All students come to sessions with a variety of differences, and so what tutors do with a student with a disability should be no different from what they do with any other student.”—Kiedaisch & Dinitz, 2007, 50
In many ways, the space of the writing center is already universally designed. Writing centers have historically been known for engaging with alternative pedagogies; supporting students with different and multiple ways of learning and composing; and valuing students as valuable creators of knowledge. If the resources (e.g. funding) is available, writing centers also tend to be spaces that encourage flexible practices with multiple rooms, different furniture arrangements, and mobile furniture. Despite these great advancements in both practices and spaces, we often default to tutoring practices that are framed for students with particular abilities.
The above video is an example of a standard writing center session (Enter the center, sit down, read aloud, discuss). Who does this standard privilege? Who may be excluded from this space or these practices?
The standards for writing centers are F2F (face-to-face) interactions and the read-aloud model. That is, a student enters a writing center with a written text, meets one-on-one with a tutor, and reads their text aloud—stopping every once in a while to comment on particular points in the paper. These two standards assume a number of things about the bodies that enter a writing center. First, the F2F standard assumes that the best environment for students is in physical, face-to-face environments. Some students may have trouble physically getting to a writing center, and—like the students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) that I discussed in Project 1—some students may be uncomfortable with such close, intimate settings. Second, the read-aloud model privileges able-bodied students who hear, speak, can focus for 30- to 60-minute periods of time, and learn best through listening. Students who do not respond to these practices, then, are treated differently. With increasing numbers of students with documented (and undocumented) disabilities, we must recognize inaccessible tutoring practices and universally design new standards that are accessible to wider student populations.
How Can Universal Design Help?
In order to truly support students’ different bodily experiences and embodied writing practices, writing centers must be pedagogically accessible. Enter Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
UDL offers a way to apply the equitable and flexible spatial principles of Universal Design to writing pedagogies. According to CAST, UDL pushes against a “single, one-size-fits-all solution,” advocating instead for approaches that are flexible, multiple, and adjustable. The principles of UDL—multiple means of representation, multiple means of actions and expression, and multiple means of engagement—can help expand our perceptions of students’ learning and composing practices. These principles can also positively affect tutoring practices.
Tutoring Practices Get a UD Makeover
A major step in universally designing tutoring practices is moving away from the standard read-aloud model, which values print texts. Jody Shipka argues for a broader understanding of texts, expanding the definition to include print and digital texts, embodied performances, photographs, videos, physical objects, and repurposed or remediated objects (p. 300). This definition speaks to the multiplicity of UDL and allows for a richer understanding of pedagogical accessibility: if students want to compose essays, collages, videos, or webtexts, these all fit within multimodal pedagogies. Similarly, if students with disabilities are limited to particular modalities—e.g., a blind student who relies on auditory or sensory modes to write or a deaf student who relies more heavily on visual modes—universally designed practices can more easily adapt to these needs, incorporating rather than accommodating or retrofitting them.
Concept Map of a Writing Center Session. Suggestions for how to Universally Design Practices: “What are you working on?” vs. “What are you struggling with?”
Expanding our sense of texts allows for a more realistic representation of what students are working on when they come into a writing center. In the graphic above, I included one of the main questions tutors ask students: “What are you working on?” Most often, a student is working on a paper, which requires working at either a table or a computer. Reading aloud a paper is certainly an option, but outlining main ideas or just having a discussion about struggles and strengths can be just as useful. Sometimes, students need help with non-traditional texts, such as presentations, videos, or oral presentations, and the standard read-aloud does not work as well. For these particular projects, reading aloud doesn’t suffice.
Often, talking through a text could be more beneficial than reading it word for word. McKinney (2009) encourages talking—rather than reading—as a way to interact more holistically with all features of a multimodal text (p. 39). This practice is useful for texts that consist of more than just alphabetic text, but it could also benefit students with disabilities. For example, reading a paper aloud for errors may not be as effective when working with deaf students, students with ADHD, or students with pragmatic language impairment (PLI). Students with PLI may struggle with reading and expressing themselves, which can affect listening comprehension (Babcock, 2011 p. 7). By talking about a text, students have more opportunities to engage with the text in ways that reflect overall comprehension and understanding of their particular rhetorical choices.
This is a small but useful adaptation of the read-aloud model. Another way to begin universally designing tutoring practices is to add another question to the initial meeting between tutor and student: “What are you struggling with?” This is often a question that is asked, but it is generally for the tutor to consider while reading the paper. A more universally designed practice encourages tutors to ask students about their writing struggles in order to co-construct the student as a leader in the discussion. It also opens up opportunities for students to decide how they might address that struggle, helping to “provide options for recruiting interest” by optimizing “individual choice and autonomy” (CAST 2011). By determining what students are struggling with—starting the project, focusing, connecting ideas, grammar/spelling, seeing the “big picture,” etc.—both tutors and students can work together to better meet the students’ needs. I call this process developing a “multimodal toolkit.”
Developing a multimodal toolkit involves developing rhetorical strategies that push against fixed communicative interactions and present more opportunities for students. The idea is not to max out all sensory options but to provide flexibility. Konstant (1992) suggests being flexible and using multiple channels: “Try ways of reaching the student through more than one channel at a time. Use combinations of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic techniques—the multisensory approach. Say it and draw it; read text aloud; use color to illustrate things” (p. 7). Konstant (1992) takes an early cue from UDL when she argues that everyone has learning practices that work best for them (p. 6). Similarly, Dunn & Dunn De Mers promote using a “variety of visual, aural, spatial, and kinesthetic approaches to tap into the intellectual chaos that goes into writing.” This means pushing against singular notions of how to interact with both students and texts, and it requires a negotiation between tutor and student. In her work with deaf students, Babcock (2008) suggests explicit dialogue: “Most of all, try to find out what the deaf person needs and wants out of the session, and gear your tutoring toward that” (p. 35). Although most students have more nuanced understandings of their composing processes than we often realize, some students may need a bit more help. If students are unaware of what they want or need, knowing some multimodal practices can be useful.
