that, they won’t be able to make. The research shows us the vast majority of students who get accommodations wait until their third or fourth year of university. They wait as long as they can. They wait until they reach a point of crisis. And that’s really unfortunate. And that’s why we lose a lot of students before they even seek help. We already said this is a generation of students for whom self-help seeking behaviors is lower year over year. And then around documentation… I think this is a bigger issue for everybody. Because Coronavirus is leading people to need to disclose illness and disability in new ways. And what it’s revealing is how poor the processes were for disclosing safely and protecting people’s privacy. The idea that a faculty member should disclose an illness to their chair or their Dean, those people are not capable of protecting privacy. But also those are the people who determine your career. They determine whether you’re going to get tenure. They determine your teaching schedule. They determine whether you’re going to get a course the next year if you’re a contingent faculty member. So if a policy is “Talk to your chair…” it’s not a policy. It doesn’t protect privacy. Often an accommodation will have to come out of the department budget. And so then you’re a cost, you’re automatically constructed as a cost. And there’s almost zero likelihood that you won’t experience discrimination, though, then people do not disclose. There’s another excellent study by Price and Kerschbaum. It’s a multi-authored study, but it interviews faculty members about their experiences. All administrators should read this study, because it’s the faculty members talking about how they negotiate getting the accommodations they need for a wide range of different disabilities. And what you realize is it’s a real minefield. The truth is the pandemic is leading universities to have to use those same policies around COVID. And so it’s going to impact a greater number of people. And the problem is the infrastructure was never there to protect people with those disclosures and with those policies. So, I hope that it leads to, in a kind of more universal, uniform way, having a proper system for doing that, especially for staff and faculty. Most universities have a pretty good system because it’s been tested by the law around student accommodations. But very few of those same institutions have anything really that’s very good for graduate students, or that’s very good for staff, that could do anything at all for contingent faculty. And that that’s not there for faculty members themselves either.
Rebecca: One of the interesting things about disclosures that are happening around COVID is disclosing about disability and mental health and things of family members and children and it extends beyond just the individual too.
Jay: Yeah, the truth is, every place needs a disability policy. And we need a caregiving policy. If we can push for those two things and if we can realize that those two things actually go together a lot of the time, that I think that that would go a long way to changing the culture around disability on campus. Because I think that we need to have policies for both and we don’t and this is going to expose the ways that we don’t. So, what happened instead is that we lose huge contributions from our community. And that’s how I always want to frame it. It’s not just inequity. It’s this huge loss of intellectual value and potential. Any money we spend on education is seen as an investment, except when we talk about disability, and then somehow it’s a cost. And it’s a cost we wish we didn’t have to bend. But everything we do is expensive… carpets and chairs… a university buys chairs for like $500 each, and they’re crappy chairs that are not even accessible chairs, and we spend 500 bucks each on them, right? [LAUGHTER] So, it’s not a cost, it’s an investment. And it’s a very small investment for a huge group of people that occupy all kinds of different roles in our academic communities. And we’re losing these folks simply because we haven’t created policies, we haven’t created protections that speak to the reality of life, which is we’ll all become disabled at some point in our lives. We’re all going to care for and love disabled people, whether we do now or in the future. That’s a reality, but academia acts like that can’t happen, and that it won’t happen. And it doesn’t match up with life.
Rebecca: We’ve talked a little bit about ways that decision making in higher ed right now is kind of impacting people with disabilities, specifically around accommodation issues, disclosure, and even just general mental health issues. Are there other ways that some of the ableism that’s built into these institutions is impacting people with disabilities that we haven’t talked about?
Jay: Sure. Research productivity, I think. This is the other thing. Who’s productive right now? Who’s able to continue their research agenda? There’s a kind of inverse relationship right now between the people who are able to continue producing research right now and the kind of research we need right now. We need to hear from disabled people for the reasons that we were just talking about. They already understand how issues of disclosure and changes in health over the course of a lifetime work in nuanced ways. They understand the problems in our healthcare system really well, from a critical position. They understand how we can use legal precedent to make changes that impact equity and diversity. Those are the biggest things in the news right now, those are really important things that disabled people should be involved in. And that, in general, the groups that have been discriminated against, we are realizing, are the groups who need to be in the room making the big decisions. But again, a kind of generalization, those are the folks right now with the largest load, emotionally… in terms of care. I run a journal. I’ve had very few submissions over the last four months from any female-identified researchers. Dudes are killing it. There’s been no slowdown, and you know what that looks like?
