Outreach By Design

Disability and Writing Centers, Higher Education, Outreach, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Uncategorized, UW-Madison Writing Center Alumni Voices / Monday, September 22nd, 2014
Rachel Herzl-Betz
Author photo. Image taken by Jennifer Brindley.

By Rachel Herzl-Betz

Rachel Herzl-Betz is the T.A. Coordinator of Outreach for the Writing Center at UW-Madison, where she has been a tutor since 2012. She is also a PhD candidate in Literary Studies, with a focus on Victorian Literature, Disability Studies, and Rhetoric.

This August, when I began my work as the Outreach Coordinator for the Writing Center, I found myself fascinated with an unexpected challenge. Every year, tutors from our Writing Center have the pleasure of giving presentations and creating collaborative writing lessons for more than 150 classes, student groups, workshops, and events across campus. As the new coordinator for these efforts, I assumed that I would be caught up with new genres of writing and discovering new campus buildings. Instead, I found myself wondering at the wobbly line between creation and adaptation.

The Outreach program at UW-Madison has accumulated years of learned experience. Now, when a tutor visits a large lecture class to provide a brief presentation on Writing Center services, there’s no need to create an entirely new presentation. At the same time, the Outreach program places a premium on tailoring materials for every outreach event. In order to ensure that level of originality and care, tutors meet with faculty members, instructors, and organizers, and we collaborate on lessons that are interactive and engaging. Caring for the outreach program means valuing both tutors’ time and the quality of instruction, which, in practice, means a constant negotiation between originality and adaptation.

In addition to my work at the Writing Center, I also study disability, and I noticed that my own approach to outreach adaptation sometimes came uncomfortably close to a concept in architecture and disability studies known as the retrofit. To “retrofit” is to add something to a pre-existing product to address a perceived problem or need. It represents a retroactive change meant to make an existing object fit a new situation.

The image shows a typed sign on a construction site directing  traffic towards an ADA compliant route.
The image shows a typed sign on a construction site directing traffic towards an ADA compliant route.
The image shows a metal ramp kit retrofitted to public building entrance. The model shown is marketed by portawalk.com.

The original product in question may be a building or a lesson plan. Adaptations intended to make a given space fit the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), can usually be described a retrofit. A building could be retrofitted with a new ramp, like the one seen below. In the case of the lesson plan, retrofitting might mean the addition of new activities to make the lesson more accessible to students with variable physical and mental abilities.


What’s Wrong With Ramps?

The problem with the retrofit model of  accessibility is that it is, by definition, reactive and it frames difference as a problem to be solved.  It imagines a kind of “normal” building or lesson that only needs to be adjusted when “not-so-normal” folks come along and need to get in. Moreover, retrofit logic requires that someone first be excluded from a space or experience before the process of change can begin. If no one complains about the stairs, for example, then the ramp never gets built.

In outreach, we are constantly pushing against a kind of retrofit logic both in our collaborating instructors and in ourselves. It can be seductive to think that there is a kind of perfectly planned lesson on a given topic that could seamlessly transition from class to class with only superficial changes. When we receive a request for a one-hour presentation on “good writing,” it’s hard not to wish that there was a  “normal” way of teaching a writing skill, so that presenters could simply walk into a given class and present the basics to a class full of eager, “normal” students.

However, the diversity of the classrooms we work with is, obviously, not a distraction to be dealt with or a problem to be solved. The diversity of experience and writing needs in the University makes up the core of the outreach program and, in fact, of the Writing Center as a whole. We exist to serve that diversity and I would argue that it is impossible for us to achieve our greatest pedagogical effectiveness—either as individuals or as institutions—with the normative ideal lingering in our daily practice. In other words, our dedication to the diverse students and contexts that we serve cannot exist as more than lip service if we plan lessons with only the theoretical norm in mind.

Designing for Diversity

The question then becomes one of practice. How can we keep that diversity front and center, without ignoring the ways in which previous experience informs each upcoming lesson? In recent years, scholars in Composition and Rhetoric and Disability Studies, have focused on Universal Design (UD) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as two means of placing that diversity at the forefront of Writing Center practice. UD is a spatial theory, first articulated by Ron Mace in 1988, which pushes for the physical accessibility of spaces (see principles in image below). UDL represents an extension of the principles of UD, first developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in 1994. Where UD focuses on accessible space, UDL focuses on equitable and flexible forms of education.

The principles for Universal Design as developed by a team of researchers at North Carolina State University.

