Visual Rhetoric & Disability on Display

With a degree in Professional Writing and Editing, I have a fair amount of background knowledge of visual rhetoric. Within this week’s readings, I saw two distinct threads emerging within this focus of the visual: sensory images and perceptual images.

"Color Theory Quick Reference Poster" via

"Color Theory Quick Reference Poster" via Paper Leaf Design

[If you click on this image, it will link you to the Paper Leaf Design website, where you can see a larger image of the poster and also one that considers design factors like value, space, and size.]

In terms of sensory images, I’m referencing the readings about CSS and color theory and how images—specifically design and colors—impact how we react and respond to a particular text. The CSS Zen Garden website demonstrates how the exact same textual information can be represented differently through visual design, eliciting different emotions: calm, passion, energy, etc. Likewise, Chapman’s article on color theory demonstrates the different considerations of warm, cool, and neutral colors, and how different colors may work better in different contexts depending on both our purposes and our audiences. For example, if we design something that is meant to calm our viewers, we don’t want a page of reds and oranges. And although I think these sensory images are important to consider, I also think it’s important to consider that color is contextual—for example, I find red to be a warm, calming color. Also, in terms of visual design, technical considerations like typography, white space, tables, and alt-text are equally as important for making an accessible experience for diverse viewers. Even though I could geek out for a while on this content, I was really drawn to the readings that discussed perceptual images.

First, Anne Marie Seward Barry provides us with a technical (biological) understanding of perceptions and images. Seward argues that even when we think we are seeing the world for what it truly is, our brains and eyes consult with our other senses and memories to give us a final “image” of the world (15). That is, “perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves” (16). Now, this might not be news to anyone in this class, particularly since we read that chapter by Sousa long ago who explained how perceptual filtering occurs. However, Barry argues that even though we may know that there is no 1-to-1 connection between visual image and mental image, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that there is. This is because visual images are so direct, so holistic, that it’s easy to think that what we see is what there is. Barry emphasizes this when placing importance on perceptual image as something that shapes our identities and allows us to communicate with others (102). This importance, which I think is tied to the difficulty of convincing ourselves to believe something other than “seeing is believing,” is what drives the heart of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s argument, too.

“In the Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography,” Garland-Thomson writes, “The history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display, of being visually conspicuous while politically and socially erased” (56). This sense of display, of spectator/spectacle (56) is highlighted through photography:

Popular photography catapults disability into the public sphere as a highly mediated image shorn from interactions with actual people with disabilities. Photography’s immediacy, claim to truth, and wide circulation calcifies the interpretations of disability embedded in the images, at once shaping and registering the public perception of disability. (58)

The value we place on the image, circulated through photography, influences how we individually and collectively think or respond to images of disability. To look at this more closely, Garland-Thomson examines four visual rhetorics of disability: the wondrous, the sentimental, the exotic, and the realistic (58).

  • Wondrous: This genre focuses on physical differences in order to elicit amazement, awe, admiration, and—more recently—sentimentality for the “courageous overcomer” (61).
  • Sentimental: This genre also focuses on physical differences but in an attempt to elicit sympathy, charity, pity, or inspiration (63).
  • Exotic: This genre positions disabled figures as unfamiliar, distant, sensationalized, eroticized, or entertaining (65). And though I think we could all agree that exoticizing or fetishizing groups of people (re: Orientalism) is a problematic portrayal, this genre’s one redeeming quality is its goal to disrupt the “asexual, vulnerable, courageous image of disability that charity rhetoric has so firmly implanted” (66).
  • Realistic: This last genre attempts to regularize the disabled figure to diminish points of difference. Garland-Thomson writes that “realist disability photography is the rhetoric of equality,” (69) as it attempts to position images of disability as familiar and mundane. Understanding how images create or dispel disability as a system of exclusions and prejudices is a move toward the process of dismantling the institutional, attitudinal, legislative, economic, and architectural barriers that keep people with disabilities from full participation in society. 75

With these different visual rhetorics of disability, we gain a better sense of the power of the image. Though we end on realist disability photography, there is a long tradition of images of disability that seek to exacerbate difference. Going back to Barry, this photographic tradition has had plenty of time to influence collective cultural perceptions of disability. And as Garland-Thomson points out, sentimental images still circulate widely, particularly with connection to material consumption.

One video I kept thinking about during these readings is the “Closer to Home” video created and sponsored by Autism Speaks and the Ad Council. If you haven’t seen it, it’s truly a horrifying example of the power of visual image. In 30 seconds, they manage to create a visual that induces fear of autism, that it may “happen” to any one of us when we least expect it. As the man speaking continues to “morph” into an older version of himself, autism simultaneously becomes closer and closer to him. I think the message is disgusting, but it’s certainly a powerful example of visual rhetoric and how image can work to persuade people to think/act.