Rebecca: I’m experiencing it right now. I’m on sabbatical.
Jay: …a sabbatical probably where you had real plans around catching up or getting ahead on research. June, July, August…. I’m generalizing again, but for folks who have family responsibilities or caregiving responsibilities, that’s your time to get a little bit ahead. Or, more generally, for people who have a really heavy teaching load… contingent faculty who might be teaching 7, 8, 10, 12 classes a year… this is your time to try and get work done. Well, you’ve lost an entire year of research productivity from people, and universities are going to act like nothing’s changed. My own university is saying “No, faculty performance review will proceed just as it did, in the future” And so the system, the meritocracy, will keep on clicking, without any acknowledgement of the fact that people’s ability to take part in that has changed, and maybe has changed for a while. We don’t know how long this is going to change. But again, universities are the slowest to catch up. You look at the…. I know this because I have a colleague who brought me all this data,… the big 10 accounting firms in North America, they changed their performance review way back in March for female employees, because they already knew this is not going to be the year where it’s going to be fair. So, they built these mechanisms and they built an architecture for being able to acknowledge that this year is out the window and there are more important things then pushing that manuscript through right now. But, what supports can we put in place so that we get those contributions? Because it’s not enough to just say, “Okay, well, you won’t be hurt on your performance review.” As a bigger community, we’re going to lose the valuable insight and input of people who are not going to be able to have the space to have their research be part of the conversation moving forward. So, there should be granting, funding that targets that very issue, and we should be talking about it. That’s the other big thing for me is let’s talk about it. Let’s have leaders talk about the fact that the labor is not evenly distributed right now. And let’s talk about the fact that a lack of childcare, that employers should have some responsibility in understanding and extending what they do to childcare or to eldercare. Back to what I said earlier, we have to have policies around caregiving, too.
John: One thing we should note is that many institutions have at least introduced a pause in their review process, which delays people’s progression towards tenure, and so forth, but at least it partly equalizes this. It doesn’t provide resources, which is something that would be really helpful, but at least it mitigates the damage a little bit of the event. Now, how long that continues, though, is open to question.
Jay: Yeah. And a pause to somebody getting tenure is in an institution’s best interest. Let’s not kid about that. But I definitely think that that, especially the fact that a lot of universities were so quick to do that, should make us a little suspect. But I definitely think that a lot of people experienced that as at least a bit of an olive branch. It was a sense of like, “Okay, that’s good. At least I’m not coming up for review now.” But that extension is going to have its own impact. And some people will take that extension and other people won’t. And then the people who don’t take it, it’s possible, will be constructed as somehow lesser because they weren’t able to just power through this time. That’s the other thing, is we don’t have very equitable ways of implementing policies. And when the policy comes from admin, instead of consulting with the people who it affects, they often really miss, and so those pauses, I think some places people will be very hesitant to take them for fear that it marks them as lesser researchers or lesser producers than colleagues who don’t have to take them. So, I wouldn’t want to be an administrator right now. But, I just wish that the response was to expand the circle rather than to close it. And I’m not seeing that. From campus to campus, I’m not seeing that. I’ve had so many generalizations, but people who become leaders in higher ed, they don’t do that to deal with COVID. They were not prepared for this. They do it for other reasons, things that they’re very good at, that right now don’t matter as much. But the impulse then should be: “This is not why I got this job. I don’t have expertise in this. Who can I bring in? Who’s being most negatively impacted by this? How can I diversify the conversation? To diversify the group of people and the expertise around making these decisions?” It’s time for shared governance. We talk about that all the time. The institution and the kind of architecture we have for shared governance, it’s at least there… it’s been hollowed out a little bit… but now’s the time. The lack of foresight around what fall could actually look like is shocking to me. I give the example of my own university and my own university will be all online in the fall. But for quite a long time, the university was holding on to the idea that we’d have face-to-face