On universal design, multimodality, and first-year writing
This is a seminar paper that I have edited as a blog post. My list of references can be found here.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL), inspired by the universal design movement in architecture and product design in the 1990s, is a pedagogical framework that is intended to equalize access to curriculum for all learners (“What is universal design for learning?,” 2014). The framework draws on insights from the learning sciences, especially cognitive neuroscience, and holds as its first premise that learner variability is the rule, not the exception (Ralabate, 2013). UDL, then, is not meant as an “add-on” to already-existing lesson plans, classroom materials, activities, and assignments; it is, rather, a call to rearrange, re-format, re-do, and reimagine altogether these objects and processes to ensure maximum inclusion and maximum flexibility (ibid). Much like its predecessor in architecture, which prompted, for example, the widening of doorways, the replacement of handles with buttons, or lowering the heights of water fountains, UDL maintains that the ideals of inclusion and flexibility—and therefore, success for all or more students—can be achieved by removing various kinds of barriers and obstacles (Alberta Education, 2015). Towards this end, David H. Rose, the developmental neuropsychologist at Harvard who first coined the UDL term, argues that curriculum must at the outset allow for
- multiple means of representation,
- multiple means of action and expression, and
- multiple means of engagement (“What is universal design for learning?,” 2014).
These have become the essential tenets of all UDL efforts. To allow for these means and to ensure that obstacles are removed preemptively, UDL prioritizes planning. “It’s…. critically important to begin the entire process with a clearly defined vision,” Patti Ralabate explains in her webinar, “a vision or a goal that’s measurable, that has specific outcomes, that can lead you to developing a well-defined action plan” (“PREPARE,” 2013). The prevailing discourse of UDL, both goal-oriented and pluralistic, seems intended to reject the all-too-common model of vague, disconnected, one-size-fits-all, or unresponsive instruction, removed from the experiences, abilities, backgrounds, and interests of the learners.
There has been some promising uptake for these ideas in the United States. More than two dozen national organizations have endorsed UDL, and the concept is referred to by name in the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004, and the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 (“References to UDL in Public Policy,” 2013). Further, among college writing instructors and compositionists, UDL has had some burgeoning interest over the past decade or so. Though UDL is often treated in the category of basic or developmental writing, seen for its attention to “particular” needs, there are compelling reasons for all educators, not just specialists or certified individuals, to have an interest in these principles. Pat Bruch’s (2004, 2012) work, for example, affirms the movement as “an extension of recent political philosophy and critical theories of justice,” in that it enables participatory action in the classroom both materially and culturally and gets beyond the shortcomings of other redistributive pedagogies that imagined universality as “universal access to a valued set of conventions” (2012, p. 2). Most recently, Anne-Marie Womack (2017) argues convincingly that teaching is accommodation—it is “the most basic act and art” of what we do, and it is “the process of teaching itself” (pp. 494-5), in spite of persistent negative perceptions about accommodations and the persistent difficulty of obtaining medical and bureaucratic documentation for students’ needs. Though Yergeau et al. (2013) claim that there is no such thing as a universally designed text, the view of “universal” that I and others, like Bruch, maintain, is situated and subjective. In other words, I see universality not so much as the aim to create a single, perfect design, but rather as the flexible means for every student to forge a path in the process of learning.
The more I learn about Universal Design for Learning, the more I, too, am convinced that it is simply a good idea. I cannot think of a credible argument that suggests that flexibility and inclusion ought not to be the concerns of educators. Where I arrive at the point of this essay, then, is a two-fold consideration of UDL’s requirements for planning and its facilitation with technology.