The readings also reminded me of my own experiences teaching visual rhetoric. I teach argument-based writing and when we talk about pathos, the emotional appeal, I always bring in ads. Organizations that I consistently use materials from are Operation Smile and Smile Train because the mail they send—images of children with cleft palates—creates an emotional, visual argument with a single glance. Often, there is the image of the child with a cleft palate crying, juxtaposed with a picture of a child who has been “fixed” by surgery and is now smiling. Here, we engage in the culture of staring Garland-Thomson talks about, but, if we decide to donate, we also participate in the capitalist culture of (literally) buying into sentimental images of disability. I don’t have an issue with these organizations, per se, but I do think it’s interesting how organizations use these images (devoid of individual, cultural, or temporal/spatial contexts) to rhetorically sell disability as something that we, as donators, can cure. The power of these images also speaks back to Garland-Thomson’s point about obsession: “As a culture, we are at once obsessed with an intensely conflicted about the disabled body” (57).

I’m thinking that the Garland-Thomson chapter would be perfect to share with my students: not only to disrupt their own understandings and media constructions of dis/ability, but also to open a discussion about the importance of visual images as a medium that constructs and distributes knowledge.



Barry, Anne Marie Seward. Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1997. Print.

Chapman, Cameron. “Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color.” Smashing Magazine. 28 Jan. 2010. Web.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Eds. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. NY: MLA, 2002. 56-75. Print.

Zen Garden: The Beauty of CSS Design. David Shea. 2012. Web.  


Mind Mapping: Visual Outlines & Word Clouds

Mind mapping is one of those things where I don’t recognize the term but I recognize it when I see it. I’ve never used any mind mapping software—Inspiration, XMind, MindMeister, FreeMind—but I have engaged with the general principles of mind mapping: mapping out ideas in a more creative, non-linear, and highly visual way. Essentially, mind mapping is a graphic organizer that allows us to visually assess our ideas: analyzing and understanding old ideas while inventing and generating new ones.

Mind mapping can be useful for a number of writing projects: from dissertation outlining to brainstorming ideas for a paper to project management. The articles I found seem to associate software like Inspiration to primary and secondary school settings, and I would be worried about asking college students to use “kid” software. However, mind mapping offers such great opportunities for writing students—visual learners, students who struggle to organize their main points or connect their thoughts, even students who just need to see their writing from a fresh perspective—that I think it’s worthwhile to find some options that may be more suitable for older audiences.

At first glance, seems like a pretty fast and easy way to create clean mind maps. You can create pretty complex maps just by using two controls: “Command  + Enter” and “Tab” to create parent and child bubbles. Also, you can physically rearrange bubbles, change the font sizes and colors, adjust the box colors, and draw connections to various boxes. If you want to save or share your mind map, you just create an account. I played around with it a little bit and created a mind map of what I thought were the main points from my reading response for this week: Outline

Visual representation of my last reading response via

Another fun resource is Worlde. I’ve seen lots of writing folk use applications like Worlde to create word clouds that indicate how frequently particular words appear in a text. This could be particularly useful for revision purposes. Once a student has written an essay or brief paper, they could import that paper into Worlde and visually see which ideas are most prominent. This visual representation allows us to see which words/concepts are privileged and which concepts may not be receiving as much attention is intended. In terms of sentence-level revision, a word cloud also allows students to see what words they depend on most (Wordle does have the option to remove common words like “the” and “a,” but it can highlight how frequently you use a word like “therefore”). The following word cloud is my last reading response, minus the references:

Word Cloud of Blog Post

Word cloud of last reading response via

The word cloud shows that I was emphasizing people and actions rather than (what I thought was) the major concepts from the readings: providing accessible and equitable environments. The word cloud becomes even more interesting when compared to the graphic: contrasting what I think my response is about vs. what it is actually about. Also, Taxgedo seems like a pretty snazzy word cloud generator, but it was a bit too glitzy for my purposes.

So what does this mean for teaching and for our students?

Mind mapping seems like a valuable tool for any stage of the writing process: getting students to think about brainstorming, unconventional forms of outlining, and revising. I love asking students to do reverse outlines because it’s an activity that gets gears turning about what is actually written, but it’s difficult to get students to look critically at their own work. If they use a graphic organizer that represents that work visually, students have a clearer picture of that work.

