Friday, May 28, 2010

Accessible Course Hacks: A Brief Primer

This is a last-minute submission for Hacking the Academy.

Because "disability" is an extremely slippery category, it's not easy to state what percentage of students on any given campus have a disability, but various studies have estimated that between 3 and 11 percent of undergraduate students enter college with some kind of disability. If we're including physical, learning, and emotional disabilities—both those students are aware of and those they are in the process of developing or identifying—I suspect the number is much higher.

So I'm puzzled when faculty members—and there have been many—say to me, "In all my years of teaching, I've never had a disabled student in my classes."

After all, if you're teaching a class of 300 students—and my university has classes that enroll upward of 900, so I'm being conservative here—and 10 percent of them have some kind of disability, you're looking at 30 students who right off the bat might need some kind of accommodation but might not ask for help.

Accommodating students is usually really easy once they ask for help. After all, in order to comply with state or federal laws, most universities have administrative or student-services units that work with students with disabilities to determine for which accommodations they're eligible and ensure they get the needed assistance. Often, the only time faculty hear about students' disabilities is when they receive a note from the student disabilities center informing them that certain students qualify for additional time on an exam. Such accommodations are ridiculously simple to provide.

I've found that it's very easy to accommodate students in other ways as well; it's usually not any additional work, and is in fact a matter of being cognizant and thoughtful. Let me use blind or low-vision students as an example. I arrive at my first class already having posted an accessible version of the syllabus online, and I have both standard and large-print versions of my syllabus available. When I've taught low-vision students, I simply need to remember to e-mail any handouts to them in advance of the class so that they can pull them up on their laptops with screen readers or transfer it to their Braille PDAs. I also am careful to describe any images or video I'm sharing with the class.

When I accommodate students with disabilities, many other students benefit. Drawing again on my examples above, any student might appreciate having a digital version of the syllabus handy. And if I e-mail class handouts to the entire class instead of just those students who have been cleared for accommodations, more students arrive ready to discuss the topic at hand because the handouts I send help to frame their understanding of the material they've read or viewed or listened to. In the case of images I'm projecting onto a screen during class, I frequently have students describe images to one another because they all—sighted or not—find new layers to an image when they discuss it with their peers. In fact, sometimes I'll pass out an image to a group, and only one person in each group gets to look at it at first—they have to describe it to the other students in the group, and the other students ask questions about it, which tends to deepen their understanding of what's going on.

There are dozens, and probably hundreds, of ways we can accommodate students with a variety of physical and learning disabilities, but the most important thing, I think, is that we adhere to principles of the universal design for learning as we develop our courses. To borrow a phrase from the disability movement, we need to "build in" such accommodations instead of "bolting them on" after the fact. Yes, there are certain things—like the amount of extra time a student should receive on an exam—that are best determined, out of fairness to all students, by experts who have documented the student's disability, but there are plenty of things we can do to accommodate students without having to worry about establishing an accidental legal precedent.

It can seem overwhelming at first, I know, but really it's about being mindful—double-checking, for example, that the blog platform or course management system you're using is accessible to all users—rather than about opening yourself up to a ton of additional work. One small step I typically take is not only to include a statement on my syllabus saying that I'd like to hear from students with disabilities, but also emphasize my interest in teaching all students by highlighting this section of the syllabus on the first day of class. Since I began making a bigger deal out of my desire to accommodate students with disabilities in simple ways, I've had greater numbers of students approach me for assistance, and they've never asked for anything unreasonable. Many of them end up going to student disability services for the first time ever to document a learning disability they have suspected for some time. I've taken a good deal of satisfaction in helping students better understand how they themselves learn, as well as in presenting them with resources they might use to explore the complexity of their various identities, including their status as people with disabilities.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

