As of writing this, I’m at 20,945 words. I haven’t written for today yet. So it’s safe to say I’m doing all right this year.
Today I want to talk about accountability in writing. Accountability is, in fact, part of the magic of NaNoWriMo. Part of the reason that more words get written in November than any other time.
By far the largest part of the magic of NaNoWriMo is the magic of numbers. It’s basically a standardized SMART goal: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. 50,000 words, 30 days. 1,667 words per day. Write for ten minutes, measure how many words you get in that time, and you have a pretty accurate measurement of how much time each day you’ll need to set aside for NaNoWriMo (for me, it’s about 45 minutes).
But that doesn’t explain why the same formula doesn’t seem to work as well for me in months that do not begin with N. Rhythm, which I discussed last week, has something to do with it, of course, but that doesn’t fully account for the thrilling experience of the first two years I did NaNoWriMo (2005 and 2006). One ingredient that probably makes the difference here is accountability.
Accountability means that you feel like someone cares if you fail or succeed. Accountability means you know you’re answering to someone. Sometimes that someone is yourself, but to make that work, it’s necessary to use some kind of measurement tool. The NaNoWriMo website has a lot of great tools for that, but the tools don’t have to be My first five years or so, my primary accountability tool was actually a printed out chart to color in with 1,667 word increments, like those big fundraising thermometers non-profits use for fundraising drives. It was extremely satisfying, and it make a tangible, visible declaration of my wordcount.
But accountability comes in myriad other forms. I have writing partners: my sister, my friends that I’ve made through NaNoWriMo over the years. I have other obligations too: I’m a municipal liaison this year, which means that I’m actually a designated representative of NaNoWriMo to my region, so I have the responsibilities of a leader on top of the goals of a participant. I’m streaming my writing sessions this year on Twitch, to simulate the sort of panoptic effect of writing in a cafe or library. When you work in public, you feel a pressure not to get too distracted, so you won’t be judged for it. Although very few people are watching my stream (I usually get maybe one person who isn’t probably a bot), the possibility that anyone might drop in is a similar pressure. It’s the sense of being watched, so you’d better be doing what you’re supposed to be doing. And it’s honestly been working quite well.
This magic exists elsewhere: it’s the same magic that makes it so you can clean your house from top to bottom in the two hours before guests arrive, but not one dish gets washed on a slow weekend. It’s the same magic that makes papers for classes happen the night before, but self-directed research take years. Accountability matters a lot. It provides motivation. Doing a thing for its own sake sounds nice, but the fact of the matter is that humans generally require some kind of feedback to keep doing a thing: some kind of response that says if they’re doing it well or poorly and when they should stop.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, you’ve got some built-in accountability for your writing goals right now. But it’s also an opportunity to build community that can provide you accountability later.
If you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, consider your goals, writing or otherwise. Are they SMART? How will you keep yourself accountable? An easy strategy is to enlist a partner in your goal, but there’s other ways: wall charts, rewards, timers, phone reminders, etc. No matter your strategy (you may need to use more than one), it’s important to keep yourself accountable, or it won’t really get done.
As you are probably aware, it’s November. That means, among other things, that it’s time for NaNoWriMo. It’s a familiar rhythm at this point, and I love it. And it’s the rhythm of NaNoWriMo I want to talk about today.
Honestly, it’s the only thing that feels right to me this year. Once, a therapist asked me “If school and work went away, what would you still have?” I remember looking up at him, as it was the end of the session and we were getting ready to go and it had taken me a while to find an answer, and saying “My writing. No one can take that away from me.”
In some ways, I do feel like grad school—largely the reason I was in therapy in the first place, if I’m honest—did take my writing away from me. I often feel like I’m actually a worse writer for having gone to grad school, when honestly I had gone to become a better writer, to unlock the mysteries of the literary canon and the English language that my undergraduate degree had left still unanswered. This may be, in fact, because graduate school doesn’t really give the writing and reading processes time to breathe and harmonize with each other.
But every November, I get a welcome reminder of who I truly am, who I have been since I first turned my pencil away from my own flesh and put it to paper and started writing novels. The words flow out of me like healing water. I need them.
Since 2005, I’ve done and won NaNoWriMo every November. I’ve done a few off-season challenges too. It’s completely shaped the way I write and the way I think about writing, and it’s made me a better writer in so many ways. It’s given me friends, put me in leadership positions, and a thousand other things. I’m not saying it’s perfect, or without problems that definitely need addressing, but I’m saying that this annual rhythm of prioritizing drafting is very important to me.
Today I want to talk about a particular realization that I’ve had this week as I get back into the rhythm of word wars and write-ins and word counts. It’s about the cyclical nature of writing.
In my composition classes, my curriculum constantly says that writing is a recursive, iterative process, that it goes through cycles as you move between the stages of the writing process, that it’s never linear.
And that’s true at a macro level, but even at a micro level there’s importance to rhythm.
Writing is an inhalation/exhalation kind of thing. We spew out words, but to have words to spew out, we need rest. NaNoWriMo has made it very clear to me, through the structured times of word wars (honestly these days I do almost no writing without a timer), just how important these write/rest cycles are.
To write the requisite 1667 words in a day technically only takes me about 30 minutes of actual writing time. However, that usually takes me an hour. That’s not because I get distracted (ok, I do, a little) but because in between these bouts of 500 words, I have to stop and reflect on what I’ve done and where I’m going. Sure, a lot of wild magic happens during the output portion of the cycle, but it has to be reined in and tamed in between wars. So, instead of a solid 30 minutes of typing, I get a cycle of 10 minutes on, ten minutes off, over an hour. But it works.
At a larger level, writers need a cycle of reading and writing. For me, it often comes in blocks, a month or two of “input” mode and a month or two of “output” mode. For some writers, the cycle is daily, reading in the evening and writing in the morning. But the cycle is present, no matter what its frequency may be.