It seems like mind mapping could work for a variety of students. Visual learners could certainly benefit from something like this, as could students with pragmatic impairments who may struggle connecting thoughts and expressing ideas through clearly sentences. According to an article from ADDitude Magazine, mind mapping is useful as a generative and organizing tool for students with ADHD and LD. However, something this visual wouldn’t work for students who are blind or who have low vision. And though I didn’t discuss this, I was thinking of Prezi as a graphic organizer similar to mind mapping: It’s a zooming presentation that moves from point to point in non-linear, iterative processes based on spatial relationships. While this makes a presentation more interactive, if the images and points zip back and forth too quickly, students may lose attention and some may even feel negative physical side effects. I know I’ve sat through Prezi presentations that make me feel sick to my stomach!

Mind mapping wasn’t on my radar before, but I’m excited to show students alternative outlines and to potentially use one of these programs for a revision workshop. Also, I may have to check it out for some of my own papers—I’m always an advocate of outlining, and it may be nice to get a new perspective on outlining! Here are some resources I found that tell a little more about mind mapping:

Dunn, Jeff. “5 Innovative Mind-Mapping Tools for Education.” Edudemic. Edudemic. 11 March 2012. Web.

Fitzpatrick, Jason. “Create Polished Mind Maps at” Lifehacker. 16 March 2010. Web.

Hara, Billie. “Mindmapping Software Programs.” Profhacker: Teaching, Technology, and Productivity. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 16 Nov. 2009. Web.

Sandler, Michael. “How ADHD Students Use Mind Mapping Tools at School.” ADDitude. New Hope Media. Feb/March 2006. Web.

Collaborative Pedagogies

This week’s readings on higher ed focus on the way different collaborations can create richer pedagogies. These collaborations occur disciplinarily (Knoll), between students and instructors (Knoll and Harrison), among instructors (Bernacchio et al.), and between faculty members and other institutional organizations (Harrison).

In “Feminist Disability Studies Pedagogy,” Kristina Knoll pays particular attention to collaborative disciplinary work, focusing on how Disability Studies and Feminist Studies can inform each other, providing richer and more accessible pedagogies. Though she acknowledges the benefits of Universal Design, Knoll argues (from a feminist standpoint) for foregrounding individual experiences (122). That is, Knoll advocates a pedagogy that uses both accommodation and UD, arguing that both reproduce oppression and privilege when used on their own (124).

“Feminist disability studies theory and pedagogy urge us not only to take into account the many and varied bodily, mental, and psychological differences, but also to consider how race, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, and so on, can intersect with the disability experience” (Knoll 122).

Knoll also looks at the collaborations that occur between instructors and students when promoting a pedagogy that explores accessibility, ableism, sexism, and privilege. She practices what she calls “interdependency,” which demonstrates to students that not only are they dependent on the instructor, but the instructor is also dependent on the students in order to create a learning environment where everyone can succeed (129). Some examples of this are asking students to read materials aloud, placing students in control of particular activities, and asking students to work together to make the class accessible (such as having notetakers). Knoll writes that “when multiple individuals work together to make the environment accessible, it suddenly becomes significantly easier to meet all the various needs in the classroom, including the instructor’s needs” (129). Thus, collaboration not only becomes an integral part of the classroom, it is the driving force for creating an accessible learning environment for everyone involved. I definitely agree with this because if we try to employ UD practices yet don’t create a participatory learning environment, students still don’t have full access to the learning environment.

Bernacchio et al. move us toward the collaboration that occurs among instructors, reflecting on their Critical Friends Group processes in order to “model a learning community, develop habits of mind, and make graduate school accessible” (56). That is, in order to brainstorm ways to make their own classrooms more equitable, accessible, and flexible, these five faculty members met in a group to discuss their pedagogies through the combined theoretical lenses of Universal Design for Learning and McIntosh’s Interactive Phase Theory. Though this almost just sounded like a group of faculty members brainstorming in very structured settings, the major takeaway here for me is that these faculty members chose to collaborate outside of school to share and collect a “repertoire of instructional tools, strategies and practices that support equity and access” (65). This is an incredible testimony to the desire of instructors to go “above and beyond” traditional pedagogies and what sounds like a really useful collaboration.  I wonder if something with the same goals as the CFG could be adopted departmentally? My master’s program required a certain number of professional development hours each semester, and many of my peers participated in (less structured) collaborative groups where they discussed pedagogy successes, failures, and potentials to do more.

