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Institutions for a Less Disabling Future: Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

In their pioneering work The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg argue that institutions of higher education sit at a tipping point brought about by the advent of web 2.0 technology.

Davidson and Goldberg explore implications for higher education of the new possibilities afforded by a range of social media and digital communication technologies, claiming, essentially, that universities must actively pursue the possibilities of digital connective technology and the values of “participatory learning,” even as it means confronting difficult challenges of integrating new styles of institution with old ones. Thanks to sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter (just to name a few immediately recognizable examples), we are now producing knowledge through perviously impossible processes of peer-to-peer, global collaboration, a knowledge-making environment that requires new definitions of literacy and learning.

Traditional institutions of higher education have been reluctant to embrace many innovations, however, often for deep seated structural reasons. For instance it is now possible to use virtual reality environments like Second Life to create large-scale collaborative learning institutions that could cross geographical and institutional borders. To allow for comparison of these seemingly incompatible conceptions of “learning institution” they posit a new model that applied to both material and virtual learning institutions: as mobilizing networks, systems sustain themselves over time and distribute resources to their participants based on agreed procedural practices.

Speaking about the range of institutional structures we employ to administer education to learners, Davidson and Goldberg argue that we must seek ways to make the flow of access to information, resources, and collaborative support more fluid and universally open. They ask,

If, at present, too many learning institutions post obstacles to the free flow of thinking, to collaborative knowledge formation, and to interactive learning almost as formidable as obstacles imposed by corporations and by governments, then how do we create free-flowing institutions? (15)

One answer the authors offer emerges as they examine the academic social networking community, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). As a test case, HASTAC offers unique possibilities for the future of learning institutions, but it also evidences the real difficulties involved in building and sustaining new mobilizing networks that would bring virtual and brick-and-mortar institutions together in the producing learning institutions fit for the digital age.

I believe Davidson and Goldberg’s notion of institutions as “mobilizing networks” has a number of compelling implications for disability scholars. Here I’m focusing particularly on the fifth chapter, “Institutions as Mobilizing Networks: (Or, ‘I Hate the Institution–But I love what it Did for Me’)”

It is in discussion what institutions are and how they work that the authors most specifically name disability as a relevant topic in the discussion of learning in the digital age (though race, class, and gender are mentioned quite frequently). On the one hand, the author’s initial framing of the “traditional institution” directly evokes the kind of brick-and-mortar institutions developed to house and “care for” the disabled, such as mental institutions and prisons (125). This is the model of an institution as building, as in a charity foundation or public service. Because they find this model of institution recalcitrant to digital innovation and the possibilities of participatory learning, they try to establish a definition that would support the development of new institutional arrangements demanded by the emerging field of digital learning.

By redefining institutions as “mobilizing networks,” the authors claim mobility as a dynamic capacity for change, open collaborative involvement, access to resources–a quality not evenly distributed across contemporary learning institutions. As the authors themselves put it, “institutions in and of themselves, are not intrinsically good or bad. Their utility is a function of what they enable or disable and make possible or restrict” (129).

As Davidson and Goldberg highlight the way institutions either provide access or obstacles to users, I can’t help thinking about the work of composition scholar Jay Dolmage, who has offered similar–though less digitally focused–definitions of institutions that exclude. In his essay “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door,” Dolmage also draws connections between traditional institutions of higher education and public institutions for the disabled (in Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook 2008). Dolmage observes that colleges and universities, because their institutional function involves subjecting students to challenges and judging their capacities as students, often justify practices that put high demands on students’ physical, mental, and social abilities. Dolmage employs an architectural metaphor of “steep steps” to explain this mentality–college is supposed to be a hard slog, and those who can’t make it don’t deserve to make it to the top.

Dolmage claims that before the rise of disability activism and the ADA requirements that disabled people have equal or comparable access to public institutions of higher learning, universities were designed only to serve the needs of able-bodied students and staff, and many of the “steep steps” that were justified by administrators and teachers actually disproportionally disadvantaged disabled people. Like Davidson and Goldberg, he advocates universities pursue new practices for designing and administering institutions of higher learning, ones that would remove discriminatory barriers to entrance and access by creating more adaptable, responsive, and participatory institutions.