Rhythm matters in writing life. And the rhythms function as so many levels. At the very microscopic level, I revel in the rhythms my hands type out; some words are simply pleasurable to type, as my hand makes a neat little dances in a circle around the keyboard. Even in handwriting, certain letters feel good to write, and that rhythm of words across the page matters as part of the visceral, tactile experience of writing.
At a slightly higher level, there’s the visual rhythm of the words on the page, the way the punctuation and the paragraph breaks play. And higher than that is the rhythm of rest and writing that plays out in the individual writing session. In the span of a half hour, I might write a thousand words, but ten minutes of that time is reflection, rest, and distraction. It’s like letting bread dough rise, only to punch it down. Making bread takes hours, but the actual “labor” time is much shorter. Still, that rest is as important as the kneading, punching, and pulling. It’s a rhythm of furious action and calm rest.
So, as you write this month, pay attention to your own writing rhythms. What are your cycles of input and output over time? What are your cycles of rest and writing within a single writing session? What rhythms do you love in your writing life?
Many of my colleagues who use contract grading, or another kind of alternate evaluation system, eschew the use of a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Canvas or Blackboard. Honestly, they’re probably right to do so.
There are a lot of problems with LMSs, not least of which is how they enable surveillance and other “cop shit”. They suffer from feature bloat, entrench certain teaching styles that aren’t really supported by research, and provide an illusion that courses can be simply automated away.
Yet, I still use Canvas. This isn’t simply falling in line or saying one thing while doing another; this is a carefully considered choice. At some level, I find that in the balance between the way I’d like to teach and the way my students expect to interact with the course, I generally come down on the side of meeting student expectation because the burden on them to learn a new system for potentially every course they take is greater than the burden on me to adapt my work to a flawed system for one or two preps per semester (since I generally teach multiple sections of the same course each semester). Since the LMS is automatically rigged up for me by my institution, and students are using it for their other classes, it is an ideal point of contact for us, despite all its problems.
All that being said, Canvas is making contract grading REALLY HARD.
I’m sure it can be done. I’m not sure I have the strength, cunning, or energy to do it.
You see, midterm grades happened like two weeks ago. So, of course, now my students are having anxiety about grades. The problem is that Canvas is still telling them what “grade” they have in the course, despite my best efforts to suppress actual grading. I used complete/incomplete options for nearly everything. I posted the syllabus in multiple places. But Canvas has a place, outside of my control in my own classes, where students can see all their “grades” at once for all their classes. And Canvas is lying to them.
And, given that I’m easily in a higher tier of Canvas skill compared to many of my colleagues, I’m guessing that Canvas is lying to my students about more than just my own class. And I suspect other LMSs have similar problems.
The thing about the contract grade is that it’s basically a checklist. Complete these tasks, get this grade. I like this idea in general; it banks grades, so that poor performance later in the semester doesn’t undo good performance at the beginning of the semester, but it also balances so that later good performance can make up for early mistakes.
Canvas, however, is optimized for weighted percentage grades that translate into letter grades. It doesn’t understand checklists. Despite being a computer algorithm, it’s actually really bad at binaries. How bad is Canvas at checklists? Well, for some utterly bizarre reason, it defaults to counting missing assignments after the due date as 100% instead of 0%. This generally results in the students who most need to be told that they’re failing being told, instead, that they have As in the class and nothing they have to do to keep up. This is obviously wrong, even in traditional weighted grades, but completely opposite of the goal in a checklist-based system. And its worse even than simply students might be a little misled; the students who are most likely to be misled are generally the ones who aren’t familiar with the syllabus or who don’t think to ask their teachers because they’re used to relying on apps to tell them things and assume that the algorithm is correct, and because Canvas prioritizes scores and letter grades over course policies and communication with instructors, they are simply interacting with the app in the ways that the UX encourages them to do.
And here’s the core thing: as a series of algorithms, LMSs are not neutral things. Algorithms have a particular challenge of seeming neutral and impartial, but actually being quite political, as has been noted by a number of scholars, perhaps foremost of them Ian Bogost. The fact that Canvas makes it easier for students to see grades, calculated on assumptions that prioritize testing (quizzes are really optimized in Canvas) and weighted percentage grades, than it does for students to see feedback or communicate with their instructors speaks volumes about what Instructure believes the basic functions of education are. Honestly, all I’m asking is that my students have to make as many clicks to see their so-called grades as they do to see my syllabus or my feedback on their work.
Contract grading seeks to make the relationship between instructor and student more mutual and transparent. LMSs do exactly the opposite, making the relationship mediated by an algorithm that clearly claims that students need only worry about a letter on a grade card, rather than any content in the course or relationship with instructors. I maintain that it is possible to ameliorate this situation, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to take a lot more micromanagement of the LMS than I was prepared to do this semester.
To that end, I do encourage anyone consider contract grading to seek out an alternative to their LMS or find some other way to regularly communicate with students regarding grades, because 12+ years of training that grades come first isn’t going to be undone with one contract grading syllabus, and the LMS isn’t going to help us.
Traditional grading, which, like so many of our so-called traditions in the US isn’t actually very old, has a lot of obvious problems. It’s been rightly called racist, classist, and eugenicist. The conventional grading structure likely causes more harm to students than good, and yet teachers are forced into it by administrative demands that benefit from sorting and labeling students and reducing them to a GPA.
Many teachers, following the recommendations of anti-racist scholars such as Asao Inoue, have turned to labor-based contract grading as an alternative, as a stop-gap measure that affords more agency to students while still resulting, ultimately, in a mark that fits the institutional databases’ needs. This semester, I’m one of those teachers.