Not only does UDL require much in the way of premeditation and forethought, presumably on part of the instructor—it is also largely predicated on the availability of up-to-date digital technology. Consider, for example, this characterization of technology and learning in a scholarly literature review, written in a study of UDL implementation for a college course:
The use of technology in higher education is increasing as members of the millennial generations enter college…—bringing new digital approaches and expectations for the classroom instructor…. Oblinger and Oblinger (2005) note that among these “net [sic] generation” students, 20% began using computers between the ages of five and eight….These students are developing greater digital literacy and are more comfortable in Web-based environments…Many are skilled (and often schooled) in using the web as medium of expression through websites, blogs and web spaces that showcase their work (Smith, 2012, pp. 35-36)
To be sure, digital technology seems well-equipped in many cases for customization, interactivity, ease of access, and multiple modes of representation. Digital interfaces can often “smooth out” what is not-so-smooth in the analog—face-to-face communication, for instance, or writing with pen on paper, by hand. Smith’s survey data reports, moreover, that “when students perceive that the instructor is using more UDL strategies and technologies in their classes, they also report a higher level of their own interest and engagement” (p. 49)—though there is no indication that Smith means anything other than “digital” by “technology.” To make the association even more apparent, many of David H. Rose’s own publications refer repeatedly to “Learning in the Digital Age” (forthcoming), “Using Digital Media” (2013), “opportunities in the digital age” (2012), “scaffolding digital comprehension” (2008), Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age (2002), and “digital text” (2002), to name a few (“David H. Rose,” n.d.).
In a yet-to-be-published study, Rose and his colleagues, Gravel and Domings (2011), seem only to hint at the idea of UDL as “unplugged.” “We wrote this piece because the most common question we get asked is, ‘Can you do UDL without technology?’” explains Rose in the introductory video. In a 10-page written summary, the researchers offer an example class activity geared towards elementary school teachers, the Seed Lesson, to suggest (in their terms) that UDL does not rely on technology. By highlighting the use of multiple sensory pathways for learning about seeds (e.g., touch, sight, taste), the use of many investigative tools (e.g., magnifying glass, shovels, watering cans), and the choice for learners to express what they know in more than one way (e.g., non-linguistic representations), Rose et al. conclude that “most or all of the UDL guidelines and benchmarks can be admirably implemented without any particular modern technology at all” (p. 8). They emphasize, then, a “well-designed lesson from the start” (ibid), and seem to suggest that UDL is not technology, but pedagogy.
But here is one complication for us, as instructors of writing, writing studies scholars, and postsecondary educators. Writing studies scholars have long held that writing, the concept and activity that we teach, is inextricably linked with technology; writing is not an abstraction of the mind, a set of immaterial and transcendent skills that can be imparted with no attention to media and mode, but an activity that is bound up entirely in technology—technology broadly understood— and in material realities (c.f., Baron, 1999; Haas, 1996; Shipka, 2011; Wysocki, 2004). Just as attention to material functioning ought to exert an influence on the texts we produce and the choice of text we produce, Anne Wysocki reminds us that “materiality…occurs in all texts we consume, whether print or digital, research essay or technical instruction set” (2004, p. 7). Composition pedagogy, then, has become enormously sensitive to the ways that technology and materiality influence writing, and much of this has been achieved through the work of compositionists in the studies of media and multimodality.
I arrive, then, at the exigence for my own work and the central claim of this essay. If writing and technology are inextricably linked, how can UDL be more broadly imagined for college-level writing instruction? How could a reflective understanding of context, infrastructure, and materiality change the way we see UDL implementation? I position universal design and multimodality in rhetoric and composition as mutually informing bodies of knowledge, and I want to help facilitate their communication in the present study. In keeping with other with scholars on multimodality and composition, I find that we can enrich our understanding of UDL in writing instruction when we 1) broaden our definition of “technology,” so that “unplugged” methods can be considered with as much seriousness and thought as digital ones, and 2) think not only in terms of planning, but in disposition—which, perhaps intuitively understood in primary and secondary education, is too often forgotten at the university level. To illustrate these points, I will look at the case of first-year writing—a course that is typically required of all students in American universities (therefore, casts a very wide net) and occupies a liminal position, “suspended between a composing past and future” (Graban, Charlton, & Charlton, 2013, p. 273). First-year writing, anyway, is the course that I have experience teaching.
To support this argument, I will provide a review of recent literature on multimodality in our field of rhetoric and composition, with allied disciplines. I will also offer some of the insights I’ve gained in my own early teaching experience, to which other educators might be able to relate—not only as an instructor of first-year college students, but in my previous roles as informal educator and paraprofessional, working with younger people. Finally, I will suggest a few actionable ways to advance the work of UDL in first-year college writing.