Both multimodality and UDL ask us to acknowledge that all students have multiple ways of learning and knowing and to be flexible to those different needs. Dunn & Dunn De Mers (2002) suggest flexible practices such as multimodal reading logs, discussions, talking through a draft, and sketching-to-learn. The second graphic is meant to represent some of those multimodal options. For example, if a student is having trouble getting started with their project, the tutor can suggest looking at models of similar projects (e.g. assignment sheets and sample structures of similar genres), organizing the notes the student has on the topic, reading more sources, or writing a letter to a friend explaining the project’s importance. All of these provide ways different from simply reading aloud that can help generate ideas. Similarly, if a student is having difficulty focusing, the tutor can suggest writing in a new mode, setting small deadlines, working on two main goals within the tutoring session and outlining goals that the student can work on later, and getting up and moving around to get re-focused. All of these point to the guidelines outlined by CAST for multiple means of action and expression, providing learners with options for how they navigate particular learning environments.
Universally Designed Writing Center Practices for Students with AS
In project 1, I focused on accessible practices for students with AS because of the highly social and intimate nature of FYC, combined with an increasing number of students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in postsecondary settings. Like first-year composition (FYC), writing centers are expected to serve diverse student populations, and because of their focus on individualized instruction, they can also be highly social and intimate environments. It is useful to revisit some of the challenges and strengths that students with AS may share in order to gain a better sense of how more universally designed tutoring practices can meet their needs.
Common Challenges that Students with AS Face: How UD Tutoring Practices Can Begin to Address Them
As seen in the second graphic, students with AS are often challenged by nonverbal communications and following social conventions, which makes peer interactions difficult. Though not something I’ve discussed much with practices, space is a major issue of UD that can affect practices. If there are multiple rooms in a writing center, a tutor can suggest meeting in a quieter section. At the Syracuse University Writing Center (SUWC), there is a small room of cubicles at the center’s entrance that can be used for quieter sessions, which could benefit students with AS, students with ADHD who need help focusing, or any student who may prefer to be in less populated areas. Students also have the option to work in a large open room where there are multiple tables, chairs, and computer stations arranged for tutoring (the videos above show a visual representation of this space). Adreon & Durocher (2007) also list “academic content, organization, time management, and study skills” (p. 274) as issues that students with AS often struggle with. Some UD practices that may support these challenges are providing clearly outlined instructions, setting mini-deadlines within sessions, practicing different writing strategies, and using different modalities to talk about the text.
Also important to mention is the possibility of creating Online Writing Labs (OWLs) or Electronic Writing Centers (EWCs). Though this is not possible for all writing centers, creating online spaces where students can interact with tutors can be beneficial—not only for students with AS who may feel uncomfortable meeting F2F in one-to-one sessions, but for a number of students who may be unable to physically access the center or may just be more comfortable interacting online. The SUWC, for example, offers an EWC where students meet with a tutor through iChat or AIM to discuss a paper. The most important thing to remember with such a solution is its flexibility: students have the option to choose what they are most comfortable with.
As we continue to see advances in technologies, changes in educational practices, and increases in disability diagnoses, writing center practices must be more accessible to students of all abilities. Universally designing tutoring practices can make writing centers more accessible to the diverse student populations that they seek to serve. Providing students with the resources to communicate within different modes, to practice and learn new literacies, and to harness their rhetorical abilities should be the goal of all writing centers. When we adopt universally designed pedagogies that support these resources, we acknowledge two things. First, all students have different abilities and knowledges. Second, all students can benefit from engaging with texts in different ways—visually, aurally, and kinesthetically—and in different contexts. Applying the flexible principles of UDL can make writing centers more pedagogically accessible, allowing us to better prepare students to become effective twenty-first-century communicators.
And as Kiedaisch & Dinitz (2007) remind us, employing UD allows writing centers to model multiple, flexible, and pluralistic approaches to learning:
[W]e acquire a new avenue for rethinking and redesigning our writing centers so that they become places where considerations of identity are woven into the fabric of every session, places open to being changed by their constant and varied encounters with diversity, places that are not only examples of but also agents for instituting a pluralistic approach to education. (p. 57)
Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(5), 271-279.
Autism Society. Asperger’s Syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/aspergers-syndrome/
Babcock, R. D. (2011). When something is not quite right: Pragmatic Impairment and compensation in the college writing tutorial. The Writing Lab Newsletter 35(5-6), 6-10.
—. (2008). Tutoring deaf students in the writing center. In C. Lewiecki-Wilson and B. J. Brueggemann (Eds.), Disability and the teaching of writing: A critical sourcebook (28-39). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
CAST. (2011). The National Center of Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/
Dunn, P. A., & Dunn De Mers, K. (2002). Reversing notions of disability and accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in writing pedagogy and web space. Kairos (7)1. Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/7.1/binder2.html?coverweb/dunn_demers/index.html
Kiedaisch, J., & Dinitz, S. (2007). Changing notions of difference in the writing center: The possibilities of Universal Design. The Writing Center Journal 27(2), 39-59.
Konstant, S. B. (1992). Multi-sensory tutoring for multi-sensory learners. The Writing Lab Newsletter 16(9-10), 6-8.
McKinney, J. G. (2009). New media matters: Tutoring in the late age of print.” The Writing Center Journal 29(2), 28-51.
Shipka, J. (2005). A multimodal task-based framework for composing. College Composition and Communication 57(2), 277-306.