Reader, I’m not loving it.
If I’m entirely honest, it feels like replacing one bad system with another, and I don’t think it’s caused any revolutionary shifts in either my or my students’ thinking about the course.
It still feels like grading prison. I don’t feel like I’m empowering my disadvantaged students in any special way. My students still behave like they’re getting traditional grades, because, well, they basically are. And it did absolutely nothing to assuage the near-crippling grading anxiety that has been building up in me over years like coffee stains in a poorly washed office mug. It has, in no way, repaired the broken relationship I’ve been feeling with students.
In some ways, the pass/fail almost feels more judgmental. There’s no room for partial credit here. Sure, I built in nearly infinite ways for redemption and revision, but somehow marking something as a fail because it doesn’t check every box on a list feels worse than marking it a 68.
I acknowledge some of the ways that contract grading addresses problems with traditional letter grades. Letter grades always had a mystery on the student side: “Why did my teacher give me a B?” rather than “I know what I needed to do better now.” The grading of quality over labor meant that the student, who is not trained yet enough to recognize quality even where quality is pretty consistently measured, means that the power was entirely in the teacher’s hands. Contract grading does distribute that power a little bit more into the students’ hands, and it does make it easier to say to a student “If you do X, Y, and Z, your grade is definitely A”.
I also acknowledge that contract grading reflects more accurately the work conditions students are likely to be under. Most work in our job market is measured in hours or deliverables, not in relative ranked quality.
But the alignment with labor practices in what’s obviously a broken and exploitative capitalist system is probably exactly what’s wrong with contract grading in the first place, and why it feels little better than traditional grading. It just isn’t radical enough.
I don’t have to tell you that modeling “real-world” labor practices isn’t exactly going to be anti-racist and healing when “real-world” labor practices are, themselves, racist, exploitative, and soul-crushing.
And students are still not focusing on the content, on the skills and knowledge that are the goals of the course. They’re focused on completing a task list. It’s still extrinsic motivation over intrinsic motivation. It’s still being more focused on earning the gold start than it is on learning the concept. At a very real level, it teaches students that there is no value in the content of the course, but rather there is only value in fulfilling a contract to get something out of the other party that can be leveraged elsewhere to get what you want. That is, the only value is in earning capital, whether material or social.
That isn’t going to heal much. It’s just going to dress up the same problem in a prettier garment. It does only incremental work and doesn’t really radically re-imagine learning.
I don’t lack a model for this radical imagination. If I’m entirely honest, most of my most familiar pedagogy comes from a deeply radical model of teaching, or at least what, implemented at an institutional level, would look like a deeply radical model of teaching that would completely destroy a lot of our educational system. The dream of what teaching should be that I’m chasing is actually always just a phone call away for me: my mother.
My mother is an art teacher. I’ve mentioned this before. As the youngest child, I have followed her to lessons and even assisted her as long as I can remember. She taught me how to make lesson plans, and we regularly have deep discussions of pedagogy. It’s she who taught me to assess every classroom activity by setting a clear goal of “What should students be able to do at the end of the lesson that they couldn’t do before?”
But here’s the thing: she doesn’t teach inside the behemoth education system, which means she’s free to actually teach. She teaches in settings most people don’t think of as classrooms (and often they aren’t even rooms): senior centers, after school programs through a local park system, renaissance fairs, anime conventions, festivals, etc. Her teaching is seen, at least by the people who provide her space to teach, as entertainment or, at best, edutainment or enrichment. But it’s very much teaching. Probably better teaching than what I do, honestly.
There’s no grades. When I ask her how she evaluates a student, she answers confidently “Improvement.” But it’s not measured with scores or numbers or any of the assessment apparatus that we use to arrive at grades, whether by weighted rubrics, curves, or contract grading. It’s measured solely in the student’s performance over the run of the course, whether that’s 20 minutes or 10 weeks or, in some cases, years.
There’s no sorting of students, not for entry and not for exit. I have never seen her turn away a student. Sometimes she has to ask a student to wait for the next session if a session is full (keeping a small class size is important), but she usually finds a way to squeeze them in. I have sometimes seen her ask a student to sit out when there was a behavioral issue, but only until the student was calmed down and ready to participate again. It’s she who taught me that there are no problem students, no “problem children,” only students who aren’t being taught appropriately for their needs. But the system I teach in, the system that pays my bills, tells me that some students simply “have aptitude” and some don’t, and helpfully tries to sort them out for me before they get to my class.
My mother wastes no effort predicting which students will be successful or not. But in my world, that’s an entire industry and field of research. But in her world, she simply adjusts her pedagogy as she goes to accommodate the students who, by most formal educational measurements, probably shouldn’t be in her class. And those students do indeed learn something toward the course goals.
What happens in my mother’s classes is, honestly, what I want for my own students, but I still don’t know how to make it happen. In much the same way that my mother’s students are learning how to tie knots and sew and about different cultural art forms without a traditional classroom, I didn’t learn how to write in a classroom; I learned to write outside of the classroom, sometimes in direct defiance of what was happening in the classroom, and then brought that knowledge into the classroom to achieve traditional educational success. I often told my parents that “school is getting in the way of my education,” and I still believe it to this day.
But I don’t know how to bring that energy to my students, since my learning was largely self-driven. I don’t know how to get school out of the way of their educations. I’ve been chasing after it for over a decade now, but the fact of the matter is that my students don’t choose to be in my class and I don’t choose how they’ll ultimately be assessed in that database that they’ll use to assess themselves, and I genuinely don’t know how to undo the literal decade of trauma my students come to me with from having been graded constantly for everything. I’m not sure that, so long as they’re paying tuition in a university system and I’m taking a paycheck from that system, I even can undo any of that trauma and truly just teach.