Review of Related Literature
Multimodality in Composition
Among Western scholars and educators, the turn to study multimodality in composition was signaled in large part by the work of the New London Group. The term “multiliteracies,” which the Group coined, gets at many of the same principles of universal design for learning (and, in fact, share the same language around, and attention to, “design”): an approach to literacy instruction that accounts for cultural, linguistic, communicative diversity (2014, p. 208). Gunther Kress (2009), a founding member of this school of thought, describes extensively in Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication the act of agency in making meaning, related integrally to interest, and in the choosing of modes of among several. Kress asserts that this act of choosing, and the process of negotiating among available designs, designing, and re-designing, is necessary for ethical communication (and has clear alignment, as I see it, with the aims of UDL); “full participation by all members of a group…in that community’s affairs is a sine qua non for that group to flourish” (2009, p. 18). Assessment in the classroom becomes a matter not of “measur[ing] the distance between what authority says you should learn and what you seem to be able to show as your learning…[but of] look[ing] at what someone has done and take that as a sign of learning” (Lindstrand, 2008, citing Kress, p. 67).
Black text on white paper does not appear to be multimodal, and is oftentimes treated as mono-modal, but communication, in all its forms, is an inherently multimodal process; writing, image, color, sound, texture, gesture, speech, layout, and spatiality all matter, and have mattered, in the act of composing, the arrangement of symbols towards the creation of meaning (Kress, 2009, p. 28). Although multimodality seems like a “new” phenomenon, perhaps suggested by the name of “new media” and even by the greater advances in digital technologies over the past few decades, Jason Palmeri’s (2012) persuasively demonstrates that American compositionists, at least since the 1960s, have long considered the affordances of color, visual, sound, and performance in a comprehensive writing process—even before these things were mediated by electronic screens.
Although there has been excellent scholarship about these ideas, multimodality seems not to have gained full traction and recognition in some circles of rhetoric and composition. Diana George and John Trimbur (1999), who take another historical look at college composition, highlight the tension that has existed between composition and communication, though the names co-exist in the field’s largest professional gathering and its flagship journal, College Composition and Communication. The “communication movement,” which has been suppressed, has repeatedly had to push back against narratives that multimodal writing courses are spread too thin, insufficiently rigorous, and (bedad!) associated with popular culture (p. 687-88). Perhaps another reason for the lack of acceptance towards multimodal writing instruction, or a reluctance towards it, comes from a misunderstanding of what multimodality is. Claire Lauer (2012) highlights the confusion that abounds over terms, and their conflicting uses in academia and industry (some of which are matters of preference). When digital is overly emphasized in multimodal writing instruction, then, some compositionists may rightfully take issue with the implicit or explicit claim that digitality is itself a panacea or a replacement for poor pedagogy.
However, Writing New Media (2004) offers a more helpful and inclusive definition for multimodality as I see it, one that has been under-recognized in the field: “we should call ‘new media texts’ those that have been made by composers who are aware of the range of materialities of texts and who then highlight the materiality” (p. 15). Emphasized, then, are choice, intentionality, and engagement, along with strategies of generous reading to understand what the writers, on their own terms, meant (p. 22-23). Like Palmeri’s Remixing Composition, Wysocki et al. offer plenty of non-digital assignments and activities, named “multimodal,” that are non-digital—indeed, as Wysocki herself claims, “[w]e do not have to become experts in different production technologies… nor do we have to teach production technologies” (p. 23). Much like Kress, then, the evaluation of a multimodal composition has less to do with sleek or professional look and more to do with its reflexivity and interactivity.
Current-traditionalists or like-minded scholars might argue that alphabetic language itself is rich and complex enough as the sole, central object of treatment in a college writing classroom, and I agree that written text (narrowly defined) can still achieve all kinds of descriptive, polemical, or imaginative meanings. Nevertheless, I affirm the exciting possibilities of opening composition in classroom contexts to its full symbolic and semiotic potential, not only for those who have been shut out from the mode of linear alphabetic text, but for all. In the final section of this paper, I will revisit these theoretical and pedagogical considerations for UDL practice and implementation.
