Student Perspectives and Universal Design
In Critel’s conclusion, she encourages instructor-student dialogue about participation:
Specifically, the discipline would benefit from sustained engagement with students on the issue of student participation. What if we asked students to tell us how they will participate? What if we asked them what they need from us, as Margaret Price recommends? Perhaps these questions seem outlandish to some readers; however, there’s no way we can know how much these changes could benefit students unless we try. (196-97)
Critel’s hedge that some readers might find student feedback on participation “outlandish” suggests that giving students power in deciding participation requirements might be a radical move for composition teachers. Critel’s data—in which the majority of her survey respondents conceptualize participation requirements as telling students what they should and should not do during class—certainly suggests this is the case (104). But while it may not be common practice for composition instructors to cocreate or negotiate participation requirements with their students, it is common practice in the post-process classroom to resist a monolithic vision of who students are, what “good writing” is, and how students produce “good writing” (Vandenberg et al. 6). Wary of unreflectively indoctrinating students into academic writing and devaluing their preexisting literacies, composition instructors have by and large adopted student-centered writing pedagogies that anticipate student diversity. I understand Critel as bringing postprocess theories to bear on participation requirements.
A key part of Critel’s concluding argument is that students' deciding what participation looks like and how it is gauged is part of a universally designed composition classroom. Critel draws this conclusion from Margaret Price’s work about the power universal design would have in reimagining participation requirements. Critel writes, “We don't ask students how participation should or could be gauged, nor do we ask them how they want to participate. We would have to if we had a universal design participation requirement” (191). While Critel’s move to link universal design and student involvement is defensible given that both locate some degree of authority within individual students, involving students in the creation of participation guidelines is not necessarily universal design. In order for composition teachers to understand Critel’s conception of a universally designed participation requirement, we need to first understand universal design, which is not a widely known pedagogical approach in our discipline (21). And although I agree with Critel’s view of participation and its inherent student involvement, I have questions about how to adopt this framework in the composition classroom and about whether we benefit from naming it a universal design approach.
I worry particularly, as Michael Salvo has in “Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces,” about the implications of the name universal design and the way this rhetorically creates expectations of benefit to all (Yergeau et al.). Unquestionably, the goal of universal design is to include all students/users/participants, but as we strive for this goal with our best intentions, we would be wise to recognize—and may already feel—the impossibility of creating an environment in which all users function with ease. Balancing the noble goal of universal design with the reality of constraints on our time, energy, ability, and resources creates somewhat of a crisis for the concept, which can make it difficult to implement in our classrooms. We might also feel, as Melanie Yergeau points out in her 2016 Council of Writing Program Administrators conference plenary address, that the needs of disabled people can ironically get lost in the midst of designing for the needs of all people. Yergeau further notes, drawing on Jay Dolmage, that universal design invites nondisabled people to imagine the needs of disabled users, without emphasizing the need to get feedback from these users. The goals of universal design are in many ways laudable, but the weight of its issues is also great. Even while we grant the impossibility of creating a universally accessible space, this realization does not mean instructors can abdicate their responsibilities as designers of learning environments. As Aimi Hamraie reminds us, the design of an environment reflects values and assumptions about the users and activities that space is meant for. Curricular design can never be neutral.