As Jay Dolmage notes in a response to his own earlier chapter on UD and the retrofit, there is something that sounds a little off in the “universal” of Universal Design. It can end up sounding like “a kind of rocketship or an alternative to the science of evolution” (“From Retrofit to Universal Design” 7). It also isn’t ideal in practice. UD’s very utopianism can serve to cover over the very structural inequalities it was designed to subvert. However, I agree with Dolmage’s earlier argument that the greatest strength of the model is the concept of “design” (“Inviting Disability in the Front Door” 7). The verb suggests that a serious consideration of future use needs to be at the heart of current creation. Universal Design  “offers us a way to locate ourselves not in response to changing, hostile geographies, but as proactive architects of future possibilities” (“Inviting Disability in the Front Door” 7). Rather than creating an inert product that must be fixed for the needs of individual classes and students, UD focuses the original design on multiple ever-changing audiences.

Since UD and UDL have already offered such a productive framework for Writing Centers to consider accessibility in our spaces and in our lesson, I want to encourage the readers of this blog to think about the ways that it could—and perhaps must—be integrated more fully into our work outside of the center. While composition scholars are rapidly accumulating an exciting collection of UD research, much of that work has—necessarily—been focused on the classroom or on the the kind of one-on-one interactions that are the bread and butter of most writing centers.

However, outreach presentations, whether they are for nine graduate students or 150 undergraduates, are often the first, or only, way that students will interact with the Writing Center. They also exist in a unique pedagogical position between the classroom and the Writing Center appointment. For that ten to sixty minutes, that tutor embodies the Writing Center, so how can we ensure that the “design” that informs the Writing Center also informs outreach pedagogical practice?

Practical Design

Since considering an entire aspect of the Writing Center can feel too general, let’s think about an example: teaching resumes. On September 17th, the UW-Madison Writing Center taught resume skills in at least three different ways.

  1. Two Outreach tutors co-led a workshop on resumes with the Economics Masters Student Association to prepare their students for a career fair on September 23rd. The tutors, Neil Simpkins and Ramon Vasquez, collaborated with their coordinator, Claudia Pereira da Conceicao, as well as with academic advisors and career coordinators from the economics department.
  2. The Writing Center led a workshop on resumes and cover letters for 25 students. The students represented a mix of graduate and undergraduate students, as well as more than ten majors.
  3. Tutors in the Writing Center met one-on-one with undergraduate student writers interested in turning their existing resumes into CVs for applications to graduate programs.

While these three student interactions with the Writing Center may share a common subject, they differ in almost every other possible manner. How, I wonder, can a thoughtful consideration of UD bring these seemingly separate worlds closer together? Can attention to flexibility in the workshop planning process open up the range of pedagogical strategies available in each of the three contexts? How could a focus on “design” highlight the diverse student capacities already present in each individual lesson?

Resources on Retrofitting and Universal Design:

Screencapture of "Modality in Motion"
Image shows the “Mode” section of “Modality in Motion”

8 Replies to “Outreach By Design”

  1. What a sharp and incredibly thought-provoking post, Rachel. Thanks especially for the resources/reading suggestions.

    As perhaps such writing should, your UD-flavored push to “focus… design on multiple ever-changing audiences” has sparked for me not answers but lots of new questions. For instance, I’m now wondering: What are some strategies that Outreach and other Writing Center instructors could use to learn about these ever-changing audiences when, often, logistics limit their familiarity with students and the classroom situation prior to the outreach? How could we apply and integrate this knowledge? How (and when) can we take better advantage of teaching technology and multi-modality to increase accessibility? What can principles of UD tell us about not only how to accommodate students but also our own instructors’ learning and working needs?

    There are rich conversations to be had about the interactions that Writing Center instructors have with students, of course, but one other difficult question this raises for me is: in thinking about designing for diversity, to what extent can Writing Center staff engage in conversations with university faculty about these issues? I know that the Outreach team’s work is never limited merely to in-the-moment teaching; what is most energizing, exciting, and important are the collaborations with other teachers and administrators. I know that Elisabeth Miller and Brad Hughes, in their Writing Across the Curriculum work with faculty and TAs across campus, often engage in conversations about assignment design and assessment. Given your reflections on the Writing Center and UD, would you suggest that these kinds of conversations become more frequent, more fully integrated into Outreach work?

    Leigh Elion
    PhD Candidate in Rhetoric & Composition
    (Once and Future) UW-Madison Writing Center Instructor

  2. I love Leigh’s questions because I think they get at the heart of a lot of anxiety about teaching and student populations (and also because it is the question that really motivated a lot of my own research on classrooms–how can we “come to know” our students in ways that are productive for us?). One of the things that I think Rachel emphasizes is that balance between building on what has been successful in the past and engaging with new audiences to understand how those materials fit (or don’t fit) those audiences. That’s the message that I hear at the heart of Jay Dolmage’s work on universal design. He has this great piece in a collection called Rhetorically Rethinking Usability in which he talks about how he did a small study at Miami U of Ohio where he worked w/ teachers who were trying to “universally design” their classes–and only when he did focus groups with the students in those classes at the end of the semester did he really pinpoint something important about the importance of fully involving students in those conversations. Now, I understand Leigh’s question as one of scale (if you have 500 students, or 100 outreach meetings, or whatever) then this individual customization or responsivity may feel more daunting. But I think the point is not that one needs to perfectly design or anticipate all possible permutations or needs or factors but rather that one needs to have those channels open somehow–and how those channels are opened will vary in different contexts. (maybe that feels too vague and nebulous). I’m really thinking about the different contexts for outreach and the ways that *all* of those audiences and populations would have something to teach us about resumes, about CVs, about rhetorical delivery, about engagement, etc.