classes. I believe they were holding on to it until the commitment date passed. So they could make it seem to students as though we would be on campus even though we might not be, so that students would choose the University of Waterloo and then we could share the news, which in itself is irresponsible. But, there was never any planning. So, the idea of face-to-face teaching was always out there. There was no plan to buy protective equipment. There was no plan around sterilization or sanitation. There were these strange plans where they asked people to like map out what a classroom would look like, and a regular lecture hall could fit like 12 students, and that didn’t matter because how are the students getting into and out of the classroom? How are they using elevators? How are they moving through stairways, where’s the extra staff? At a certain point I reached out to our staff association, they hadn’t even been contacted about hiring further people to work in the fall. So, the idealism of leaders is a problem right now. [LAUGHTER] Because what we need is realism, what we need is stress testing. What we need to hear from are the people who are going to be most negatively impacted, and those people aren’t at the table. So, that was my point, really, was expand the circle, get more expertise, don’t narrow things. And this is kind of a personal aside, but everything I’m seeing coming from universities is coming from presidents where they put their names on it, and it’s all about them and building their resumes and their image. And I actually think that that’s a real problem in higher education right now, that we know the faces and the personalities of university presidents far too much… that there becomes a way of marketing a university through its leaders that is unhealthy and takes away so much from the ways that we’re contingent on the labor and the risk of teaching that’s distributed really disproportionately.
John: At our institution, I became involved in this only after decisions about fall teaching had been made. And I was asked at a meeting, “How can we design a classroom so that it will work for a subset of students in the classroom and a subset of students at home and we can still use good teaching practices.” My suggestion was, “We make sure everyone has a computer, headphones, some sound isolation around them, so they can engage in active learning activities online with other students in the same classroom because they’re not going to be able to do many of them with physical distancing.” And basically, the question is, if we have to isolate students so that they can only interact over computer media with other students, why do we need to put people at risk in the classroom, the students and faculty and staff?
Jay: Yeah, most of the things that are worth doing in person are the things we can’t do. I wish we could. Don’t get me wrong, I really do wish we could. And I love teaching in fall. I love teaching first year students in fall, it’s my favorite thing to do. And I always love to teach the writing classes in fall that they don’t want to take. I’m a romantic about that. But the truth is all the things that I’m really quite good at, and the things that I would want to do with students in person, I can’t do. So, I have to find another way. And I do have some suggestions. I think I have some simple things to think about in fall. The one main thing for me is, and there are many good reasons why online teaching needs to be largely asynchronous. We need to know that students can’t all necessarily meet at the same time with us. And that’s tough because it’s really nice to have that connection. But to me, I’m pulling back on things like group discussions and lectures so that I can have one-on-one meetings with students. And I have the luxury of an open enough schedule that I feel like I can schedule enough one-on-one meetings with students that I should be able to meet with each student, if not every week, every other week, and everything else… all the other labor that I put in, I’m throwing out the window because I know how much time it’s gonna take to do that. But, I believe it’s really important, not just for learning in my class, but for the fact that these are first-year students in their first small classroom, all their other classes in Fall will be 300 student online classes. The other big thing for me is just repetition… …redundancy. One of the main principles of universal design is what they call positive redundancy. So having a discussion with a student is so great because they can generate captions and actually see what I’ve said. They can also record our conversation and go back and watch it later. When I’m delivering some content. I can have captions, I can have a transcript, I can have students in a Google doc, or a shared drive, taking shared notes. So what you end up having is like four or five different versions of one thing that can be accessed at a variety of different times, and based on the ways you want to access it. You can turn your video discussion into a podcast and they can listen to it when they go for a walk. So, that idea of just doing it more than once, doing