What I’m sure of right now is that contract grading isn’t a magical panacea, and it won’t fix the problem of grading. It just puts most of those problems under a different label.
My students are about a quarter through their coursework now. They’ve finished one of four projects. So I decided now would be a good time to assess how I’m doing in serving them as teacher.
I’ve seen a number of instructors suggesting weekly (or even more frequent) check-ins with students. I like that idea, but I think it works better if you are working at a level where students only have one or two teachers at a time (such as elementary school or graduate school). I imagine as a student I would have seen a weekly “How are you feeling?” poll as patronizing busywork, or, at best, just another thing I have to do, especially if all of my teachers were doing it. I’d get tired of the question. I don’t enjoy being asked “how are you?” more than maybe once a day; if I had to do four or five check-ins or wellness activities regularly for four or five courses, I’d resent it a lot.
But it’s important to check in occasionally, and on that I absolutely agree. So I decided to do it now, when I’m planning out the second half of the semester and when they’ve had a chance to experience the policies for a whole unit.
I don’t have all the data yet (only about 1/3 of students have completed the survey at the time I did this preliminary analysis), but I have enough to make some early conclusions.
The good news is that my class apparently is not their main stress point in their academic My students report that, in general, they’re ok, not great, but that school in general is stressing them out. Considering that my institution has, of late, become the literal image of journalism covering universities (mis)handling the virus, I’m not surprised. That can’t feel good, to see a headline about virus outbreaks and see a photo of our own bell tower under it.
However, they report more positive feelings about my class specifically than about either school in general or their overall feelings at the moment. What this tells me is that my policies are doing their job of not adding extra stress to students. I know that my class isn’t exactly something anyone wants to take, but rather it’s merely required for the programs they want, so I try to design it humbly to not be too much of a stumbling block while still achieving curricular goals.
The other good news is that, in general, none of the interactions types I had them assess are being considered “harmful.” I had them rate the reading quizzes, the weekly exercises, and the weekly emails I send out on a scale from “very helpful” to “very harmful,” and in general all of the weekly tasks are ranking somewhere in “somewhat helpful”. That’s fine by me.
But what’s interesting to me is the contrast between how they ranked video lectures and what my YouTube views are saying. I use YouTube to host my video lectures because it’s easily embedded and has good captioning options. My YouTube views suggest about 1/3 of students are using the videos, at most. However, my survey data so far has no students at all marking the video lectures as unhelpful or harmful in any way. I can see a few different explanations for this.
One possibility is that the students who are using the video lectures are also the ones who complete their weekly tasks earlier in the week, so the survey responses so far are also the students viewing the lectures. I have about 1/3 of survey responses and I know about 1/3 of students are using the video option, so that’s possible.
It’s equally likely that the 1/3 of students who have responded are the ones who are active, engaged, and doing ok, so it may be premature to draw any real conclusions here, since so far it’s effectively self-selected data.
Another possibility is that it’s not consistently the same 1/3 of students viewing the video lectures and, in fact, I’m finding that most students use them at some point, even if they don’t use them all the time, resulting in a different 1/3 of students using them each week. This seems less likely to me, as students seem likely to get into a routine in a course, but it’s still quite possible. I have nearly 100 students total, so variation will happen.
A final possibility, which I take very seriously, is that they are saying what they think I want to hear, at least to some degree, either because they know that I’m going to see the data or because they aren’t really reflecting on their own learning processes enough yet to be critical.
That final possibility seems very likely because I used a Canvas quiz to generate the survey; that means that they’re interacting with it the same way that they’re interacting with their graded reading quizzes, which, despite being open-book and generous in retakes, are nevertheless assignments that reflect in their final grade in some way. I’m not sure that the students are aware that the responses, for this survey, are anonymous, because the interface doesn’t reinforce the anonymity, despite the anonymity being stressed in the instructions (no one reads instructions, and we have to design with that awareness).
In retrospect, I should have used a different platform for the survey. Canvas quizzes have an anonymous survey option, but it kind of sucks, and a different platform would have seemed safer to the students, since it wouldn’t be directly attached to Canvas where they do all their assessed work.
However, my take-away is that at least some of my policies seem to be having their intended effect. The students are stressed, but I think they’re going to be ok overall, and I’m reasonably assured that I’m not a major contributing factor to their stress.
I’m preparing a lesson on reflection for my students right now, which has me of course reflecting on learning itself.
There is, of course, Bloom’s taxonomy and its variations, which work very well and have bee the foundations of a lot of good pedagogy, and I won’t try to mess with a good thing in that regard.
But I find myself having trouble remembering it because it’s actually a pretty complex topic and I like frameworks that come in threes. A while ago, while discussing with a student the design of the curriculum, I provided the student a three-part hierarchy of learning that is sort of a synthesis of what I’ve learned about learning and pedagogy from various sources.
The three parts to this learning process are:
Recognizing can be characterized as anything from “I have seen this before; this is familiar” to “I can name this thing and associated things.” If we imagine, for instance, teaching someone how to paint with watercolors (my ready example because I’ve watched my mother teach this so often), the recognizing is the stage where the student learns to name the tools they will use: round brushes, flat brushes, canvas versus paper, paint, palette, clean water, rinse water, etc.
Recognizing also includes being able to tell the difference between a watercolor painting and other kinds of painting. (This recognition process is also what happens when I take my mom to an art museum: she scours the museum counting the ratio of watercolor to oil paintings and grumbling about how watercolor is a very fine art indeed and there’s a good deal too much focus on oil painting in the art world. It’s really a hoot).
Recognition, of course, never stops. But it’s definitely the first thing necessary to learn. This is where the student builds up the necessary categories, vocabulary, patterns, etc to be able to make meaning in the other steps. It’s foundational. You can’t learn to do or use what you can’t recognize as even existing.