Lastly, Elizabeth Harrison looks at the collaborative efforts between faculty members and institutional organizations, such as Disability Service Offices, in order to better advocate for Universally Designed Instruction (UDI). To frame this collaboration, Harrison focuses on learner-centered education: “what the student is learning, how the student is learning, the conditions under which the student is learning, whether the student is retaining and applying the learning, and how current learning positions the student for future learning” (Weimer xvi qtd. in Harrison 153). This student-focused learning asks teachers to do more with teaching, which is where the collaboration comes in. UD requires Disability Service Professionals to engage in a collaborative relationship with instructors, consulting them in disability-related issues that allow instructors to better identify and dismantle learning barriers (154). Harrison provides a series of pretty great worksheets that instructors can use to 1) identify their goals, 2) determine their learning objectives, and 3) design assessment activities. By going through these processes, then, instructors can move toward UDI that “support[s] the learning of all their many, different learners” (162). I really enjoyed this worksheets because the framework provided is very rhetorical: It asks instructors to reflect on their goals and motivations, what they value in their pedagogies, and investigate the accessibility of their own classroom spaces and practices.

This set of readings really emphasized the importance of collaboration within a variety of contexts and with a number of different collaborators—all with the intention of creating accessible pedagogies that can better serve our students. The only thing I didn’t see in these readings was attention to the collaborative efforts among students themselves. That is, no one was really focusing on how students could collaborate with each other in order to support each other’s learning processes, though Knoll does mention it briefly in her discussion of “practicing interdependency” (129). In Comp/Rhet, collaborative pedagogies often focus on how students collaborate with each other: to brainstorm, draft, and revise together; to compose/create knowledge, and to supplement each others’ strengths and weaknesses. However, Davidson was fresh in my mind during these readings, and I heard her arguments for 21st-century collaborative pedagogies echoed (quietly) within these readings: “Where they perceive the shortcomings of the individual, I sense opportunity for collaboration” (3) …



Bernacchio, Charlie, Flynn Ross, Kimberley Robinson Washburn, Jean Whitney, and Diane R. Wood. “Faculty Collaboration to Improve Equity, Access, and Inclusion in Higher Education.” Equity and Excellence in Education 40.1 (2007): 56-66.

Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York: Viking, 2011. Print.

Harrison, Elizabeth G. “Working with Faculty toward Universally Designed Instruction: The Process of Dynamic Course Design.” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 19.2 (2006): 152-62.

Knoll, Kristina R. “Feminist Disability Studies Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher 19.1 (2008): 122-33.

Project 1: Students with AS in the FYC Classroom

First-year composition (FYC) is one of few required college classes, which means FYC serves a diverse student population. Students are expected to practice and improve their critical reading, thinking, and writing abilities within a 15-week semester, which, theoretically, prepares them for the remainder of their academic written work. Beyond this pressure, there are other factors that make FYC intensive: It is often one of the smallest classes that first-year students take, and it is a fairly intimate class—students choose personal topics, share their work with other students, and work collaboratively throughout the semester. In many ways, these are the strengths of FYC, but these factors can also be downfalls. Because of the highly social and intimate nature of FYC, combined with an increasing number of students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in postsecondary settings, it is important to brainstorm ways that students with AS can learn best within the FYC context.

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is an autism spectrum disorder that affects how individuals communicate and understand language, empathize with people and events, adjust to changes in environment and routine, and engage with body movements and behaviors (NICHCY, 2010). According to the Autism Society (2011), an AS diagnosis is often mild, and those affected frequently have “good language and cognitive skills.” Though students with AS may have good language skills, these skills are often filtered through social ability and how an individual is able to communicate in social situations. In a FYC classroom, for example, communication extends beyond written discourse, moving into arenas of both formal and informal oral communication (e.g. presentations, discussions, in-class activities, and peer review) that may prove difficult for students with AS. Because of its many characteristics, its relatively new disability status—it wasn’t formalized by the World Health Organization until 1992—and a general inattention to students with disabilities in higher ed, many instructors are unlikely to respond appropriately to AS: Does someone with AS need accommodations? What are the strengths and limitations of students’ learning and writing processes? Should changes be made to the curriculum or class environment?

In terms of college-level accommodations, the needs of students with AS vary widely. Adreon and Durocher (2007) argue that the majority of students with AS require the same types of accommodations as other students with LD, including preferred seating, note-takers, recorded lectures, opportunities to take exams in quieter settings, and extended time for exams (p. 276). In a qualitative study conducted by Smith (2007), he determines that many college accommodations for students with AS are not specific enough to meet their needs (p. 526). Adreon and Durocher (2007) agree, outlining some accommodations that may be more suitable to support the learning needs of students with AS, including course substitutions, permission to avoid collaborative activities, and flexibility in deadlines (p. 276). Because FYC is a mandatory course in many U.S. colleges, course substitution is not a viable option. And, as mentioned above, much of the work done in FYC classrooms—from in-class activities to larger class projects—is collaborative. By recognizing some of the more common characteristics of AS, we can construct pedagogies and classroom environments that support their learning needs.

