Access as a Lens for Peer Tutoring

By Annika Konrad

Annika Konrad is a Ph.D. Candidate in Composition and Rhetoric and an Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program at UW-Madison. Her doctoral research focuses on the rhetorical practices that blind and visually impaired people use to gain access. When Annika was an undergraduate at UW-Madison, she was a Writing Fellow.

Annika Konrad is a Ph.D. Candidate in Composition and Rhetoric and an Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program at UW-Madison. Her doctoral research focuses on the rhetorical practices that blind and visually impaired people use to gain access. When she was an undergraduate, Annika was a Writing Fellow at UW-Madison.

Photo credit: Annika Konrad

“Why didn’t we start with access?” one student asked during a discussion near the end of the semester in English 403, an honors seminar for new UW-Madison undergraduate Writing Fellows. Writing Fellows at UW-Madison are trained undergraduates who serve as peer writing tutors in courses across disciplines. As a first time teacher of the course, I had added a day to the end of the course focused on disability, a move that I knew was not ideal for treating difference. While disability is often excluded from lists of disadvantaged groups, scholars in disability studies have long warned that access should not be approached as accommodating “problemed bodies” (Yergeau et al, 2013), but instead as an effort that requires and benefits all parties (Dolmage, 2014; Price; 2011). I was worried, then, about tacking disability onto the end of the calendar.

But when one student asked, “Why didn’t we start with access?”  I found myself doing jumping jacks and cartwheels inside my head, while also contemplating how to respond without jumping on top of the table in front of me. I said something like, “Good question! I will definitely take that into consideration when revising the syllabus. Why do you think that would have been helpful?” The tutor went on to explain that she saw the intersections between accessibilty, multimodality, and multiliteracies as answers to a lot of the challenging questions we had encountered in the course (e.g. how do we treat language varieties? how do we balance multilingual writers’ desires for grammar instruction with global concerns? how do we negotiate our positions as peers and tutors? etc.). Others chimed in too and expressed that they want to learn how to draw upon multiple modes and literacies to be more flexible and adaptable to students’ individual needs and situations. “This would have been really helpful to know ten weeks ago,” they said. I felt an impulse to simultaneously “facepalm” and shout for joy.

My goal for this blog post, then, is to argue that we need to use access as a lens for all that we do in writing programs for main two reasons: 1) to be more inclusive and 2) in doing so we can stretch our thinking and develop more creative practices. Being inclusive requires that we challenge our own biases and assumptions about how and why we do what we do and think creatively about alternative ways of doing things.

What is Access?

Access is a broadly used term, but scholars in disability studies have worked to elucidate how experiences of disability attune us to what it should look like. Sushil Oswal defines accessibility as “the ability to use, enjoy, perform, work on, avail of, and participate in a resource, technology, activity, opportunity, or product at an equal or comparable level with others. Separate is not equal and before or after the fact is also not equal (“Multimodality in Motion”). My own research has shown that gaining access often requires the disabled person to take on the rhetorical burden of asking for access while at the same time not compromising their own credibility or ethos in doing so. As a result, I’ve been thinking about how to redesign norms and practices to remove some of the burden and provide access from the outset. As Margaret Price puts it, “…what if the people calling for this change were not only those marked ‘deaf,’ but all participants in the rhetorical situation?” (Multimodality in Motion).

Image description: A blue and white sign with the universal wheelchair image on it with text "Accessible Entrance" underneath and an arrow pointing to the right, suggesting an accessible side entrance to a building. A wheelchair ramp added to the side of a building is the classic example of a fix or "retrofit." "Wheelchair Ramp Sign" by Mark Buckawicki is Licensed under CC0 1.0 Public Domain

Image description: A blue and white sign with the universal wheelchair symbol on it with text “Accessible Entrance” underneath and an arrow pointing to the right, suggesting an accessible side entrance to a building. A wheelchair ramp added to the side of a building is the classic example of a fix or “retrofit.” “Wheelchair Ramp Sign” by Mark Buckawicki is Licensed under CC0 1.0 Public Domain

I’ve come to think about access within the context of writing programs as necessary on multiple levels. There are many different contexts that make up writing programs. Each context is packed with the stuff of rhetoric: power relationships, narratives, history, infrastructures, social conventions, etc. I find Margaret Price’s conception of kairotic spaces particularly useful in understanding how to cultivate accessibility within a writing program. She defines kairotic spaces as the less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” (Multimodality in Motion). Price argues that kairotic spaces are important to pay attention to because they combine “spontaneity with high levels of professional/academic impact” and examining power relationships is inherent to understanding how they work (Multimodality in Motion). Price adds that people do not perceive or experience these spaces in exactly the same ways and “their impact tends to be underestimated by those who move through them with relative ease” (Multimodality in Motion). I’d like to take this opportunity to examine some of the kairotic spaces that make up the undergraduate Writing Fellows program at UW-Madison.