it multiple times… which sounds laborious, but it’s not really… I think that’s one of the best things we can do in the fall. I think that personal connection is really important when we can find a way to do it. And then the final thing I think we should be thinking about is tone. So, to me, tone is going to matter so much in the fall, how we communicate with students, the time and care we put into making sure our messages are not overwhelming. They’re the right size, and that they understand that we’re trying to be friendly. So, I think a lot of the times when we communicate with one another, we’re taking out the things that make a message a sympathetic one. We don’t even know we’re doing it… and the sense of overwhelm…the way that I would put it to people is “How do you feel when you open up your email these days? And there’s four or five new emails in there? How do you feel when you open one of those emails and you realize you’re gonna have to scroll down, because it’s that long? How do you feel when the tone of that email, from the beginning, seems not understanding of how difficult it is going to be for you to do the things that you’re being asked to do in that email?” Everything piles up and the mental load that we take when we’re given new tasks right now… that demand avoidance that we have… is so much higher because we have so many more mental and true physical demands on our time and on our thinking. Yeah, I think those three things… So, that trying to prioritize, not as an extra, but as something where we’re willing to pull back on some other things to have a little bit more one-on-one time in contact with students. It gets back to what I was saying earlier about giving students the opportunity to let us know where they’re coming from in a safe way. If we don’t build in that contact, there’s no safe way to do that. We can’t assume that there is. The second piece is just repeating ourselves… redundancy… giving students the message many different ways through many different channels. Then also tone… so not overwhelming students with demands, I think is really important. And then I think the final thing for me is thinking about participation in a broader way. It’s not a classroom where students can put their hands up. And to be honest, I don’t really like that modality of participation anyway, because there’s only so many students who can speak. And students will find other ways to participate valuably if we open it up to them. So attendance is not going to be something we can grade and mark. Participation shouldn’t just be attendance, we can be more open about how we do that. And what I do is I have students determine and tell me all the different ways they’ve participated. And so they come up with some pretty interesting stuff, by putting that responsibility back onto them. So those are the kind of universally designed kind of tips for the fall. But, I’m sure listeners will have some of their own ideas. And I’m hoping that we have a different conversation moving into fall in part because we are, a lot of us, doing something we’ve not been asked to do before. And we do need to look for help from one another in ways we haven’t had to do that before. I hope that that becomes a kind of shared value moving forward. That’s something worth holding on to.
Rebecca: I think the opportunity of being a novice, although stressful, provides a lot of empathy. But also I think it’s bringing people together in a way that maybe we can sustain in the future, and it’s not just in this moment of crisis.
Jay: Yeah, absolutely.
John: We’re creatures of habit. One way we reduce our cognitive load is by doing things in the same way over and over again. COVID has forced us to change the way we’re doing things, and it’s making people a lot more open to considering new ways, perhaps improved ways, of doing things. So, I hate to talk about the silver lining of all this, but it does make us more open to exploring new ways of teaching that can make us more effective in teaching, not just now, but also once we get through this pandemic.
Rebecca: I was gonna recommend Jays wiki on universal design strategies, and also the PDF that’s included with the Universal Design: Places to Start essay because there’s a lot of great ideas that will work online in those resources.
Jay: Yeah, again, I don’t want people to feel overwhelmed, but it’s called “Places to Start,” because that’s the idea. This is a time to try out some new things that we then keep… that are worth keeping, and a lot of the universal design things, I think, we don’t realize until we use them, how valuable they are. It’s like a gateway drug. And then you want more. That’s a bad metaphor, but [LAUGHTER] you’re willing to try more once you see how effective it is to expand the different ways that students can take part in what we’re doing.
John: Tom Tobin was on the podcast recently, and he suggests that faculty start using a plus one strategy for introducing one new technique, one new way of engagement, and so forth. I think many faculty this fall are thinking more about a plus five or plus six approach, [LAUGHTER] which can be a little bit overwhelming.