While Dolmage is less focused on the role digital technology can play in fostering access, and Davidson and Goldberg focus less on the plight of disabled students as a particular vulnerable population, these authors clearly come together in the ways they picture the disabling effects of traditional, hierarchical, institutions of higher learning; they also share a goal of creating new institutions that would allow for improved access and inclusion for a diverse range of learners.

A second point of interest for me in their discussion of institutions as mobilizing networks is the way Davidson and Goldberg discuss the roles of specialized institutional sites within larger traditional learning institutions–sites like libraries, DH labs, and specialized institutes that serve to promote new digital methods within the larger, more conservative university system. They refer to these as “supporting sites of mobilization.”

They argue that Institutional sites like libraries, Digital Humanities labs, and digital literacy institutes function “catalysts for innovative uses of technology for pedagogy” for the university, providing access to and training in new technologies for scholarship and pedagogy while at the same time sharing information and facilitating collaboration with communities outside the institution’s physical walls. Institutional spaces like these, the author argue, serve as hubs of mobilizing energy for the university.

A quick example I’ll likely explore in a later post: I work as a communication fellow at The Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College. The institute provides training for faculty and students in a range of new media practices including course blogging, digital composing, digital assessment. It also provides an institutional link between the university and the corporate world through the annual symposium that brings faculty across a range of disciplines together with business professionals to forge important connections that support the interests of both Baruch and the industries the college’s students wish to enter. The institute also supports open practices in the products it develops, including the blogs@baruch platform and VOCAT, an open source application for giving instructor feedback on video projects. They draw resources from open participants and mobilize their resources throughout the broader global community.

My question: I wonder whether there’s a way to conceive of disability services offices as supporting sites of mobilization.

They certainly can be “catalysts for innovative uses of technology for pedagogy”: throughout my education, I have used these sites to access all kinds of assistive technologies: computer programs designed specifically to help students with learning disabilities (literacy support programs like Kurzweil 3000); books on tape (sometimes in conjunction with national foundations for the Blind and Dyslexic); and many technologies I’ve used somewhat off label for dyslexics, like speech-to-text composing software (Dragon Dictation). These resources tend to be prohibitively expensive for students, and mostly unknown to faculty and staff (outside of libraries). They mobilize digital literacy resources. I’ll address the problems with this idea in a moment.

DSOs might serve important mobilizing function within institutions of higher education in other ways, too. Clearly, in their charge to remove environmental and curricular impediments for students with disabilities, they foster mobility at colleges in literal ways: more people are able to move around campuses, access buildings, access course materials, and (ideally) access college degrees.

I wonder, though, about the important differences between DSOs and other digital literacy and access sponsors like libraries and DH institutes. Within DSOs, resources are distributed through a hierarchical process of administrative bureaucracy. Because their work with students raises all sorts of legal concerns about confidentiality and anti-discrimination legislation, DSOs must be exceptionally controlled in the way they facilitate mobilization of information, resources, and access. Some of their resources are open access (say, information about disability aimed at educating the local community, which is often hosted on DSO websites): these are for everyone, inside or outside of the university, and they often draw reference to disability culture and activism outside academic walls.

However, the majority of the resources available at DSOs are administered through confidential channels and provided only to a select few who have documented diagnoses of disabilities. Access to resources is almost invariably a top-down affair, where the administration sets the plan for accommodation according to legal prescription, and the faculty and student must both comply. DSOs don’t seem in a position to facilitate the kind of peer-to-peer collaborative learning networks Davidson and Goldberg advocate.

I want to close this post by speculating on a model from within the disabled community of mobilizing networks that may provide useful models for innovating the work of DSOs. Here I’m wandering into unclear terrain, where I will need to argue that one important function of these sites of mobilization Davidson and Goldberg describe to push cultural change and community building across social barriers of race, class, nation, and disability. I think here of the way she describes how community organizations like Sustainable South Bronx use participatory learning practices to promote social change and bring together a community.

I think also of the important role that online communities have played in bringing disabled people into active, collaborative community building. I can imagine particularly salient examples from the autistic or Asperger’s communities–the kinds of online sites of emerging “disability culture” Joseph Straus describes in his essay “Autism as Culture” (in Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed).  What productive analogies can be drawn between institutions of participatory learning in higher education contexts and these peer-to-peer digital networks that foster community building and group identity formation? How could similar peer-to-peer disability networking be productive in universities to sponsor new more empowering understandings of disabled identity? What part might DSOs play in facilitating this development?