Theories of Complexity
As writing studies begins to envision the multimodal capacity of composition, and likewise seeks to engage multimodal strategies for the teaching of writing, context has emerged as an important lens for thinking about multimodality and its situated uses.
I see an early example of this in Marilyn Cooper’s (1986) College English essay “The Ecology of Writing.” At the time of Cooper’s writing, process was the new revolution in writing pedagogy. She challenged, however, the notion of the solitary writer assumed in a purely cognitive model of writing (which dominated the thinking on process) and proposed “an ecological model of writing, whose foundational tenet is that writing is an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems” (p. 367). This model accounts for the mutually constitutive, interdependent, and real factors involved in composition—essentially, then, the “dynamic interlocking systems which structure the social activity of writing” (p. 368).
Beyond the social, even, there are a host of cultural, pragmatic, institutional, and material realities that indelibly mark the concept and activity of writing. Although multimodal writing assignments and their assessment have much to do with intention and intentionality, as I have described in the previous section, post-process theories of writing recognize that none of those choices exist in a vacuum.
In his own situated study of multimodality and multilingualism, Steven Fraiberg (2014) lays out several of the complexity and activity theories that have been brought to bear on composition. These theories, which borrow heavily from insights in the social sciences, imagine a less-bounded approach to the composing process: complex ecologies that map “wider historical, social, cultural, national, and global factors,” the “tying and untying” of discursive practices described by knotworking, the remediation of semiotic meaning in media and modes, and Latour’s actant-network theory, which blurs the divisions between objects and people, and has been taken further to describe the interrelatedness of structure and agency (pp. 501-2). Though we may hope to neatly separate and isolate such elements for the sake of ease in teaching them, for instance, composing—which is so inseparably system-bound—often resists such logic.
Danielle DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, and Jeffrey Grabill (2014) link college composition to its infrastructural context, the behind-the-scenes institutional, material, and political arrangements that are often invisible until they are disrupted, calling for the need to “pay…attention to the when of new-media composing” (p. 405). Like Fraiberg, DeVoss et al. draw on inspiration from systems thinking, especially from Yrjö Engeström. Timely issues of labor, personnel, and time—of curricula, assessment guidelines, standards, and policies—of the availability of computers and classrooms—of audience considerations, expectations—and of all kinds of decisions and decision-making processes often go misunderstood, unnoticed, or misinterpreted, as DeVoss et al. point out. An infrastructural framework, and its attention to “complex interrelationships,” certainly complicates Ralabate’s recommendation of a “clearly defined vision” at the start of UDL planning, mapping single purposes onto single activities.
Finally, drawing on the work of Wysocki, Cooper, and others, Jody Shipka (2011) offers a discussion of what she terms mediated action, a framework described most fully in Towards a Composition Made Whole. Shipka calls attention to the situated and distributed “technologies” that enable writers to write, “turning on lights, arranging themselves at desks, on chairs, on beds, and so on,” as well as the seemingly irrelevant activities that take place during the composing process: “drinking coffee, eating, smoking, listening to music, pacing and talking to themselves, doing laundry and so on” (p. 10). Although Shipka’s assignments and activities often look surprising (e.g., the writing of an essay on ballet slippers, a dance performance of an argument), the framework of language in tandem with other, non-discursive representational systems positions “writing…as one stream within the broader flow of activity…highlighting the role other texts, people, activities, semiotic resources, institutions, memories, and motives play in the composers’ overall production processes” (p. 15). Products, then, should always be related to the nuanced and various processes that informed them, and Shipka (like other multimodal compositionists) emphasizes choice and agency for her students. However, “mediated action cannot be adequately interpreted if we assume it is organized around a single, neatly identifiable goal”; multiple purposes are always at work in the composing process (pp. 44-5), and so a single controlling narrative, either before, during, or after composing, may often mask this recursive complexity.