It can be useful to understand a range of challenges and strengths that students with AS may share in order to gain a better understanding of our students’ needs. Students with AS are often challenged by nonverbal communications, such as gestures and body language, and following social conventions, which can make peer interactions difficult. According to Adreon and Durocher (2007), students with AS often have difficulties with “academic content, organization, time management, and study skills” (p. 274). And in terms of the classroom environment, students with AS tend to rely on sameness, which can lead to “inflexible behavior” when that environment is changed or when something within the curriculum is changed (Adreon and Durocher, 2007, p. 273). To address these challenges and better support learning, writing instructors should pay careful attention to scaffolding. For example, we can provide clearly outlined course schedules, set mini-deadlines within assignments to let students know how they can progress to complete a project, and practice different writing strategies in class.

Students with AS also have particular strengths that can be harnessed within a writing classroom. As Dillon (2007) observes, “Many students with AS are successful in college. They do not necessarily have intellectual or academic disabilities and may demonstrate exceptional abilities. In fact, preoccupation with specific interests has often led to gaining great expertise in a particular area” (p. 500). Here, Dillon transforms a “negative” into a “positive.” Many students with AS are interested in particular things to the extent that they may not engage with topics that lie outside their personal interests. However, this could be a useful trait in FYC because students always choose their own topics within assigned projects. So a student who is really interested in trains, for example, could write a personal narrative, a rhetorical analysis, and a research paper about different aspects of trains.

FYC revolves around rhetoric, and Bitzer’s (1968) conception of the rhetorical situation is always dependent on social context, audience, and individual constraints. No one skill is appropriate for every context; rather, particular skills have strength in particular contexts. It is useful to place students with AS within this context, too, and to think of strategies for developing pedagogies where they can learn best. For Smith (2007), students with AS learn best when schedules are clearly outlined, assignments and activities are explained, and students are given choices about what kind of peer involvement they will have (p. 517). For Madriaga (2010), this idea is articulated through the creation of “safe” spaces that allow students a release from auditory and visual overstimulation (p. 40). These authors suggest both structure and flexibility, which we can translate to the FYC classroom, particularly through multimodal pedagogies.

By promoting the use of different modes—textual, visual, and verbal—to present and create knowledge, multimodal pedagogies encourage students to learn in ways that are most valuable for them. Stein (2008) argues that multimodal pedagogies recognize students as “agentive, resourceful, and creative meaning-makers” (p. 122), which values the differences that students bring to the classroom. Within a multimodal FYC classroom, there are clear expectations and goals, detailed assignment prompts, and structured class activities that allow students to see the connections between activities and projects goals. However, there is also a lot of flexibility that can support different needs. For example, an activity like peer review initially seems like it could be a challenging activity for students with AS due to its intimate, social nature. However, peer review can be done in groups, in pairs, anonymously, through written or verbal discussion, in print or online. Students with AS can engage with the goals of FYC in structured yet flexible ways within a multimodal pedagogy that values difference and diversity, providing students with the options they need in order to learn best.

This video is a pretty cool example of a multimodal, collaborative project created by (British) children with Asperger Syndrome to educate others about AS. It provides a personal, more in-depth discussion of the characteristics, challenges, and strengths of having AS.



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

Bitzer, L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, (1)1. 1-14.

Dillon, M. R. (2007). Creating supports for college students with Asperger Syndrome through collaboration. College Student Journal, 41(2), 499-504.

Madriaga, M. (2010). ‘I avoid pubs and the student union like the plague’: Students with Asperger Syndrome and their negotiation of university spaces. Children’s Geographies, 8(1), 39-50.

National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. (2010). Autism spectrum disorders. Retrieved from

Smith, C. P. (2007). Support services for students with Asperger’s Syndrome in higher education. College Student Journal, 41(3), 515-531.

Stein, P. (2008). Multimodal pedagogies in diverse classrooms: Representation, rights, and resources. New York, NY: Routledge.

World Health Organization. (1992). International classification of diseases, ICD-10 (10th revision). Geneva, Switzerland: Author.