I will take these questions with me as I continue my research. My next stop is Davidson’s Now You See It, which more directly addresses disability issues. Perhaps I will be able to think through these questions more there. Mark also suggested I track down any blog posts or articles she’s done on disability topics–which I’ll aim to do before she arrives for her job visit to CUNY this Friday. I look forward to talking with her in person about these and other ideas I have emerging for my experiences with her work.

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Ableism, Retrofits, and Impediments to Access in Academic Spaces: Yergeau et al., “Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces”

This webtext brings together the work of eight scholars exploring various perspectives on multimodality as it and its relationship to ideas of disability . Much of the content was derived from a 2011 Computers and Writing panel featuring these authors, and throughout the piece C&W readers are identified as the primary audience.

On the design of the webtext: I have little experience working with webtexts as a reader. This one is broken into multiple mini-sections listen under each author’s essay–though any section can be explored independently of the overall essay into which it falls. While these mini-sections can be read linearly by clicking “next page,” the texts themselves are rich with links to other sections of the webtext, encouraging the reader to jump from author to author (or to the glossary section, which is not part of the linear progression of the essays). Each mini section is accompanied by a banner image that is not directly linked to the textual content, though many of the images, in focusing on archetecture, stairs, signage, and technology, resonate with the discussions in the main text. All in-text images are captioned with full visual descriptions.

Upon entering the webtext, I am met by a spalshpage that asks me to choose between entering, or accessing the document. This leads to an abstract and philosophical alignment with access.

Distinguised digital compositionist Cynthia Selfe, along with graduate student Franny Howes offer a general introduction to the webtext that justifies the relevance of disability to a non-specialist audience who might feel disconnected from the topic. Arguing that we are all only temporarily able bodied (if that), they assert an ethical imperative for all compositionists to examine how our work has ignored the experience of an entire class of individuals, an omission that has not only harmed our field, but also done real harm to those individuals we’ve simply forgotten to think about. For them, attending to disability pushes teachers and scholars outside of their “normal” ways of operating, allowing us more diverse “intellectual positions” from which to understand the potential work of composition. To not attend to disability is to accept our field’s ignorance about disability as natural and to perpetuate the continued exclusion of disabled people from our ranks on the basis of that ignorance, or worse, on the basis of a naturalized belief that disabled people simply don’t belong in universities.

Margaret Price’s essay, “Space/Presence” examines the notion of “kairotic space” and the normalized rules about presence and absence that tend to exclude disabled people from full participation there. Synthesizing work she published in her 2011 Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Price defines kairotic spaces as spaces within academe where “knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” in real time– spaces like academic conferences, department meetings, faculty social events, or electronic job interviews. Within kairotic spaces, high-stakes professional interactions occur in real time and these interactions rely on pervasive (though often occluded) social conventions that tend to assume an able-bodied participant. Price focuses especially on the social conventions surrounding “presence” that govern kairotic spaces, observing how we assume as natural the superiority of face-to-face instantaneous interaction when, in fact, this mode of engagement allows participation only for those who are able-bodied enough to (say) fly to MLA or keep up with a skype’d job interview. We can think of an analogy between the professional kairotic spaces Price examines –which have a baseline expectation of normative “presence”–and the kairotic space of the classroom–which uses naturalized notions of “participation” that reward the ways some students participate in class (big talkers), but not others (perhaps they’d be better if they could tweet their comments?). Price argues that while we are willing to include disabled people in these spaces, we tend to forget that the ways we expect people to work in these spaces may put some people at an unacknowledged disadvantage; so, when a meeting or a panel discussion only employs sonic modalities, deaf people may be “present” in the room where the conversation is happening, but they are simultaneously absent from the conversation itself, invisible within the kairotic space. Price wants us to recognize and question the hidden normative assumptions that govern conduct in kairotic spaces and to more thoughtfully explore ways of employing multimodality and technology to render these spaces more accessible to disabled people.