More RBOC--and a PSA

. . .because that's all I have in me these days.
  • I am feeling remarkably well this evening because I cleaned out a good deal of the garage, AKA my secret shame. We had barely touched it since we moved into this house more than three years ago, and there were some hurriedly packed boxes left untouched at that time, so you might imagine the dreck I was pawing through. Most of it was paper and went into the recycling bin.
  • We're going to have an enormous yard sale. I hate holding yard sales, but the extra cash will be nice.
  • Lucas decided that, since we only have about 50 days left before we move, he should grab the empty boxes from the garage and start packing up his toys. Now if only Fang could catch some of that enthusiasm. . .
  • Fun fact: I have whooping cough. Ends up I've been contagious for at least a month. Sorry, coworkers--I thought it was merely bronchitis.
  • If you haven't had a booster vaccine for whooping cough, you might want to get one, as pertussis is resurging. And for the love of all that is holy (breathing, for example), be sure your kids' vaccinations are up to date.
  • I don't know how much longer it will be available to nonsubscribers, but my interview with the Sacramento Bee about the literature of Lost is available here on the Sac Bee site, and here as a PDF. My TV interview isn't online, but it was fun--and I managed to rope Fang into the fun as well, as he's much more articulate about Lost than I am. We got about equal screen time; Fang was a "local blogger" and I earned a promotion from the reporter--professor of cultural studies.
  • I'm giving a teaching talk tomorrow for the Faculty Mentoring Faculty Program at UC Davis. It's called "The Undisciplined Instructor: Lessons on Teaching from Perpetual Amateur." If I don't embarrass myself too terribly, I'll post a link to the video for anyone who is looking for a soporific.
Finally, on a more somber note, a PSA:

When you open your driver's side car door, please take a second to look over your shoulder to see if there's a bike coming up behind you. A good friend of mine from high school was killed last week when a driver opened her door right in front of him, which knocked him in front of, and under, a bus.

Additionally, if you drive on the right side of the road, look over your right shoulder before turning right. This is a little trick I've learned here in Davis, and it's averted many an accident, I assure you.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

RBOC: My Brain is Full edition

Long time, no blog.

I've been fighting off some kind of lung plague for three weeks now, and I haven't been feeling very bloggy. More nod-off-on-the-couch-and-watch-reruns-of-Bones-y. (Which, I might add: Why did no one ever tell me that the show is about a woman scientist working in a Smithsonian-like museum? Hello--that was my dissertation topic.) So instead of any semblance of sustained thought, I present a long-overdue random bullets of huh-huh-huh.

But first, a question: I'm supposed to give a talk about teaching next Friday, kind of a "last lecture" thing for a small audience of (usually senior) faculty. Typically speakers talk for 30 minutes and then take questions for 20. Number of times I've talked for 30 minutes straight in the past several years: 1. (Job talk. I'm chatty but not lecture-y.) This Faculty Mentoring Faculty Program presentation will be videotaped and made available online. What teaching topics would you want to hear about? Bonus points if you can describe the topic without using the words assessment, literacies, instructional technology, or student learning outcomes. Extra bonus points if you use the phrase rats off a sinking ship.

Now, the bullets:
  • I was interviewed last week by a reporter for the Sacramento Bee. He grilled me about the literature of the TV show Lost. I blame my friend Dr. Andy, who handed over my cell phone number to the university news service when the folks there were looking for someone to comment on the show. The reporter's sole follow-up question was on the symbolism of rabbits on the show. I think I last used the word "symbolism" in 1998. Where are the English and cultural studies faculty when you need them? (I'll post a link to the interview when it's available. They asked for a photo of me, which is unsettling, as I thought I'd be one source among many, not the entire horse and pony show.)
  • Tomorrow I'm talking to a TV reporter about Lost, but I'm not sure what about the show most interests him, other than that ZOMG the show is ending, how will fanfolk ever live without it? The reporter's first and last names are both those of nice East Coast colleges. If I were writing a short story about an English professor, I'd probably give him the same name.
  • Dr. Andy tells me I should write an article or book about Lost. My first thought: Ooh, shiny! I then reminded him I'm about to launch onto the tenure track in history. Put down the contemporary pop culture references, Leslie. . .
  • I remind myself that (ack!) I'm moving to Boise in less than two months and I have yet to sign a lease, line up movers, find a preschool, get health insurance, or do just about anything else. It's just a tad too early to do anything of these things because apparently everything in Idaho (except for sign-ups for the best preschools, whose deadlines have long since passed) happens at the last minute. "Show up with your stuff and then find a place," was how one property manager put it. "You can sign up on July 31st for health insurance on August 1st," enthused the insurance agent. Um, no. But if this is the case everywhere in the Gem State, I'm looking forward to my first trip to the DMV. (Though on a side note, I don't think any DMV could beat my trip to the Iowa City DMV. No lines, and they handed me new license plates within minutes.)
  • What have I done thus far? Ordered my textbooks for fall. I made a lovely matrix to evaluate potential textbooks for my U.S. history survey to 1877, filled in several cells with details after browsing a dozen or more textbooks online, came up with my own "gut check" scoring system. . .and then threw a mental dart that landed, conveniently, on the one desk copy I've received from a publisher. What can I say? I like paper. (Plus, the textbook's writing didn't make me cringe. I learned the writing in many (most?) of today's history textbooks kind of sucks.)
  • The department chair contacted me this week to let me know I don't need to teach one grad seminar and two lower-division courses in the spring. Instead I can teach one grad seminar and any upper-division course of my choosing, preferably one with a focus on gender. I'm thinking of tackling the capstone writing course for history majors. The class size is apparently pretty small, so I could give students' papers a good deal of individual attention. Your thoughts?
  • We've had nothing but bad luck with trees lately. Our landlord sent out some apparently tree-hating in-law of his to trim our trees. We now have no cherry saplings, a fig tree trunk that protrudes about seven feet from the ground where there used to be a glorious sweeping fig tree, and the shoulder-height remains of a few 15-foot-tall oleander bushes in the backyard.
  • Well, we thought, at least the neighbor's big, lovely, leafy cottonwood tree (my favorite species!) provides us with shade. I came home this afternoon to find the neighbors have completely removed the giant tree.
  • I'm glad we're moving in July. Summer in Davis with no shade = unbearable.
  • After months of working on it, I finished my first copyedit of Fang's 750-page novel. Yes, our next talk about it will be how to cut it by at least one-third. Can you say "trilogy"?
  • Sometimes it bothers me that Fang is a much more prolific writer than I am. He made the good choice as a writer not to sweat through an M.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D. in mumblety mumble like some people you might know.
  • Our puppy, Jacob, is getting big. He's about 45 pounds now--halfway to full grown. As puppies go, he's very manageable, despite his oafish size. Pictures soon, I promise.
What's on your mind?