Doing, then, is characterized when the learner says “I have not only seen this before, but I can imitate it.” This requires recognizing the processes involved, but also then being able to implement them. There are a lot of things I can look at and say “I know how that was done” but cannot imitate (I know, for instance, how knitting works, and can knit some stitches, but I cannot produce a sweater because I’m only at the recognizing level of learning for all but the most basic knitting skills). Doing builds directly on recognition. It’s translating the recognition into action.
Our painting student, having learned her brushes and other tools and having learned to recognize the difference between a wet-on-wet wash and a wet-on-dry stroke now practices making washes. She can reliably make a wash that fills a delineated space. She can make creative variations on her washes by changing colors. She can do this.
But what our painting student can’t do yet is understand exactly what happened when something goes wrong for her. She can’t analyze a problem and respond to it yet. She also can’t really teach someone else how to do a wash yet either, because she is still processing the concept in the doing. Nor can she fully explain to someone how a wash is different from other techniques she might do, and she probably can’t innovate beyond a few expected variables in the process.
But as she gets better at washes, and solves through some problems when something doesn’t work right, she will reach the analyzing stage.
Analyzing is characterized when the learner says “I know this, I can do this, and I can talk about what I’m doing. I can solve problems in this domain as well.” At this stage, the skill is fully learned (although of course it can always be improved), and the learner is able to solve problems, apply the skill in new situations, and teach others.
Our painting student at this stage knows how to fix her wash without assistance when something goes wrong. She can plan new painting ideas rather than relying on her instructor to suggest uses for the wash technique. She can look at her classmate who is lagging behind and offer assistance, because she’s able to not only do the skill, but explain it clearly in her own words as she does it.
We all have varying skills at each level of learning. I can recognize when something is wrong with my car by the way it sounds or smells or looks, but I can’t fix it, and I can’t explain it, so I’m at the first level with the mechanics of my car.
I can spin wool in a variety of ways, but I lack the ability to fully explain what I’m doing when I do it, because my level of knowledge of spinning is fairly stuck at the doing phase and has not entered the analyzing phase. Part of what is lacking is some of the recognition foundation, actually; because I started doing so young, I missed some of the vocabulary necessary to move forward with this skill. But even with that vocabulary, I would need to solve more problems with the skill to truly analyze other people’s spinning and be able to apply my doing knowledge into analysis.
Writing, however, I’m very much in the analysis phase. I can not only identify writing when I see it (that is, I can read), as well as do writing, I can also analyze my own and other people’s writing to solve problems, generate patterns, etc.
So, apparently September is “Suicide Awareness Month.”
Let me just start by saying This Sucks. Seriously. I hate it.
All those blithe “You have so much to live for, I’m always listening, here’s the suicide hotline” shareable posts. If you share one of those, I immediately mark you as “not safe.” Yes, you.
I attempted suicide in 6th grade. I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing, for sure, until I was in therapy in grad school. Why? Well, because no one talks about “I don’t care if I live or die as a result of this action” as a kind of suicidal ideation, but apparently it is. I was chopping a carrot and my hand slipped and I made a small quarter-inch cut between two veins on my wrist, just barely missing both of them. My brother expressed worry about how close it was to the veins and told me people can die by slicing open veins. Shortly after, I started sharpening my pencil to a needle point by coloring on my paper in class at a specific angle, and then scraping at the vein on the back of my hand. I wanted to know if I really could die by cutting open a vein, I was angry at school in particular, and thought “If it works, that’ll show them how awful school is.” I had the wrong vein, of course, so it never would have worked, and let me tell you that it is a helluva looooong way to cut open a vein, so I never finished the experiment. And that’s what I saw it as: an experiment. I thought it had to be something more, I don’t know, dramatic to count as an actual suicide attempt. But, after describing it to mental health professionals when I sought treatment for debilitating depression in grad school, I came out with a shiny label for it: suicide attempt.
I’ve been depressed and had passive suicidal ideations as long as I can remember. In 4th or so I declared that, if I could have a genie-style wish, I wanted to die every way possible just to know what it felt like. I got really despondent when I realized that even if I had infinite lives, I could never do it, because humans are always coming up with new ways to die. I cheered up when I realized that there’s really only two ways to die: stop the heart or stop the brain, and one always leads to the other, so I’ll get my wish someday.
My point is, I’m always aware of suicide. And I’m honestly not afraid to talk about it with basically anyone who wants to. I don’t need a stupid “awareness month” and I’m not sure anyone else like me does either.
I’ve been through a lot of therapy in the last ten years, since I started grad school. I’ve learned to manage my symptoms. I’ve tried medications. I’ve got an emergency plan when things get bad. I’ve had a few relapses into old self-harm behaviors, but for the most part I’m managing without medication right now and focusing on reclaiming my agency rather than the endless spiral of medical appointments that managing mental illness can easily become.
But, things got suddenly a LOT worse when September started. I was already struggling a bit with school having restarted and, well, you know, 2020. But when those cute slacktivism sharables started popping up, replete with all those lovely myths about how suicide works that even I believed as a kid, it got a lot worse.
Not because it made me want to hurt myself. I mean, sure, I involuntarily think “I wanna die” probably 20 times a day, but honestly at this point it’s just background noise for me, like noise from an air conditioner; annoying, sometimes worse, sometimes you just need a break from it, but mostly it’s just there.
No, September has made things so much worse for me because it’s put me back in all those other places I’ve encountered suicide and all the cultural baggage it comes with, both imposed and internalized. And that has filled me with rage, a kind of rage I hate carrying around, like carrying around a backpack filled with molten lead.