Stephanie Kershbaum’s essay, “Modality” centers on the notion of “multimodal inhospitality,” which results when the the modes of communication employed in either a multimodal text or a multimodal space (like a classroom or a website) do not offer full usability to a user. She argues that compositionists have been quick to explore the ways added communicative modes characteristic of multimodality benefit  able-bodied users, while the experiences of disabled users have been largely ignored. For instance, in conference talks where some information is given visually, the primary mode of communication remains sonic, and thus inaccessible to deaf participants. Kershbaum argues that designers of multimodal texts and spaces rarely think to build redundant primary modes of communication, instead only adjusting their inaccessible designs after the fact, in the form of a retrofit to an already created artifact. Indeed, Kershbaum questions why it is not seen as a design flaw when a text employs only one primary mode of communication. Rather than advocating multimodal designers to try to accommodate for each possible impairment they might imagine in their users, Kershbaum insists that they must design in a way that allows users to adapt the text to their own needs and preferences.

Unlike the first two articles, which discussed multimodal inaccess mostly using examples related to sensory impairments, Elizabeth Brewer’s “Community” essay focuses on psychiatric disabilities and the unique access issues that arise with this population. Not strictly an issue of access (of “getting in” the door), Brewer addresses how “fitting in” to academic spaces is especially difficult for psychiatrically disabled people because of persistent and pernicious biases within academia against so-called mental illnesses. She advocates a practice of social reform wherein instructors are taught to rethink prejudiced language and beliefs about mental illness while at the same time working to establish “safer spaces” on campuses to provide non-academic support for people with psychiatric differences. Brewer bases her model of support and advocacy on the peer-support systems used within the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement.

In “Reason,” Melanie Yergeau extends the attitude-level intervention Brewer proposes by reflecting on the attitudes surrounding the notion of “accommodation.” She observes that accommodations tend to be granted only once normate authorities judge the accommodation is no threat to the community and the perceived rigor of the institution. She claims that this dynamic produces an environment in which disabled people feel shame at asking for “special help” to fix the perceived deficiency located in their (and only their) bodies. As Yergeau writes, “Within disability contexts, much of our scholarship positions access(ibility) as a project of rehabilitation. That is, there is a set of able-bodied us’s eagerly waiting to rescue a few, rare disabled thems who are in dire need of help.” This essay veers strongly toward the polemic, especially in calling for a politics of mutually supported self advocacy, a position that would work against the commonplace of “access” discussions that imagine using technology to “[reconfigure] disabled people, dismantling their ways of being and knowing and reinventing them, as best we can, into normate clones.” She calls for further attitude shifts related to disability, namely that we should see fighting disability stigma as a long-term project for the field.

Sushil K. Oswal’s essay, “Ableism” addresses the effects of retrofit-style technological designs for the disabled, examining in particular two real-world scenarios in which retrofits leave blind people at a disadvantage because their experience was not included in mainstream considerations. Drawing from U.N. and E.U. resolutions, Oswal defines “ableism” as “a form of discrimination based on the perception that being able-bodies is the normal human condition” (qt from Hehir); this bias toward assuming that all audiences and users are able-bodied unless otherwise stated, Oswal argues, allows designers to make products for “mainstream” audiences that later must be adapted for use by a minority of Others who lack the capacities to engage with the product in the intended way. Oswal examines an example from her own experience where, as a junior faculty, her department chose to take on a new courseware that at time of launch was inaccessible to those who use screen readers (like herself). While omissions like this seem minor by the department administration and publishers, Oswal argues that they create an unacknowledged burden for disabled people who must do extra uncompensated and unrecognized work to access materials not made with them in mind. Because departments tend to think of accessibility as a secondary concern, it falls on disabled individuals themselves to advocate for less ableist policies, often putting junior faculty in difficult political terrain in kairotic spaces like department meetings. Oswal argues that it is the designers of mainstream technology who are deficient, not the disabled people, because when they design they are incapable or unwilling to imagine that their user might be blind or deaf. Oswal wants deaf and blind people to have a “full place at the table in this new media feast,” which remains impossible as long as designers and administrators segregate their needs as special, minority, or low priority.