Unlearning a “One-Size-Fits-All” Educational Model

In Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, Cathy Davidson asks us to rethink our students’ abilities. She writes, “Where [neuroscientists] perceive the shortcomings of the individual, I sense opportunity for collaboration. If we see selectively but we don’t all select the same things to see, that also means we don’t all miss the same things” (2). There are many important threads within this book, but in terms of dis/ability, I think there are three themes worth exploring deeper: cultural values, pedagogical practices, and assessment.

First, we must unlearn our cultural values. The current 21st-century narrative blames technology for our inability to pay attention and for the “dumbing down” of students (10). Because of this narrative, Davidson argues that we are “more likely to label [students] with a disability when they can’t be categorized by our present system, but how we think about disability is actually a window onto how attention blindness keeps us tethered to a system that isn’t working” (10). This is where unlearning comes in.

Unlearning is a theme throughout the book, “required when the world or your circumstances in that world have changed so completely that your old habits now hold you back” (19). For me, unlearning is also required when our cultural narrative devalues certain abilities. This is why Davidson’s notion of “collaboration by difference” is so important. She writes, “Collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction” (100). Instead of devaluing students who lack particular abilities, collaboration by difference places students with different abilities together in settings where they work together on a project that requires all of their particular abilities. In order to enact this kind of participatory collaboration, though, we have to unlearn our pedagogical practices.

Davidson seeks to answer the question, “What if instead of telling [students] what they should know, we asked them?” (62). In the case of Duke’s iPod experiment, we see students in control of learning. Davidson describes the experiment as an investment in teaching: “one that didn’t require the student to always face forward, learn from on high, memorize what was already a given, or accept knowledge as something predetermined and passively absorbed” (69). For students, this meant new opportunities to learn information in ways that best benefitted them, providing them with technology that they could use to enhance and support their own learning—a nice reminder of the benefits of UDL and the multiple options it provides.

Davidson argues that a “one-size-fits-all model of standards” that is unbending to students’ particular needs is partially to blame for student failures (77). Perhaps this is why Manhattan’s Quest 2 Learn (Q2L) is so successful. Using gaming principles that engage students in games that require strategy, problem solving, and teamwork allows students to benefit from each other’s strengths. The same could be said for the success of the Voyager Academy. Here, each child is responsible for learning, for self-controlling and self-monitoring her learning processes. My favorite example of this participatory learning is the “disruptive” boy:

He’s been doing well today, but I learn he’s smart and energetic enough to turn the class upside down with his antics. He’s been learning, lately, how to tell for himself when he’s in a disruptive mood, and he has a deal going with Mr. Germain. If he feels like he cannot control himself, he’s allowed to just walk away and go work by himself at the computer. He doesn’t have to ask permission. All he needs to do is take himself out of the situation where he’ll be disruptive. It’s a public pact: Everyone knows it. 135

For me, this example provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on our values: What are the goals of teaching? Of learning? How do we set up our own classrooms to support and benefit all of our students? Davidson argues that all students can succeed in the 21st-century classroom as long as the curriculum moves away from standardization, focusing instead on the collaborative, intellectual work that occurs outside the classroom.

This brings me to the last point: assessment. It is clear within this book (and in her real-life endeavors) that Davidson is no supporter of standardized testing, and in “How We Measure,” she offers alternatives. First, she argues for a stop to end-of-grade exams, opting instead for tests that challenge the “complex, connected, and interactive skills” of the 21st century (125). Second, she argues that we need to imagine assessment in ways that will measure “practical, real-world skills” such as communicating with others, making sound judgments, and determining credibility (127-8). Instead of “dumbing down” students at the end of the year, Davidson suggests adding a “boss-level challenge” that would allow students to participate in decentered, challenging, and collaborative learning (131). All of these alternatives emphasize the importance of testing students not for how much they can memorize or regurgitate on a piece of paper. Instead, these alternatives push students to engage with the material, providing learning opportunities for students who are failed by standardized tests.

What I like best about Davidson’s approach to testing is her willingness to challenge what constitutes “failure.” She asks, “By what logic would failing a test in a language other than the one spoken in your home constitute a failure for you as well as for your teachers, your classmates, and your entire school?” (94), a question similar to our previous readings and discussions of assessment. If we have different tests, students with different abilities have more opportunities to perform in ways that more accurately measured their knowledge. By unlearning our 20th-century values of ability, pedagogy, and assessment, we provide all of our students with more genuine and fair opportunities to learn and demonstrate that learning in 21st-century contexts.