Although it would seem like these theories disrupt UDL’s impulse to plan, and especially disrupt plans towards ease-of-access for learners in the classroom—indeed, disruption is highly theorized in this line of research—, an awareness of complexity and the contextual, the ecological, the material, and the sensory will better inform, not contradict, universal design. In technical communication, for instance, much has surfaced in thinking about usability and human factors (cf. Barnum, 2010). Over the years, more effort has been put into responsive and human-centered technical communication, attempting to channel the messiness or unpredictability of human interaction and response as a positive force for the design (and, hopefully, continual re-design) of documents.
To illustrate these effects of, simply put, “real life” in composition and pedagogy, I offer some notes and lessons from my own experiences.
Fieldnotes: What Teaching Has Taught Me
Before I taught first-year writing, I was an AmeriCorps volunteer, stationed at a nature center called the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center. At the same time, I was hired at a nearby parish to organize youth group for middle school children and teach catechesis to high schoolers. These experiences in informal education gave me early insight, far more so than a more distanced training program might have, into (among other things) the very messy, very complicated world of adolescents—socially, cognitively, culturally. Throughout my term of service (and later employment at the Center to teach summer camp), I took to heart the advice of my host supervisor at the Great Swamp, Jenny. Jenny is a seasoned educator who had previously taught middle school science, and in her current role designed and implemented outdoor curricular programs. Her art of teaching was masterful—a dynamic combination of overpreparing and improvising. “Overprepare,” she told me often. When the lesson would go awry—the fireflies or nocturnal birds wouldn’t show up on the night hike, maybe, or the Girl Scout group arrived late, or a torrential downpour put a damper on the day of an outdoor festival—Jenny switched gears with remarkable ease. I was, over and over again, astounded at her ability to frame surprises as teachable moments. (And she did, of course, tell me that she “cheated” all the time! Backups, alternatives, and planned responses were always on hand.)
Later, when I was indeed hired at a K-8 school as a paraprofessional, I began to see the more structured world of individualized education plans (IEPs) and school-based programmatic design—but even then, the school’s relaxed and decentralized pedagogical style, informed by Montessori, Waldorf, and other philosophies, allowed for daily quick thinking and adaptability. My schedule was chaotic; over the course of every week, I switched classrooms so often that I saw kindergarteners all the way up to seventh graders. My assignments, though, were always based on the needs of the students—and almost always, every week, those needs were expressed in the same three middle schoolers: Kenny, Frank, and Joseph (pseudonyms). Each one had what are perceived to be, anyway, and what often felt like, highly demanding needs in the classroom. Although I certainly wasn’t perfect at “the art of switching gears” like Jenny, countless disruptions of all kinds—tears, anger, hunger, fights with friends, the forgetting of books and lunch, slow Wi-Fi connection, easy access to distractions, to name just a few—taught me very quickly that the notion of control would always be an illusion. Together, we came up with all kinds of adaptive techniques; when Kenny would get frustrated at the poor functioning of his assistive speech-to-text technology, we could easily move ourselves to another room. When Frank clearly hadn’t understood the classroom instructions and stared a hole into his blank sheet of paper, I could administer individual help to jog his writing through the asking of a series of questions without disrupting the other students. When Joseph was losing focus, and getting angry, we could take a break.
Although bureaucratic and legalistic concerns of liability still governed my behavior as a youth educator, comparatively, my situation as a college writing instructor is far more restrained. In the Fordist system of American higher education, students and instructors—who come with an array of backgrounds, interests, motives—and our environments—our classrooms and their scheduling, our facilities, our availability technology—are moving parts, seemingly replaceable and disposable at every turn. We do not and cannot, in first-year writing, invest in our classroom space in any way. Even in situations where instructors are given more leeway and choice over syllabus and course design, the sheer immensity of policies, pedagogies, and institutional forces at play are enough, often, to paralyze action. With even, then, the best intent an instructor might have to implement multimodal and truly comprehensive designs for their students—assuming, of course, that the instructor even knows such a thing exists through any means of networking ideas:
- What do I do when a student confides in me that he has a learning disability, but has no documentation to “prove it”?