For instance, it puts me back in 11th grade, when a student at my school died by suicide. I didn’t know him, but as soon as I heard, I understood. I would have done anything to get out of that school too. When the principal, who was usually a paragon of diplomacy, mentioned it in the morning announcements, he blamed the entire student body for this boy’s death. He told us straight up “You haven’t done what I tell you to do. You haven’t taken care of yourselves, each other, and this place.” And I knew he was right. Suicide isn’t an individual problem in many cases; it’s a socio-economic problem.
But that’s not even the moment that this “suicide awareness” month has put me back into. No, it was later that day, when I walked into my AP US History class, and as soon as I was through the door, I saw my desk: it was plastered with notes, the artifacts of public mourning. My desk was, evidently, the same assigned seat where the boy had sat in a different period. “You don’t have to sit there,” my teacher said kindly, suddenly seeing my dilemma as I paused at the door. “We’ll find you somewhere else.”
“No,” I said firmly. “It’s my desk. I want to.”
To the horror of my classmates, I sat at the desk. I spent that entire period reading all the notes that my fellow students had written to him, memorializing him. It was all “We love you!” “We miss you,” “You were so wonderful,” etc.
And I seethed. The question echoing in my head was constantly “Did you ever tell him that when he was alive? Or are you just trying to make yourself feel better now?
Like I said, I didn’t know him. I don’t know what his life was life at all. My only connection to him was that desk. But I was imagining how much he must have suffered, how unloved and unwelcome he must have felt. And how much it didn’t match at all what was being said on the desk. How my entire desk was slathered in lies to make the people writing them feel better about themselves. And how that was the real problem.
And all these posts, all this blithe sharing of hotlines and acting like it can be solved with just a simple sharable image on social media, it’s taken me back there. Flashbacks. Filled once again with that rage, that sheer anger at how it seems easier to mourn publicly than offer real support.
It takes me back to a year later, when I was on a school trip with a friend, and we went to the bathroom together (buddy system!), and as she was washing her hands, I saw the marks on her arm. I grabbed her wrist and told her we needed to talk. The first thing she said to me was “Don’t tell me I have so much to live for.”
Same, friend. “I won’t,” I answered, knowing full well that’s the last thing that would persuade people like us to take care of ourselves. Knowing full well that we didn’t, really. “I’m going to tell you that the world wants us to die, and it’ll do anything to make sure we do so by our own hands. And the only way we can win is by refusing to give it what it wants.”
You think you’re fighting suicide by having a month of sharable images with a phone number on it. I’m fighting it every day, and I really don’t need the friendly fire.
It’s a bit of a cliche right now, due to the pandemic, that we have to “relearn” how to do things that were normal. But it’s also, like many cliches, not wrong.
And as teachers struggle to find a mode of instruction that meets ever-changing guidelines and protects themselves and their students but still preserves what they valued in traditional instructional modes, we’re all getting very creative. After all, humans are relentlessly creative in the face of adversity, really. This isn’t a bad thing; education was due for a shaking-up, and these creative solutions might help us rethink fundamentals and radically reform education.
It’s stressful on the teacher end because it’s scary to try new things and difficult to problem solve so many different variables at the same time. However, I think it’s worth considering the effect all this innovation is having on the students themselves, because while the teachers are able to innovate and get creative, the students often have little or no say over the modes of instruction they experience, because one thing the coronavirus hasn’t made us rethink completely, apparently, is power relationships in the classroom. If anything, Zoom class sessions (where the instructor is the “host” and has the ability to literally mute everyone) and face-to-face social distancing measures that put instructors behind a shield with a microphone, rather than being able to float around the room, actually make the power difference more pronounced and more autocratic.
But I’m not here to talk about power in the classroom (today). I’m here to talk about the cumulative effect of all these changes on students as students. To do that, I want to talk about course genres, for lack of a better word, which are sort of the opposite of classroom genres.
Classroom genres are well defined and understood. They’re all the different rhetorical actions and artifacts we generate in classrooms: syllabi, lectures, student essays, midterm and final exams, essay questions, multiple choice questions, etc. These are easily recognizable.
Course genres, as I’ll call it until I have a better term for it, are the different modes of instruction as they tend to cluster together into recognizable forms. This is the pairing of the lecture led by a professor with the lab session led by a TA; this is the small discussion class with 15-30 students; this is the studio course; this is the seminar; etc. We have names for all these things and know pretty much what it looks like across institutions and subjects.
The thing is, students know how to student. Or, at least, they did up until very recently. They understand both classroom genres in the class and course genres that govern the entire course structure, for the most part. They can’t necessarily name them, but as they move through the system they do learn to identify and classify them on sight. This is partly why teaching college freshmen is so different from teaching upperclassmen. Teaching freshmen means also teaching course genres (and discrete classroom genres, as needed); upperclassmen already recognize the course genres (and most of the classroom genres), so you get to focus more on content and refining.
That is, when we teach a subject in a classroom, we also teach what a classroom is, how it should be interacted with, and what to expect with other classrooms. We teach our course genre alongside everything else we are consciously teaching.
What’s happening to students right now is that they have, in many cases, a completely new and different course genre for each course. If a student has 4 classes in a semester, they might have previously split it between lecture/lab and discussion. Maybe an asynchronous online.
Now, that student probably has syncronous online, hyflex, asynchronous online, and socially distanced discussion or lecture.
One of the reasons that reading academic papers gets easier with time is that we learn the genre of the academic paper, so we can focus on the novel content rather than the form as well. This happens with every genre: interact with it enough, and it just gets easier with each iteration. Someone who has never played an RPG has a much steeper learning curve when encountering a new RPG than someone who has played a dozen RPGs, because the experienced RPG player knows the basic conventions of the genre, so they can focus on what’s new and special about this RPG.
