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 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.
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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Dolmage, Jay. “From Retrofit to Universal Design, from Collapse to Occupation: Neo-Liberal Spaces of Disability.” Society of Disability Studies. Denver, CO. June 2012. Conference Presentation.
- Dolmage, Jay. “Inviting Disability in the Front Door.” Disability and the Teaching of Writing. Eds. Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Bruggemann. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 14-27.
- Hitt, Allison. “Access for All: The Role of Dis/Ability in Multiliteracy Centers.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal [Online], 9.2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 21 Sep. 2014.
- Essays by Stephanie Kerschbaum, Melanie Yergeau, Sushil Oswal, and others in “Modality in Motion,” a webtext which rethinkg and enacts the “ethics of accessibility” in composition studies.