Incidentally, if y’all haven’t heard of the “badges” for lifelong learning that Davidson mentions, here’s a video that explains them. Badges are the brainchild of HASTAC, a cross-disciplinary organization that explores the collaborative uses of technology. When they announced the badges competition last Fall, people freaked out—not as much as it sounds like they did for Davidson’s “How to Crowdsource Grading” but there were definitely some people with some important and interesting things to say about these alternative grading measures, including Davidson.

Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York, NY: Viking, 2011.

The Role of “Fairness” in Accessible Assessment Practices

What struck me most about this week’s readings was the language used to describe universally designed assessment. Of course, Rose & Meyer make a very clear argument: “It is true that standardized tests can yield valuable information, especially if one is evaluating trends and information about groups, but as accurate assessments of individual students’ skills, knowledge, and learning, these assessment tools are severely flawed.” And while the other authors don’t seem to argue against accessible assessment practices, they are more cautious, making points about “reasonable accommodation” (Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone 165), an awareness of “high-tech cheating” (Salend 49), and “fairness.”

Fair Selection cartoon

"Fair Selection" & the Importance of UD Assessment

In “Accommodations and Universal Design: Supporting Access to Assessments in Higher Education,” Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone make an argument for applying principles of UD to assessment in order to minimize accommodations (thus reducing stigmas and barriers to learning). Before they make that argument, though, they have to lay down some rules.

  1. First, ADA only extends to “reasonable accommodations”—those for classroom practices or environments that “do not place an undue administrative burden or cost on the institution” (165). But what counts as reasonable? And why don’t all accommodations count as reasonable?
  2. Second, the student’s disability must “interfere with at least one major life activity” (165). Yet, even if the student has documentation, reasonable accommodations are not guaranteed. Students must first perform (in fairness, they say “demonstrate”) their disability.
  3. Third, there is an issue of fairness. Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone note that if students are incorrectly diagnosed, “the fairness of the system is jeopardized because of the inappropriate advantage that accommodations might provide” (165). If all students benefit from an accommodation, then the accommodation provides “an unfair advantage” to those students (165).

Now, Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone are simply the messengers of accommodation legalese, so I’m not faulting them, but these policies raise a number of questions: What are the implications for students and teachers? What does it mean that students must perform their disabilities in order to receive “reasonable” accommodations? Again, how and why is “reasonable” defined? What do these policies convey in terms of fairness?

My questions continued as I read Salend’s article, “Using Technology to Create and Administer Accessible Tests.” Here, Salend makes the argument for using technology to provide multiple ways for instructors to present test materials and for students to engage with and respond to the test material (41). Generally, I agree with Salend’s argument. I think technology can greatly impact the test-taking experience for all students—in fact, I would argue that digital projects can often stand in for traditional tests (but I’m coming from a non-standardized, non high-stakes perspective).

However, I was thrown off by Salend’s uncited claim of increased accounts of high-tech cheating, defined as “accessing unauthorized information such as notes, Web sites, e-mail, handheld devices, and cell phones” (49). There are two problems I see with this point. First of all, it’s fallacious—just because students have access to technology during tests does not necessitate that they will cheat. Second, if this is a persistent issue, why—instead of creating software and programs that monitor student cheating—aren’t instructors talking with their students about cheating? This comes up so often in writing classes when students plagiarize papers. They don’t take responsibility for plagiarizing because they are accustomed to their instructors taking responsibility by tracking their cheating (often by uploading their papers to Turn It In). Like any new “tool,” instructors should talk openly with students about the ethical uses of new technologies. Without having this discussion, is it “fair” for instructors to discredit technology-based assessment?

While reading these articles, I couldn’t help but think ahead to Cathy Davidson’s approach to assessment. Recently, she has written some great articles that have developed from her book, including “Badges: A Solution to Our Teacher Evaluation Disaster?” in The Washington Post and “Blogs vs. Term Papers” in The New York Times. Davidson sides with Rose & Meyer, claiming that traditional assessment practices are dated, inaccessible, and unfair. We will certainly see this argument developed more in a few weeks, but for now, I think it’s important to think about what constitutes “fair” assessment and remember Rose & Meyer’s final thoughts: “Assessments in our digital age should be dynamic and universally designed.”



Ketterlin-Geller, Leanne R., and Christopher Johnstone. “Accommodations and Universal Design: Supporting Access to Assessments in Higher Education.”  Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19.2 (2006): 163-171.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. “Chapter 7: Using UDL to Accurately Assess Student Progress.” Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 2002.

Salend, Spencer.  “Using Technology to Create and Administer Accessible Tests.” Teaching Exceptional Children 41.3 (2009): 40-51.