  3. This is a truly fascinating weaving together of accessibility theory/best practice and writing center outreach design–two fields of study that I would have never thought to put in conversation with each other, prior to reading this post.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Rachel! When I was coordinating Outreach, I constantly experienced the tension between the efficiency of adapting existing materials — thereby allowing our team to work with more classes and organizations over the course of a semester — and the importance of providing custom instruction tailored to the specific course/audience/assignment. I love your idea of tapping into Universal Design to negotiate this tension, and I’m so curious what that might look like in practice. For instance, as you know, the Outreach manual contains a document outlining some of the different “genres” or types of Outreaches and describing some of the sequences of activities that often work well in those broadly-defined situations. A document like that is more flexible than, say, an existing PowerPoint presentation or lesson plan that must be “retrofitted” for a new course. Could this kind of training material be the starting point for an Outreach practice that more closely adheres to the principles of UD? Or would a more radically different approach be called for?

  5. Leigh and Mattie, Thank you so much for raising questions about how UD might practically work in the context of outreach, particularly since you both have so much experience with this kind of work. When I was going through drafts of the original post and thinking about what these ideas might look like “in the wild,” so to speak, I often found myself close to Stephanie’s description of “open channels,” meaning that the real difference could take place when we first start designing a new presentation with a relatively specific topic.

    For myself, I often get caught up in the minutia of the exact classroom context: How many people will be there? What are the exact specifications of the assignment? How long do they have until this version is due? All of that is important, but I think that this little shift could force me to take a step back at some point in the process and think about the ways that this same lesson might be used months and even years down the line. How, for example, might it be used for a completely different sort of class or workshop covering similar topics, and then, how might I build that kind of flexibility into the original lesson.

    To answer your question Mattie, I don’t think this would require a total paradigm shift, but it could encourage the kind of smaller shifts in how we think about the process that matter in the long run. Does that make sense?

    Susan, thank you for saying so! I’m glad to hear that the combination worked for you. Perhaps UD and outreach are the chicken and waffles of Writing Center pedagogy.

    Stephanie, thank you for recommending Jay’s piece! I will be sure to check that out. I would really like to know more about how that effort, on the teacher’s part, translates for the students in the midst of the “redesign.”

  6. One of the many insights that jumped out at me in this post by Rachel was the fact that retrofit buildings and retrofit writing assignment seem to take disabled persons into account only as an afterthought, which should certainly not be happening when so many disabled persons use the university space. It certainly seems that we are making progress in this regard through the project of universal design/ practical design, which hopefully will become a the default method of design for both physical spaces and writing assignments rather than something new and still unusual. I am curious to see if this is the method of design that is being currently employed at the various construction sites throughout the campus.

  7. Rachel,

    Thanks so much for a thought provoking post! As someone who has been around the WC for quite some time, but who is new to the Outreach team, these are important points to keep in mind. From your response to Leigh and Mattie above, it seems like thinking in terms of UD could be like thinking in terms of “take aways,” something I emphasized a lot when training people for email instruction. If this is the case, then this is a great pedagogical angle for us to take all the time, because it fits with our mission to help students become better writers, not just to help them write a better paper this time. Having a take away message about writing in general helps students see how they can apply what they learned during a particular session to their writing in the future.

    This may be somewhat off base because I’m so new to the Outreach game, but could this shift happen through a recategorization of materials so that they are classified via take away messages rather than through course content? I’m not quite as familiar with current organization practices as you and Mattie are, but I wonder if a focus shift, even just in the way we structure our archive, to take aways could help urge instructors more towards thinking in terms of UD. I know that, as I continue my outreach work, I’ll be keeping UD and take aways in mind.

  8. Thanks for this post, Rachel. I think of UD a lot in terms of my classroom teaching, but haven’t actually thought about it very much in relationship to my writing center work (either as a tutor or in other contexts). It’s engaging to read about the ways you’re thinking of UD as a part of all different kinds of presentations. I guess in my tutoring I feel like I’m often running through a “trial and error” set of teachign tactics, looking for something that’s a fit for the particular student who’s sitting in front of me. Your post makes me think about the other ways I could think about presenting multiple options or strategies to students right up front, rather than running through them in a way that might imply a hierarchy or make some students feel marginalized or “atypical.”

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