During a truly brilliant teaching workshop today through CIRTL@UIC, I realized that an introduction to my pedagogy could be a valuable blog post, especially as I grow as an educator and enter the academic job market. I’ve received feedback from faculty that hearing me describe my fledgling pedagogy has given them vocabulary for ideas that are already implementing in their classrooms and even profoundly moved them (humblebrag). I want to share what little I know with current and future educators in the hopes that more people will have the capacity to create classroom spaces safe and inclusive to disabled students, even as we know that education as an institution is inherently and intentionally ableist. (In response to this point, I am reminded that we must simultaneously radically reimagine academia and the education system and make changes within academia that allow for more disabled students and scholars to join our fight.)
If you know me, you know that my work is focused on higher education and transition. I teach some high school students, mostly about how to navigate college, and many undergraduate students. However, I believe that much of my pedagogy could be adapted to educate students of all ages. Likewise, my focus is on disabled students, and especially autistic and neurodivergent students, but these suggestions can benefit students from other backgrounds as well.
I started thinking critically and concretely about my pedagogy last year as a Digital Pedagogy Lab Fellow. DPL 2021 was such an amazing experience that I immediately registered for DPL 2022, and I look forward to more insightful, collaborative work to sharpen our pedagogical lenses. As an introduction, we had to choose six words that described our pedagogy; mine were: disability/justice, epistemology, embodiment, community, care. Several months later, I was part of a teaching statement workshop for graduate students where we used generative knowledge interviewing to identify our pedagogies. GKI is a process wherein others ask questions and summarize your responses to indicate your values, in this case values related to teaching. My group members described my pedagogy as centered on recognizing the wholeness of every student, as well as invoking action and activism, building futures, and driven by my own passion for disability justice and disabled epistemologies. Both exercises were useful, though unsurprising, in understanding what I value as an educator. With these values in mind, I would like to offer some teaching strategies that have worked well for me and my students, strategies which go beyond universal design principles you may already know.
- Start by trusting students. Our students are whole people with whole, complicated lives. Trust that they are prioritizing the class appropriately and do not demand their excuses or explanations. This should be obvious, but there are still horror stories about professors requiring proof of hospitalization or the death of a loved one. When a student discloses that they are struggling with external (to school) challenges, we can and should respond with kindness and when they do not disclose, we can reach out with general well wishes and ask how we can help them succeed in the course. Some students may need or want more accountability from their instructor. Trust them also to ask for that support when they begin to trust you. If you are an instructor that students trust to care, they will be more willing to get necessary support. And students talk! If you are a caring instructor, students will tell their friends, tell their classmates, and maybe tell RateMyProfessor.com (Is that still something students do?).
- Default to high expectations, high support for every student. This is advice I usually give to counter the low expectations instructors place upon students who disclose their disability status, but it should be true for every student. High expectations means we intend to challenge this student and expect them to succeed and grow through these challenges. High support means we offer the most help we can offer (within our capacity). This may look like reviewing drafts of assignments and offering feedback, talking through new concepts multiple times, or sending frequent reminders at the beginning of (and maybe throughout) the semester. As we learn who our students are and what they need, we can adjust the level of support we are providing to them. Some students may need more or less support than others and that’s okay! Some students may need more support at different times in the semester and that’s okay!
- Grades are an (un)necessary evil. Our institutions and departments probably require us to submit some kind of grade for each student, and may even ask us to “prove” that students obtained that grade (so you cannot give all As and invest in actual learning, unfortunately). Join the educators calling for ungrading, and in the meantime, try subtractive grading and generously interpreting rubrics. Other people have explained subtractive grading better than I can, but simply, imagine every student as starting with full points and subtract points for missing or inaccurate content. (This is easier with some subjects and assessments than others.) Do not compare students’ assignments against one another! And generously interpreting rubrics means taking time to look for evidence that the student is learning and demonstrating knowledge, even when it is subtle. In online discussion boards for the class I TA, we ask students to respond to a classmate and “include a question or connection.” I’ve learned to look for what students interpret as a connection, rather than what I think a connection should always, rigidly be. (Giving clear and explicit instructions and expectations is also key!)
- Be flexible! Collective access (one of the ten principles of disability justice from Sins Invalid) is all about exploring and experimenting with what circumstances will allow everyone to participate equitably, and requires flexibility to make changes when something we did not anticipate occurs. Building flexibility into your course is one of the best gifts you can give your self and your students. Maybe you allow students to drop an assignment or two (or five) in the week of their choosing. Maybe you have a clear and generous extension or late work policy. Maybe you decide to cancel a whole week of content and assessments when you and your students feel overwhelmed (by school and work, by the ongoing pandemic, by the state of the world, whatever).
- Finally, infuse action and activism into your course. How do your course and the assignments therein prepare students for life outside the academy? How can you use your course to make the world a better place? Some instructors assign writing letters to representatives about an issue related to course content or the students’ interests and values. Others assign a reflection on a community event focused on a specific topic. Getting students involved and allowing them to demonstrate what they already know and value is engaging and comes back to recognizing students as whole people.
These are early thoughts from a young educator who has been a disabled student for most of her life and cares deeply about increasing access to education and knowledge production. I am indebted to so many teachers, professors, and mentors in my life who have demonstrated how to be a compassionate educator. I would love to hear your thoughts in comments or via email at email@example.com.