ITP II: Access Hacks for First-Year Writing Teachers

Note: I’ve updated this post.

This project is a resource guide aimed at novice writing teachers. 

First-year writing is a crucial course for CUNY students. A tenth of college students are registered with their campus disability office. Yet, maddeningly, access is still often framed as a compliance issue rather than as a site for pedagogy. If that tenth of our student body is to have a fair shot at success at their public college, first-year writing is an area where this thinking must shift.

In a project that takes the form of a public site on CUNY Academic Commons and a more-private CUNY Academic Commons group, I aim to demonstrate:

  • the rhetorical potential of alt-text writing assignments
  • the uses of social reading plug-ins like on the transcripts of long-form audio journalism (Floodlines, Lost Notes: 1980, season 3 of Serial)
  • the application of accessible document design principles for word processing to organizing student essays
  • that smartphone access features such as screenreaders can make literacy practices multimodal
  • the importance of open lesson plans—for ASL-English interpreters, their students, and everybody else 
  • syllabi language that aligns accessibility with other student-centered and equity-minded, care-centered policies (ie: translanguaging, OER, contracts)

This project is guided by thinking on disability studies, open access pedagogies, feminist ethics of care, trauma-informed pedagogy, and cellphone scholarship. It’s also marked by my own experiences in the classroom—teaching as a disabled instructor for 15 years, learning as a disabled student for 25.

As CUNY transitions back to aging and often inaccessible physical campuses, it’s my hope that the conversation about digital access that COVID-19 has forced will continue in this group + site. Ultimately, its goal is to help CUNY produce writing teachers capable of doing what a doctoral student named Margaret Price did for me at my public college: to use reflective, student-centered writing pedagogy to make equitable the student experience of a disabled writer.

Teacher’s Guide to Discord

At the moment, I feel as though my ITP project will most likely take the form of an interactive website on the Commons, dedicated to introducing the pedagogical possibilities available to Discord as a dynamic learning space for instructors teaching in online, blended, and web-enhanced contexts. The content of the website, as I see it now, would include instructional support documentation, student testimonials, server templates, as well as analytical reflections on the affordances of Discord-enabled learning models. Some of these features might include a server setup guide and other technical docs, along with a series of teaching recipes tailored to synch and asynch learning formats. While I’ve considered the prospect of forking off an open-source Discord bot and repurposing it to support class activities, I’m not convinced that doing so would be the best use of my time, since the bots currently active on Discord already appropriately serve that purpose. As far as design practices are concerned, I may choose to develop and showcase a taxonomy of Discord templates for instructors to adopt in support of different pedagogical models. For what it’s worth, here is one such template, entitled “Writing 101 Classroom Server,” which I’ve designed (and used) for the purpose of first-year writing instruction, specifically with an emphasis on writing groups and peer-review activities.

Moreover, I hesitate to frame Discord against the limited backdrop of distance education, since doing so may pigeonhole the project, inviting a false equivalency between Discord-enabled classrooms and the emergency-response pedagogy of distance learning in 2020/21. I’d rather dig into the pedagogical affordances of Discord as an fluid learning environment whose community-driven design fosters student agency, group cohesion, and peer-interactive pedagogy across multiple learning formats. In other words, I would like to explore the various ways in which Discord can support online learning environments not only during our stint with distance learning, but also as a web-enhanced extension of face-to-face instruction following the pandemic. Doing so may reinforce the social ecosystem in which college students find connection and belonging alongside their peers, forming online communities of practice that then enrich face-to-face learning encounters.

In my experience, for instance, Discord has enacted as an interstitial space in which my first-year students have linked up and developed social connections, building for themselves a broader sense of community than is available simply within the formal confines of (online) educational contexts. I think Discord class servers may in turn operate as a “digital third place,” where community life may casually unfold with students having easy, transparent access to one another both within and outside the online learning environment. This prospect is heightened when students friend each other on Discord and voluntarily communicate through direct messages and additional student-led Discord servers. I’ve also found Discord to offer affordances in establishing clear lines of communication between myself and my students, streamlining the extra steps required to send emails by enabling a self-contained domain for communication via direct messages and engagement with different text/video channels. On that note, since Discord collapses the text-video divide, I also find the platform to be especially attuned to one-on-one conferences (via office hours), which may support students in futures times who feel the need to meet temporarily but would rather not commute 30-60 minutes to do so.

Since I also serve as an admin for the English Student Association’s Discord server, I’ve also toyed with the prospect of collaborating with Baruch folks to help build out a server tailored to instructors in the first-year writing program. In this regard, my goal would be create a collaborative academic space for first-year writing instructors to communicate and pool their resources, staying in touch by means of both text and video. Such opportunities testify to the fact that strategic uses of Discord may foster connectivity between an array of teaching and learning models, as well as broader academic communities among the CUNY system. Whether or not such a prospect might be feasible, I see my ITP project as expressly defined by this community-driven ethos, one in which my efforts would involve articulating how and why Discord may effectively serve as a collaborative online ecosystem for instructors and learners alike. There are more granular pedagogical details and features related to Discord that I would like to explore in pursuit of these goals, but for now I’ll conclude in the interest of brevity and of seeking feedback from the class.

Thank you for reading!!