Jay: It can be and I think it’s really important to find that balance. There’s no magical solution. But, the one thing that I do believe about universal design, as dangerous as the argument is, is that it is better teaching. It removes a barrier not just for students, but also for us, and can sometimes clarify what the real goal was behind what we’re doing. The goal wasn’t to make students struggle with an experience more stress, for example. The goal was to enrich the conversation by having everybody take part. I’ll give an example. I started teaching when online teaching was new. Like, I’ve been teaching for a long time, when it just had started to become popular to have message boards and to expand the classroom conversation then onto a message board. And a lot of people will remember that. But, I think for a lot of people, what they realized was the student who was kind of like surly and bad body language sitting in the back corner of the room, they actually had a fair amount to say on the message board, things that were valuable and important. And in the classroom, that wasn’t gonna happen. So good, then you stop relying on all the conversation to happen in the classroom, you realize some students need six or seven hours to think about what they want to say. And that just makes you a better teacher, it gets you to the goal, which is for everybody to be able to take part. And so maybe there will be some of that plus one that we see and that we retain coming out of this fall. And at the same time we want to fight so that administrators can’t say you’re online all the time, because we still do value and know the importance of in-person instruction as well… once it’s safe to do so.
Rebecca: I think of the other things you mentioned, Jay, without maybe realizing you mentioned it, was in some of your examples of what you’re planning to do for the fall, you’ve kind of invited students in, to participate in the construction of what that learning looks like by having them talk about participation. This is a really great time to invite folks to the table who haven’t been invited to the table to have those conversations. [LAUGHTER] If our classrooms are a complete land of experimentation this fall, we might as well just invite the students to have the conversation and be willing to be flexible. [LAUGHTER]
Jay: Yeah, right now I’m working with eight co-op students at Waterloo and their job is to help us prepare for teaching in the fall. Waterloo hired something like 300 co-op students who just couldn’t get jobs elsewhere. Waterloo stepped up and said, “We’ll hire you.” There’s a federal program that paid for part of it. So it wasn’t entirely the university paying for it. But the thing is, the students are really good at it. Let’s be okay with that. That, if we give students a little more responsibility and the ability to lead, they’ll probably have better ways to figure out how to structure something like a classroom conversation then like boring messageboard questions. So, I think, Rebecca, that’s going to be part of my approach is like “you show me what’s a good way for you all to collaborate together on something, or do peer review, or share your research or whatever.” Let them take the lead and then put it into the grading structure so that they get rewarded for being innovative and bringing to the table things that they’ve already developed that I haven’t. That’s not my expertise. That generation has skills in that area that I don’t have.
Rebecca: I think that’s a good place to wrap up. So, we always end by asking, what’s next? Dare I even ask? [LAUGHTER]
Jay: I’ll be honest, what’s next right now for me, in a literal way, is going back to fighting for getting more people at the table. I work with our Faculty Association. We’re going to have an issue with being able to staff and teach these classes in the fall, and we’re going to have issues with people being able to get through the 12 weeks of teaching. I know in the states that’s 16 weeks or longer. What supports needs to be there so that the pressure and the stress that’s being felt right now is just one piece of what’s going to be happening in September. And so, those of us who have roles where we can pressure the administration to begin thinking about what’s actually going to happen, that’s what I think is next. I’d like to have more time to prepare my own teaching too, but I am concerned about the stress that faculty are feeling. I think we’ve been careful throughout the discussion today to underline that, that that is what’s lying beneath a lot of this. And I don’t want the feeling to be that, in this podcast, we’re telling you have to learn 15 new ways of doing something, I hope that they’re experienced and understood as ways that can lessen some of the load and some of the stress. And I guess that would be my final thing. The things that I’m asking, or that I would suggest, should allow you to subtract some of the other things that are really laborious and stressful. It’s not about an additive approach where we have to do more and more and more, there have to be things that we’re able to pull back on too, and we have to be able to set realistic expectations about what fall is going to look like. I think that would be best for everybody.
Rebecca: A very healthy way of thinking about the fall. [LAUGHTER]
John: Well, thank you. We really enjoyed talking to you, and we’re really looking forward to sharing this with our listeners.
Jay: Me too.
Rebecca: Thank you so much.
Jay: Yeah, thanks. Enjoy your day and we’ll be in touch again.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.