Similarly, an experienced student can focus on the content of the course because they can recognize right away from the syllabus, size, location, and physical arrangement of the classroom space which mode of instruction is happening and how to best interact with the course. They aren’t having to learn how to be a student at the same time as mastering the content.
In this regard, freshmen might actually have an advantage, because they were going to have to learn new course genres anyway, but it’s only a slight advantage, because college students have over a decade of experience being students that helps them master college course genres. Now, freshmen and upperclassmen alike are having to learn new course genres, which come with new classroom genres, as well as new course material.
This is, frankly, exhausting. Learning is hard work, as we well know.
In short, your students are tired for a good reason. They have little say in these new course genres, so they’re suffering from a lack of agency (which makes learning harder) as well as having to master new ideas of what being a student entails. They’re rising to the occasion, by most accounts, and that’s to their credit, because what they’re being asked to do is hard. They must not only learn the content you are teaching, but also the entirety of what it means to be a student in your teaching mode.
As you interact with students and plan your course, please be mindful that they’re not only learning what you think you’re teaching, but also how to student all over again.
I want to tell this story because, while I’m not a specialist in disability studies of any kind, I’m a disabled person, and following the work of those specialists has lately really helped me understand my own stories.
I’m hard of hearing. My sister has exactly the same hearing loss. Our charts are almost identical. It’s congenital; we never lost our hearing at all. We were born this way. But we didn’t always understand that.
My sister is seven years older than I am, and, like many children, she had ear infections when she was very little. The hearing loss was discovered after an ear infection, so it was assumed to have been permanent damage from that. No big deal, it happens all the time, and it’s a very minor hearing loss, correctable with hearing aids. Speech therapy may or may not be needed (it was not).
I never had a childhood ear infection. My hearing loss was discovered when my mother noticed that she could do things with my brother that she couldn’t do with me, and those were the same things she also couldn’t do with my sister. The big thing was that she could speak to my brother through a closed door and he would understand; we would not. So she had me checked out. The doctors were immediately intrigued when they noticed that my chart looked exactly like my sister’s, but I’d never had the infection; their initial assumption must have been wrong. But there’s no family history, so it was even more confusing. I got a lot of tests done with doctors literally saying “It should be interesting” as their main justification.
But still, no big deal. Same as before, correctable with hearing aids. I’d already started speaking at the time, so they didn’t really raise the possibility of speech therapy; I was clearly doing ok without it. I was initially a little scared the kids at school might say something mean, but they didn’t. We were in kindergarten, and they’d never seen hearing aids before, so they asked me if they were earrings, and I explained and, in the way kids do, they said “cool” and moved on.
At some point, I don’t remember what year, but it had to be within two years, we read a book in class called A Button In Her Ear. It was about a girl who needed a hearing aid in one ear, which seemed odd to me, but I understand is actually quite normal. It was one of those books you give a kid to learn about people who are Not Like Them and encourage them to see diversity; all in all, not a bad thing.
The book described in great detail how she had to wear a box that strapped to her body, which had an earbud-like speaker on a wire that went into her ear. It talked about how she adjusted at school with this hearing aid of hers.
This was a book I was supposed to see myself in. But I didn’t. Her hearing aid didn’t look anything like mine. It was entirely unrecognizable to the beige things tucked behind my ears. There was no way that my classmates would look at the girl in the book and see me, or the other way around.
I was rather annoyed, but not really offended. I would have been bothered, and maybe have even said something to the teacher about it, if I hadn’t already been safely grounded in my own disability history. But as it was, I already understood what I was seeing, and that the problem was simply that the teacher’s sources were out of date.
You see, we spent a lot of time around Walter Reed hospital when I was a kid (yes, that Walter Reed). My brother was born with complicated health needs, and of course my sister and I needed regular audiologist checkups too. It’s some of my most vivid childhood memories. Next to the hospital, there was a medical museum, and every time we went to the hospital, I’d beg mom to take us there as a treat; often she would. Both at the museum, and in displays in the hospital itself, I was able to understand my family’s unique medical situations in terms of broader medical history.
At that museum, I was confronted with all kinds of medical history and curiosities. There was a trichobezoar (hairball) taken from a 7-year-old girl’s stomach after she sucked on her hair too much (I immediately quit sucking on my hair; probably a good move). There were organs and other anatomical displays. There were assistive devices from every period of history.
And it was in that museum that I could ask my mother important questions about my own body, about my brother’s conditions, and about life in general. I remember a conversation in that museum about where dreams and nightmares come from, for instance. It made all the medical things make more sense, and it made them less scary. I could see how much better it was now than it might have been just twenty years before.
And not only was there that museum, but in the waiting room for the audiologist, among the austerity of a military hospital, there was a display case in the same style as the museum. It held hearing assistive devices through time. It had ear trumpets and horns. It had my own behind-the-ear hearing aids and the half-shell and full-shell in-the-ear hearing aids that I recognized from the audiologist’s pamphlets and posters. And it held that black box and button on a wire from the book.
And each was was fixed with a neat plaque explaining what it was, how it was used, and when it was used. I can’t remember, but it may have even mentioned key inventors. At any rate, it was a very well curated exhibit; it fit the space and kept me fascinated while I waited for my appointments, and in the process I learned about my own social context.
And it prepared me for That Book. By the time we read that book in class, I’d practically memorized that little case of hearing assistance devices. I knew exactly which one in the case they were demonstrating in that picture book. I knew exactly what time period that book represented. That book belonged to the 1970s, when my parents were just meeting each other, not to the 90s where I lived. I knew that what that book showed was maybe the lived experience of hard of hearing people who were adults now, the adults who were my parents’ age and older, but I also knew it did not, and never would, represent my experience as a hard of hearing person.
I didn’t complain to the teachers, although I’m sure I mentioned to my friends how the book wasn’t at all what it’s like to have a hearing aid in the present. At some level I knew we were reading it to be taught diversity, but I understood it better as a history lesson.