Sunday, May 09, 2010

For Mother's Day

A letter to my mother

Dear Mom,

This week my therapist grew a bit exasperated with me. "I've never met anyone who is so protective of her mother!" she said.

Which made me giggle a bit. Because one of the words I've never really applied to my relationship with you is "protective." After all, parents are supposed to protect their children, right? Not the other way around, unless the parent is ill or otherwise needs assistance. And while I have certainly defended you on the rare occasions when someone misunderstands your actions or intentions, I can't say I've ever felt the urge or need to protect you.

For that, I owe you a debt of gratitude. Having such a strong, smart woman for a mother—one who chose such a kind, smart man to be my father—has allowed me to focus (selfishly, perhaps) on my own growth, my own goals.

At the same time, I wouldn't call you protective. You pushed me—usually implicitly, sometimes explicitly—to work very hard toward my dreams. You have always been the realist who anchors—without derailing—my idealism. For this, too, I'm grateful.

Although we haven't talked about it much, I imagine you're ambivalent about my impending move to Boise. On the one hand, I'm realizing a dream of mine—to teach public history—but on the other, I'm moving your only grandchild out of driving distance. I'm sorry about that. But I think you've known from the time I was a little girl that, despite my deep love for our family, I would be moving far from Long Beach. I'm deeply appreciative that a family that has lived on the same block for four generations has been so accepting of my perambulations, of my crafting a life outside the neighborhood. I know such acceptance has come at a cost—financial and emotional—which makes me all the more grateful.

Despite the fact that I've taken a different geographical path from others in our family, your influence on me has been immeasurable and invaluable. Your love of literature and of good books—you quoted Robert Burns and Geoffrey Chaucer at the dinner table—set me on a path deep into the humanities. Your passion for the natural world—we spent part of every summer in Yosemite and ventured into other landscapes around the American west—has led me to live in smaller, more sustainable cities surrounded by, or at least in proximity to, natural beauty, even when that beauty can be difficult to discern.

Maybe your greatest gift to me—beyond your fierce love—is discernment. You've taught me to see what matters and what doesn't. From you, directly and indirectly, I've come to value environmental causes, all manner of civil rights, and a broad spectrum of arts and culture. Even while you encouraged me to set high standards for myself in education and life, you taught me to be—as one mentor once labeled me—democratic to the bone.

Thanks for that.

I could go on, but my own little family here insists that they celebrate this Mother's Day with me, so I'm off to join them. I wanted to spend this time with you—even though we're more than 400 miles apart—to let you know how much you've influenced me, how much I appreciate your love, and how much I return it.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.