Cassette tape

[This is a guest post by Michelle Morgan, who is Assistant Director of Educational Technology at Yale University and Adjunct Professor of American Studies at Connecticut College. Her scholarly work focuses on the circulation of ideas about race, sex, and gender via visual and material culture; her work for Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning supports the university’s accessibility initiatives. You can find her online on Twitter at @MichelleAMorgan.--@JBJ]

Like many of you reading this, I have several roles. I work full time as an Assistant Director of Educational Technology at Yale University, and part time as an adjunct teaching Introduction to American Studies at Connecticut College. As an Ed Tech-er, I help remediate course materials for students, and show faculty members how to make their course materials more accessible. As an instructor, I’ve always put statements on my syllabi letting students know where they can get help if they need accommodations, but for the first time I’m practicing what I preach. I made my syllabus accessible, and I’m thinking way more about the forms my materials take.

Asking faculty to make their course materials accessible is challenging. The belief that the effort is too great considering the small percentage of students who use screen readers or need other assistive technologies is pervasive. Despite articles that have long stressed that accessibility is a faculty issue, most instructors assume that universities are ultimately responsible for accommodating students. I’ve suffered from this perspective, too. At the very least, it presumes that instructors never have disabilities. It downplays how much we are still learning when we prepare our classes or conduct research. But most importantly, and what I argue below—assigning the task of remediating materials to third-party workers deprives us from encountering our content from the perspective of our students. The process of remediating course materials can benefit us as much as the students for whom our materials are ostensibly intended.

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Here’s my case, in point. Years ago, thinking I was going to apply to English grad programs, I spent a summer cramming for the GRE Lit Subject Test. I was working at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware and living in Columbus—and spending at least ten hours a week in my car. To maximize study time I took books-on-CD out at the public library. One was Richard Wright’s Native Son; another, King Lear. I still recall more of these two books than possibly anything I’ve read in print since. Despite knowing this, not once in all those years did I ever listen to another book.

Until recently. If you’ve ever listened to a screen reader, you know their artificial voices cannot convey a text’s emotive qualities. Working with students who need to hear their readings made me wonder which texts, particularly nonfiction texts, might be available on Audible, the largest audio publisher? Were the texts I assign students available? Would financial aid cover them (probably not)? What was the likelihood of texts appearing in both print and audio versions, given the increasing mandate to make materials accessible?

Since I was also in the process of developing a syllabus, I was thrilled to see four texts I was considering assigning but hadn’t yet had time to read were available as audio books. Over the course of the fall I “read” these books by listening to them. Listening to books is no cure for the attention deficient among us. I get distracted and need to rewind. I cannot work at my desk and listen—this listening is active. What I can do: embroider, work out, clean the house. Listening to books gave me a release from the crushing doom of “I-need-to-read-these-things-when-am-I-going-to-read-these-things” and let me participate in activities that bring me work/life balance. (The irony behind my increase in productivity can—and is—the subject of countless blog posts).

Like last time, I seem better at retaining what I hear than what I read visually, digitally or in print. The tyranny of sight, something I’ve thought a lot about as a historian of visual, material, and sensory cultures, was not enough to shift my study habits. Part of my ability to better recall what I’ve listened to might be chalked up to the novelty of a new delivery method, which, over time, might wane. But that doesn’t mitigate the fact that I relentless privileged a particular method of delivery over another. My involvement in accessibility services at my university reoriented my experience with course materials entirely.

My argument that instructors have much to learn by remediating course materials and thinking about accessibility can be pushed a step further. A colleague recently sent out an email discussing a 2016 article regarding the digital-versus-hardcopy debate, Lauren M. Singer and Patricia A. Alexander’s “Reading Across Mediums: Effects of Reading Digital and Print Texts on Comprehension and Calibration.” The authors found that despite students’ self-reported preference for digital materials, they performed better after reading printed texts. Articles about students’ self-reported “learning styles” and comprehension bear similar results—students might say they have a particular learning style, but their performances on tests do not show a correlation between their learning type and the method of course material delivery. This is worth knowing, and there is nothing inherently wrong with these studies. Their limited foci however suggests a lot of potential for incorporating the tenets of accessibility and Universal Design more generally.

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If “learning styles” are bunk and students’ reports on how they learn best can’t be trusted, what explains my certainty that I am an auditory learner? Studies suggest that what matters is matching the form of your delivery to the content of the material; it makes more sense, in other words, to have students listen to music than to read descriptions of it, or to teach geography via images or models. This is obvious, but we stop far short when it comes to text. When done well, audio text gives listeners additional layers of information. A world of tone and pacing bolsters a narrative, making its meanings clearer and more memorable. Making readings accessible, then, might require more than making them screen readable. A monotone “voice” doesn’t give listeners a chance to put feeling into the text; it deprives them of something I can do myself when I’m immersed in a print text and get to experience with multiple senses when I am listening.

In the humanities we often vary our content. We teach films and images. We ask students to consider songs and material objects. We consider a wide range of non-visual and non-textual sources as evidence worthy of our attention and analysis. But when it comes to reading or secondary sources, we hand our students digital or print texts and don’t think about them a moment longer. The persistent visuality of our most cherished form of course materials is rooted in colonialist regimes of power—scholars who study oral traditions and societies have been saying this for years, but the ramifications of that history hasn’t, in my experience, quite made it into our everyday classroom practices. Our insistence that students read a text closely by looking at it with their eyes limits our conversation about how content is best taught. That conversation dovetails with what we might learn by making our materials more accessible, and by committing ourselves to taking the time to do it, as well.

Do you have experience with, or strategies for, working through your course content from an accessibility point of view? Please share in comments!

[Photo “Walk with me man” by Flickr user Dennis Skley / Creative Commons licensed BY-ND-2.0]