Technology Lab 3: Online Portfolios

Online surveys could serve some interesting roles in the composition classroom: they could be used to check homework progress or to administer informal, yet anonymous, “quizzes” to initiate discussions about assigned reading. They would be particularly valuable tools for giving students a voice in the classroom—allowing both me and their peers to see what everyone likes about the class, how they would like to see the class progress, what they would like to see changed, etc.

And while I think these are valuable functions, I’m not super attached to online surveys. Inspired by this article about using Google Sites for online portfolios, and recognizing that many comp. programs are portfolio-based, I decided to find out more information about online portfolios.

I’m pretty familiar with online portfolios. I’ve created them for my own professional purposes—which have involved building them in Adobe Dreamweaver. And I have used them to teach, but not often. I’ve had great results with Weebly because it’s easy to use, intuitive, and gives students a fair amount of design freedom without overwhelming them with too many options. I have also seen really great student portfolios made with WordPress and with Google Sites. All of these sites are also ideal places to host a class website—that way, students gain some experience using them (to locate assignments, readings, class policies) before they set up their own sites.

Online portfolios are really valuable in a writing classroom for a number of reasons:

  1. There is a (potentially) larger audience, which means students have more opportunities—and incentive—to spend time thinking about selection, visual rhetoric, and arrangement. This often means gaining a deeper understanding of the course goals—thinking critically, choosing words (and documents) carefully, considering the value of photos and videos, etc.
  2. Students gain practical experience composing and working with digital media, which is certainly valuable for entering the 21st-century workplace. If it’s a really nice portfolio, students could definitely link to it on a résumé.
  3. Online portfolios are often more engaging than print. There is more flexibility with what students can include and how they display that material. This flexibility could extend to providing instructors with a better sense of students’ learning and writing processes.
  4. They present a great opportunity to discuss web content accessibility standards and what factors students should consider when making their websites as accessible as possible.

There are certainly drawbacks to online portfolios, though, ranging from privacy to accessibility:

  1. There are material accessibility issues with using online portfolios. I rarely have access to a technology classroom, and not all of my students can bring laptops to class. If the group isn’t accustomed to the medium (or genre), it helps to be able to work on the portfolios together in a lab. I wouldn’t assign an online portfolio if everyone didn’t have the access to computers in class.
  2. There are privacy and legal issues that must be negotiated. Most websites allow you to choose whether or not your website can be found via search engines, and you can usually set your site to private, sharing the link with whomever needs to view it. 

    I didn’t know about the legal issues with using online portfolios before I went to a Google Sites presentation in my department at the beginning of the year. Students grades are not allowed to be posted outside institutionally-sanctioned spaces (e.g. Blackboard). This means you can’t share a student’s grade through email or through any other web site. Those rules would need to be clear so students knew not to post graded papers to showcase their learning/writing processes.

    Also, it’s important to talk to students about intellectual property, creative commons, fair use, etc. This becomes particularly prominent when students start including photos they find on the web (always use CC images!).

  3. And, keeping UD in mind, online portfolios cannot meet all students’ needs. An online portfolio cannot simply replace print as “better” for all students. No one would force a student with epilepsy triggered by staring at computer screens to create an online portfolio (I would hope). Some students, particularly tactile learners, may be more interested in creating a print portfolio that they can physically arrange. Low-vision or blind students could create online portfolios (assuming the class used an accessible web platform), but the student may prefer a portfolio option that wasn’t so dependent on visual design. And again, some students may not have the technological access to create a fully developed online portfolio.

Generally, I think online portfolios are a great option for a portfolio-based classroom. However, I hadn’t fully fleshed out some of their drawbacks, particularly in terms of privacy, IP, and disability. As with any assignment, an online portfolio should not be a 1:1 replacement of another, possibly more accessible, option that shares the same curricular goals.

These sites provided me with a greater understanding of the benefits, issues, and conversations surrounding online portfolios, both within composition and beyond:

“CCCC Position Statement: Principles and Practices in Electronic Portfolios.” CCCC: Conference on College Composition and Communication. National Council of Teachers of English. 19 Nov. 2007. Web.

“E-Portfolios.” EDUCAUSE: Learning Initiative. EDUCAUSE. 2012. Web.

Steele, Kristen. “What It Takes: Issues in Implementing Electronic Portfolios.” Independent Studies and Capstones. Paper 444. Program in Audiology and Communication Sciences, Washington University School of Medicine. 2009. Web.

  • This is actually a public capstone project for this student’s M.S. in Deaf Education, and she points to a lot of key questions that we should ask ourselves about the benefits and potential drawbacks to using online portfolios.