No, I was much more bothered by the pamphlets at the audiologist, and the directions that were sent home with my hearing aids. They were slick, full color marketing style pamphlets by the hearing aid brand (I believe that one was Siemens; I’ve had a few brands by now). And every single one of them featured gray-haired elderly people listening to grandchildren or going to church. Nowhere in the pamphlets could I ever find a face that looked like mine, in any sense. Nowhere in the pamphlets could I ever find any mention of congenital hearing losses; it was all implying that this was a new thing to the hearing aid user, and that it would somehow restore something that was lost.
No, I wasn’t angry at the book or my teacher for being outdated, because I’d been given the historical tools to contextualize what I saw. I think without a solid grounding in my disability’s history, provided by those well-curated exhibits and ample time to browse them waiting for appointments, I would have been bothered. I would have felt erased. But, as it was, at least the book tried to acknowledge that people like me, who have their hearing losses from day zero, exist. It was in the face of the pamphlets I was given to understand my own assistive devices, which I understood as the very finest technology the military’s medical insurance could provide, that truly I couldn’t find myself at all. And I thought at the time what a lost opportunity it was, because I thought of all those ads on TV trying to assure elderly people that there’s no shame in having a hearing loss. What if the hearing aid companies had fronted a smiling seven-year-old like myself as the hearing aid user? Wouldn’t that have addressed the “hearing loss = getting old” stigma and offered kids like myself representation at the same time?
But the frustration at the rhetorical failures of hearing aid marketing is a discussion for another day. As it is for this story, I want to say that I’m very thankful to that medical museum, and especially to that little display case in the audiologist’s waiting room. It taught me my own history. It helped me know what was right.
At the beginning of the semester, it’s routine for me to receive several letters from our office of disability services requesting accommodations for students. These letters are form letters where they just drop in a list of accommodations from a fairly standard list of options, such as time and a half on exams and quizzes, or flexible attendance, or access to outlines or slides for lectures. It’s a decent system because it doesn’t force students to ask directly or to disclose their disabilities if they don’t want to, and I read each one carefully.
My favorite feeling is when I read these letters and I can smugly think to myself “That’s already built into my course design.” Because I’m consciously trying to make inclusive, accessible designs in my policies, it always feels like a confirmation that I’m doing something right, and in teaching, those confirmations are few and far between. It also means less labor for myself and the students who need the accommodations, because I don’t have to remember which students get the accommodations and they don’t have to arrange for them for every instance. Accessible design is really a win-win like that.
This semester I’m getting the same letters, of course. And I’m experiencing the same smug satisfaction when I see most of them are either irrelevant to my course or already built in. But, of course, because this semester I’m teaching asynchronously online (something I’ve generally only done over the summer before, with fewer sections), the places it’s built in are different, and the items that get checked off as “already did it” are a little different too.
For instance, flexible attendance? Not really an issue in an asynchronous course. It was an issue for in-person classes, because I also had to accommodate a program-wide attendance standard. That was one of the ones that I didn’t already have built in, but now it is.
Extra time on exams and quizzes? That was a minor issue in in-person classes, although I seldom used in-class exams; it did mean making sure the students had safe places to take the exam if they needed the accommodations, either by arranging it through the disability office (for uninterrupted time) or having them take their work to my office to finish up (depending on the students’ preference, of course). But in an asynchronous class, it’s a pretty easy accommodation to make happen, if it even needs to be accommodated at all. Canvas, my institution’s LMS, allows me to assign time limits to specific students to override the class-wide time limit. However, that’s not a feature I’m worried about, because my dedication to flexibility and not using surveillance strategies in my class this semester means that my reading quizzes aren’t timed to start with and students can retake them.
Access to transcripts, notes, slides, or a note-taker for lectures? Already granted by the design of the course because that’s literally the design of the course. That’s basically their main point of contact for the course content. And, since I make sure all my videos have either captions or transcripts (or both), it’s doubly baked into the course.
There are, of course, some things that are more difficult to accommodate for in asynchronous coursework. Some disabilities might do better with face-to-face office hours, for instance, where they can better read body language or where I can look over their shoulder while they do an exercise and help them through it and provide them a space to work in my office. But overall, I’m finding that it’s a net gain for accessible design.
So, what are some things to think about while you work on your asynchronous course for accessible design?
Provide text options that are screen-reader friendly; make sure images have alt-text or are marked as decorative if they are, and offer transcriptions of images that include text (such as memes or PDFs)
Caption and/or transcribe videos. This works easier if you write the script first rather than improvise videos, because writing scripts takes less time than transcribing improvised audio
Offer multiple points of entry; this can be allowing students to watch a video or read a webpage, or it might simply be making sure that your content is equally accessible on a mobile device as it is on a monitor.
If you have accessibility checker tools, as Canvas offers, use them often to check for things you might not notice because of your specific abilities. You might also download the student-version of the app for your LMS and occasionally look at your content from there to make sure it looks right.
Consider your use of color. Color has a lot of different ways it can interact with disabilities from the obvious case of color-blindness making it difficult to distinguish certain common color pairs (green-red is the most common, but blue-yellow or red-blue are also common) to the less obvious case of certain learning disabilities making bright, loud color schemes distracting or overwhelming. Here’s a helpful thread of design tips for visual design.
Here is a useful set of guidelines addressing specific needs that can help you with inclusive, accessible design:
Remember that inclusive design benefits everyone. It’s not extra labor; it’s just want it takes to do things right. And if you do inclusive design right, you save yourself the labor elsewhere when you will inevitably get requests to make something more accessible. I’d rather design it right from the ground up and make my course accessible to a than have to remember which five students out of a hundred need specific accommodations.