I’ll focus on four spaces: collaborations between writing tutors and their peers, spaces that program leaders (or WPAs) move through, spaces for tutor education, and spaces where writing tutors interact with each other. Of course these spaces are overlapping, but isolating them will allow me to break down power relationships and barriers to access within them. My goal in identifying these kairotic spaces is to open conversation about how we can lead with accessibility, making participation for all stakeholders–writing tutors, student-writers, and program leaders–more accessible and inclusive.

Collaborations Between Writing Tutors and Student-Writers

First I’ll focus on collaborations between writing tutors and student-writers, in particular how we conceptualize those collaborations in tutor education. Difference plays a large role within the honors seminar for new Writing Fellows at UW-Madison–we discuss how we should treat language varieties, multilingual writers, our roles within structural inequality, etc. And yet, we expect every writing tutor to meet every student’s individual needs. This can feel overwhelming, and tutors tend to doubt their own abilities to prioritize individuals within a system that privileges standards.

And yet, when I assigned Allison Hitt’s “Access for All: The Role of Disability in Multiliteracy Centers”, the writing tutors showed me that if we shift how we think about difference, we can be adaptable. In other words, if we assume that all individuals are different, we can construct pedagogies that are inherently flexible and adaptable. And yet, we cannot ignore the significant differences that exist between how a disabled student and a student of color might experience an interaction with a White, seemingly able-bodied writing tutor. As Margaret Price puts it, “their [kairotic spaces’] impact tends to be underestimated by those who move through them with relative ease” (Multimodality in Motion). We need to acknowledge that there are inequalities present in who gets to move with ease through the kairotic spaces of higher education, but Hitt’s model of “a more accessible multiliteracy pedagogy” gives us hope that we can adapt ourselves to each situation, and remove some of the burden from the individual who is expected to conform to particular standards.

The course ended with writing tutors wanting more–they wanted to be exposed to more tutoring practices that draw upon multiple modes and multiple literacies. Instead of having isolated conversations about new media writing and accessibility, they want to use those as lenses for their entire practice. To respond, I am currently planning a workshop in which writing tutors will generate strategies that draw upon multimodality and mutliliteracies to help each other employ more flexible and adaptable practices.

Access and The Work of the WPA

The second category of kairotic spaces includes the spaces that program leaders (or WPAs) move through–classrooms, office hours, staff meetings, one-time workshops, and leadership team meetings. There are many other university-level spaces that program leaders move through: department meetings, meetings with deans, division meetings, etc. These spaces are highly kairotic, by which I mean they are laden with uneven power relationships, especially for graduate students or untenured faculty, and they can be spontaneous yet they maintain high expectations for performance and professionalism.

In order to understand how access works within these spaces, I will briefly describe my own experiences of seeking access as a visually impaired person in these spaces. This work often falls into three categories: technical, verbal, internal.

The technical work involves making sure all the program and course materials (handbooks, readings, handouts, slides, student papers, presentations, multimodal projects) are available to me in accessible formats. In addition, I have to arrange spaces in a way that makes students’ body language and facial expressions more accessible to me, and this is often limited by the size of the group, the physical space of the room, and the lighting.

Image description: A laptop, an iPad, and a smartphone are sitting on a table near each other. All screens have large white text on black backgrounds. This is what accessible materials look like to me. Unless materials look like this, I cannot read them. And yes I do often use all three devices at once!

Image description: A laptop, an iPad, and a smartphone are sitting on a table near each other. All screens have large white text on black backgrounds.
This is what accessible materials look like to me. Unless materials look like this, I cannot read them. And yes I do often use all three devices at once!

The work is verbal too. At the beginning of the semester I explain to students that I only read digital documents, I might hold papers close to my face, and I might not immediately recognize their faces on the street or in the halls. I have to remind them that they shouldn’t raise their hands because I can’t always see them, but I confuse them when I do see their raised hands. I have to remind colleagues and students again and again to provide me with materials in accessible formats.

Some of the work is internal too. I worry about missing facial expressions and body language and as a result being perceived as standoffish, aloof, or unfriendly. I contemplate when and how to remind people of all of this but I sometimes choose not to because of what I call access fatigue, or being plain sick of having to ask for access.

Peer Tutors’ Own Access Needs

The third category of kairotic spaces includes the spaces that tutors move through in their capacities as Writing Fellows: introducing themselves to their assigned courses, meeting with their assigned course instructors, meeting with student-writers for conferences, etc. While we spend some time thinking about how to make our practices accessible to students’ individual needs, we spend even less time thinking about how to make tutoring practices accessible to writing tutors themselves. In other words, i raise the question, how can we conceptualize tutoring practices as flexible and multiple for writing tutors themselves?