- …when a student misses class repeatedly, even with the documentation to support his absences? (How do I respond, as an instructor? Do I meet with him separately every time? Do I always make a “supplement” to send to him by e-mail?)
- …when a student has epilepsy and has missed half the semester?
- …when a student doesn’t have a laptop, or forgets to bring one, or to charge it? (What, then, of my plans for the students to work on individual papers for the class meeting?)
- …when the projector lightbulb or the Wi-Fi goes out? (What, then, of my carefully designed presentation?)
- …when the desks are fixed to the floor and we can’t move them around?
- …when the ASL interpreter is sick and can’t come to class that day?
- …when the students’ eyes are glazing over, but I’ve got no time of my own to plan something new?
- …when I want to change the schedule, but feel contractually bound to the syllabus I’ve made, approved by the department?
- …when the temperature control is clearly broken, and everyone in the room is sweating? (But every other classroom is taken…)
And, of course, the list goes on. Such concerns and “what ifs” might seem far beyond the reach of writing instruction, but they are noticeably present in my daily teaching experiences and have all, in fact, led me to the consideration of universal design in the first place. I am eager to design more flexible options from the onset, as UDL recommends, but am exhausted by its emphasis on planning (as an already, endlessly “busy” cog in the machine, like all of us)—and, indeed, creatively “stuck” at its ideas of technology.
How, then, might multimodal composing theories and, simply, reality, inform the decision to incorporate UDL in higher education? Must one instructor account for every mode, every medium, every means of expression? Does the impetus for change, for humane and comprehensive course design, fall solely on that instructor? What might scholarship and, more deeply, practical experience offer?
UDL and Multimodality: Implementation for First-Year Writing
For universal design to be woven into the fabric of first-year writing, a recognition of the inherent multimodality of the composing process must come first. If non-discursive or non-linear modes of representation will be seen as the stuff of elementary school, as the rudimentary means of only “certain students,” then we cannot hope for any meaningful implementation of UDL principles in higher education. If composition pedagogy continues to be imagined as the imparting of a discrete set of skills, skills that are the same, everywhere, in every situation, we will always fall short of the ideals that UDL promises.
Once we have got this recognition, infrastructural reality then demands not only planning, but even more importantly, a disposition—a change of disposition not in any one sole actor, one instructor, but in the entire network, among all actors. Recalling Wysocki’s attention to reader and writer generosity, and Kress’s argument for activity as the grounds for assessment, a change in disposition is necessary first for transformative and meaningful uses of writing technologies, writing processes, and the planning of writing courses.
To be sure, such recommendations are not simple. The stakeholders in first-year composition are many, and financial concerns, educational worries, economic interests, and institutional reputations abound. I also do not mean to suggest that planning is, itself, futile. Indeed, would all the good intentions in the world, and a welcoming disposition, be enough for the person who cannot enter a building that was not designed for him?
However, what UDL discourse seems to mask, but writing studies has reminded us often: planning, and writing, itself, are recursive and iterative processes. Planning does not occur only at the onset, then, but on a continual basis; instructors, students, and a host of agents plan and re-plan all the time.
Disposition and Planning
As a first-time instructor working within a largely decentralized administrative context, I often felt that I was responsible for every aspect of course planning and design—anxiously so. Just as I had learned with Kenny, Frank, and Joseph, however, control was an illusion. I could not simply detach myself from the outcomes and “phone it in,” as my one student says, with this recognition. There is a known labor issue among writing instructors, it seems, and top-down imperatives are not often well-received for instructors’ intense workloads. How can infrastructure and networks be leveraged to alleviate and redistribute the responsibility, rather than weigh down heavily on ourselves?
I argue that first-year writing professional development and other forms of instructor preparation must reframe planning to the way that UDL sees “planning.” Rather than anecdotal warnings of “those students” who will disrupt the classroom or break the rules, accompanied by a list of policies and regulations to deal with disruption as it is happening or even after the fact, I would rather see a re-direction of that anticipatory energy towards UDL initiatives and adoption of this discourse. Again, if learner variability is the rule, not the exception, we can re-imagine, from the beginning, a more user-friendly and transparent system.
My argument also has implications for the idea that “basic writing” should exist in own separate sections as experimental laboratories, for indeed, I have found through UDL that good pedagogy is good pedagogy, and that the segregation is problematic. At the infrastructural level, then, I see all kinds of ways that currently “separate” entities can join forces: efforts to make course materials “accessible” in the technological sense, for instance, with efforts to make course materials “accessible” through the lens of critical and feminist pedagogies, and other decolonizing or decentering ideologies.
Disposition and Technology
UDL advocates already seem fully aware already of the communicative potential of multimodal pedagogy. What’s next for UDL, then, could be a broader imagination of “technology” that writing studies scholars have outlined. A narrow definition of “technology,” and a preoccupation with electronic multimedia, seems to have already proliferated in first-year composition, and seen as “different” when it is treated in basic writing contexts (Braun, McCorkle, & Wolf, 2014). I do take heart in the movement towards more seamless learning management systems (LMSs), and the movement to render digital environments more hospitable for all, but I think that ad hoc changes are not, by themselves, entirely sufficient.
Smith’s (2012) perception that students “are developing greater digital literacy and are more comfortable in Web-based environments” certainly doesn’t hold everywhere in every context of higher education. Classrooms in developed nations are often wired, but this does little good for the classroom with no access to electricity. This perception also does not consider the economic divides in access to digital devices, and assumes that millennials are more comfortable and savvy with certain technologies than they may often be. If the resources that are on hand, then, which impart specific ways of knowing and interacting in writing processes, can be seen with as much seriousness and strategic thinking as the digital—and not simply the crude means that are adopted in the “absence” of technology—we can both recover and unlock all kinds of communicative potential in composition.
Disposition and Assessment
The last challenge for UDL will be the expression of abstract “intentionality” and “choice” in concrete terms, regarding students who work very much in the realm of the tangible and the concrete. Although the provision of “examples” is sometimes rejected for fear they may box in the creativity of a novice student, a re-positioning of examples as resources, not templates, may actually jog creativity. A UDL composition course, then, is like a repository of resources that can be moved around and manipulated.
I also re-position the instructor as more of a project manager or a coach. Such arguments are bolstered by compatible scholarship, like James Paul Gee’s game theory and Asao Inoue’s labor-based contract grading model. Postprocess theories have already destabilized the notion of writing expertise, but since writing is an inherently social and collaborative activity (cf. Adler-Kassner & Wardle, 2016)—indeed, no one learns writing, composing, and communicating in a vacuum, nor are these activities pure abstractions of the mind—we will still need “each other” in our writing practice. Given that “each other” is necessary for writing, and that our current infrastructure assigns and designates people as writing instructors, instructors and students can nonetheless, in tandem, take on a practice- and project-based approach, rather than the filling-of-a-vessel approach or the neoliberal model of “efficient pathways” in college, toward economically oriented outcomes. A “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach, coupled with an attention to Shipka’s (2011) environment selecting and structuring practices (“the use of external actors and aids as a way of shaping and directing consciousness in service of the task at hand… sources of motivation and…ways of managing the affective dimensions of one’s work,” p. 58) and other work that has supported student self-regulation and self-selection (cf. Roberts, Fulton, & Semb, 1988 as an early example), could yield enormously beneficial approaches for composition pedagogy and assessment.
I do not categorically reject the notion of outcomes, a teleology of composing, since I often find examples and end-products helpful. However, there will be cases where no examples and end-products are available; where examples and end-products aren’t even available yet, so therefore instruction must rely most heavily not on skills, but on disposition, and the willingness to both navigate and create resources in situational purposes.
My hope, then, is that universal design for learning (UDL) will no longer exist as a relatively obscure approach, adopted only through individual initiative, but as a fundamental aspect of instructor preparation, student engagement with writing, and composition pedagogy. In the near future, I hope to model the works in the edited collection First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice (Coxwell-Teague & Lunsford, 2014) and create a syllabus, with accompanying course materials, that mirror this theoretical rationale. It will be an ongoing and recursive effort.