Michael Salvo concludes the webtext with “Over Here,” an essay that echoes Selfe and Howes’s introduction in emphasizing the the importance of disability concerns for all of us who may be temporarily able bodied. He rejects top-down models of accommodation, insisting that in their insistence that accommodation be “reasonable,” these models operate within a matrix of able-bodied privilege wherein the able-bodied authority judges the value and risks of including disabled concerns in his considerations. Rather, Salvo draws on the work of Graham Pulman (Design Meets Disability, 2009) as he advocates a practice of “resonant design,” a practice of creating artifacts that are “responsive, use-centered, stake holder involving, and context-sensitive.” He believes that this practice of design is the only sure way to create a world in which disability is respected as a natural part of the human condition and where disabled people are truly included as full participants in our academic communities.

 

***

This webtext seems to be speaking primarily to those who hold optimistic beliefs about the benefits of multimodal and new media practices for disabled people. The overall aim of this webtext seems to be to effect an attitude-level shift in designers of multimodal technology and advocates of multimodal practices within composition. While the pieces do offer some examples of moments when inaccess occurred with specific texts or technologies, the main work of the webtext is to help readers unfamiliar with disability theory to understand the stakes and scale of access problems that emerge from naturalised ableist assumptions held by tech designers and academics alike. Most of the suggestions the pieces make boil down to calls for those who don’t care or think about disabled perspectives to be more critical about their assumptions, and to understand the stakes for disabled people if they do not.

Another key move this webtext makes is shifting the conversation about disability and access from being focused on undergraduate students toward an analysis of access as an issue for graduate students and faculty as well. Key to this move is Price’s notion of “kairotic space,” a label she gives to informal environments where high-stakes interactions occur in real time, such as department meetings, conference presentations, and job interviews. Within these spaces, as the testimonies in this webtext show, disabled people are required to emulate the naturalized professional behaviors of non-disabled people or else be rendered absent. For instance, when the business-as-usual structure of department meetings relies exclusively on sonic modes of interaction, deaf colleagues are forced to find ways to participate up to the normative standard. While this notion of kairotic space has direct implications for teachers to think about the occluded ableist expectations they employ in their classrooms, the focus here is on professional access–on uncovering the impediments to participation that have become normalized within academic culture.

A second trend across these pieces relates to the connenction between ableism as a cultural bias and the continuing design of multimodal spaces, technologies, and texts that prioritize only the needs of “normal,” able-bodied users. Many of the authors argue that designers must start assuming disability as a reality for their end users, taking on design philosophies that prize adaptability, flexibility, and modal redundancy as ideal qualities in their products. The authors universally reject any kind of “retrofit” or any perspective that approves of leaving disabled experiences to be dealt with as special cases after the mainstream population has been served. The practice of retrofitting, for them, is evidence of the kind of internalized abelism that breeds inaccess in the multimodal spaces this webtext discusses.

One section that offers potential overlap with my interests is the piece that doesn’t directly address “access” in its traditional sense–that is, Brewer’s argument that social advocacy and support for students with psychiatry disabilities should be a long-term concern of compositionists. Unlike most of the essays, Brewer looks at disabled students’ experience, rather than larger professional ones. Interestingly, she argues that access discussions are insufficient for truly integrating these students; instead she pushes academics to think about issues like the presence and accessibility of counseling services–issues that are not strictly academic. In doing so, she argues that thinking about access will require those of us who work in writing programs to widen our view of how we should support the participation of disabled people on our campuses, even if it means getting our feet wet in issues we’d usually feel more comfortable leaving to professionals in disability services. This kind of re-focus seems like a hard sell to faculty professionalized as writing teachers, who might see emotional support for students with psychiatric disabilities as beyond their purview.

I’m not sure Brewer presents a convincing argument for why compositionist should care about creating safe spaces and eradicating offensive language about mental illness. Indeed, most of these pieces aim their critique at broad, abstract targets–biased priorities held across academia, abelist design or administrative practices carried out every day in large and small ways. The main argument for why we should care about these concerns remains that a) we all agree that it’s a problem if an entire class of individuals is disadvantaged by our pedagogical or administrative practices, and b) that working for access for the disabled benefits everyone who might one day become disabled. While I understand the importance of this universalizing move, I feel it perhaps dulls the real insight of these pieces, which I feel rests in the ways they lay bare the stakes and scope of inaccess faced by disabled people.

 

 

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