I think it is easy for tutors and program leaders alike to envision an “ideal” writing tutor–she is likely bubbly, extroverted, patient, caring, and confident. While those are qualities that some people find helpful to their success as writing tutors, it is dangerous to ignore the many other personalities and traits that make great writing tutors. I know many shy and introverted people who make great writing tutors. My question for tutor educators, then, is: how can we help writing tutors discover practices that are accessible to themselves, as well as to student-writers? What multimodal and multiliterate practices can we explore to expand the realm of accessible tutoring strategies for both tutors and student-writers?

Program Community and Accessibility

The final category of kairotic spaces includes times and places where writing tutors interact with other writing tutors: in staff meetings, tutor education courses and workshops, social events, conferences, etc. I consider this category of spaces to be the dimension of accessibility that I, as a program leader, have the least control over, yet I consider it to be one of the most important.

Former Writing Fellows Jessica Marinelli and Joe Steele participate in a class discussion during the Writing Fellows honors seminar. Writing Fellows’ interactions with one another is another crucial site for cultivating accessibility. Photo credit: Jeff Miller, 2004

Cultivating accessibility from the position of a course instructor or program leader feels more straightforward in the sense that I have power in many situations. I can write an accessibility statement into my tutor education syllabus or a program handbook, and I can present accessible options to tutors in my office, and technically they will listen (at least partially) because I have authority. But how can our efforts to create a culture of accessibility trickle down to how tutors treat one another?

All of this requires that we challenge our own assumptions and think creatively about new possibilities. I also believe that access is relational, meaning that access is either granted or denied in relation between two or more people. If access is relational, then we need to create a culture in which accessibility is practiced among all individuals who are touched by writing programs–tutors, student writers, and program leaders–in every direction (up-down and side-to-side). While writing can serve as a tool that excludes and stratifies, we need to participate in a hard but important battle of tutoring writing to create more opportunities for more people.

Featured image: “In Focus” by Jonathan Gross is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

8 thoughts on “Access as a Lens for Peer Tutoring

  1. This was an awesome piece. It challenges my own prior knowledge and assumptions about access. Thanks for sharing from your own experiences.

  2. This is so thoughtful! I love the way it attends to the many different kinds of relationships that circulate in a writing center.

    This is exactly the kind of work everyone at SWCA was just saying is needed!

  3. Thank you for this piece, Annika! Ever since class, access is one of the first things I address with my students at the start of the semester. Is there a learning style that works best for them? Is there a location on campus that works better for them than the one I suggested? Do they need a different format for their feedback, such as an electronic or paper version? Instead of adding an “accessibility clause” at the end of my initial introduction email, I attempt (and sometimes admittedly fail) to be constantly cognizant of both my students’ access and my own. In my mind, this isn’t “accommodation” – This is recognizing, as you pointed out, that ” if we assume that all individuals are different, we can construct pedagogies that are inherently flexible and adaptable” to all.

  4. Thanks for such a smart post, Annika! I love the way you foreground the issue of labor on the part of the individual who needs access to some aspect of their course. I also think the way you’re identifying the danger around assuming what a “good” personality looks and sounds like. This is something I don’t see talked about enough but one WPAs need to consider seriously when we train instructors of any kind. Finally, your constant attention to power and the relational components of access push me to think less like a “checklist” and more like the creative thinking your suggest. Still very much a work in progress, though, but work like yours helps me move in that direction.

  5. What a thoughtful and important post, Annika! This really helped me think about how I can frame questions of access when I teach English 403 again. Thank you so much!

  6. Great post, Annika! The way you situate questions of access in writing program contexts as “necessary on multiple levels” motivates me to think more critically about work I do with Writing Across the Curriculum. As I move across different contexts (courses, programs, disciplines, departments, divisions, universities) and “genres” of WAC work (writing center workshops, one-on-one consultations with faculty, training sessions, instructional materials in the WAC Sourcebook), I encounter differences in power, practices, and presumptions. In contexts where I can prepare materials and consider my approach ahead of time, I feel more equipped to “lead with accessibility” than I do in contexts where my engagement with instructors is more “in the moment.” Your call to nuance the multiple layers of engagement experienced across our writing and teaching work, however, is helping me think through how I can more actively recognize possibilities for cultivating accessibility across these different contexts.

  7. Thanks for sharing this piece, Annika! I’m excited to discuss it with some of the E100 instructors today :).

  8. I love the language of relationality! In my community of instructors designing courses for online learners, we talk about access as a valuable regulation that improves the quality of the material for all learners—a less humane and more institutional perspective. You persuade me that I should think about access in terms of what I owe my students and colleagues, Annika: as a teacher who cares about access I will also be a teacher who cares about my students, and who helps students care about each other (and me).

    One of the concerns that tends to arise in these conversations is that we are not trained to how to make our materials more accessible. That is, in addition to the core skillset of our discipline and the (often separate) skillset of being able to teach within that discipline, we would add the skillset of being able to teach online and of being able to make online learning accessible. I can see the 400-page books labeled “BEST PRACTICES IN…” proliferating on my desk as I type that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *