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Composition Forum 48, Spring 2022

A Space for Small Inventions: Access Negotiation Moments and Planned Adaptation in the Writing Classroom

Rachel Herzl-Betz

Abstract: This article seeks to theorize the pedagogical work disabled instructors navigate to create accessible writing classrooms. Through retroactive analysis, I introduce the concept of Access Negotiation Moments (ANMs) as limited, low-stakes contexts where disabled instructors define the limits of their own access needs. Ultimately, I theorize a framework for planned access negotiation, so instructors can build this necessary labor into the course-planning process. Disabled instructors are already doing this work on a daily basis, but we are only beginning to give it the meta-analytical space it deserves.

“I know [access choice] is good for my students, but I can’t do it right now.”

“I don’t know how.”

“I don’t have the time.”

“I don’t have the resources.”

“It’s important and I don’t want to screw it up.”

As a Writing Center Director who studies disability, I often help faculty members design accessible writing and composition courses. In the process, we confront variations on these quoted conflicts and, often, a deep pedagogical guilt. Some instructors convince themselves that the access choices they’re facing aren’t necessary, but most place accessibility on a pedagogical to-do list. We all have to make choices. Maybe access will take priority for the next class or over the summer or next year or after COVID-19. I’m ashamed to say that my first response to their caveats can be dismissive. “Get it together,” my inner voice directs. “You teach. Teach everyone.” We can’t opt out, that voice wants to say. “It needs to happen today.”{1}

But then I remember the contexts when I haven’t made it happen in my own classroom. I remember how many semesters I, as a disability-focused educator, haven’t included all the forms of accessibility that I know are necessary. I think about the ways I haven’t followed my own best intentions. Specifically, I think about the contexts where my classroom has been too rigid for my scholarly understanding of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).{2} I know it and haven’t done it, in part, because it’s felt fundamentally inaccessible for how my bodymind functions in the classroom (Price The Bodymind Problem). I identify as a disabled instructor; I have a panic disorder and I’ve always wanted to foster more access-centric flexibility in my classes. I knew the pedagogy I wanted to practice, I had read the scholarship, and yet I hadn’t made those changes. They felt, simultaneously, broad enough to impact an entire course and important enough that I couldn’t risk messing them up. So I postponed them again and again, convincing myself that I had to wait until I could do them justice. Then, something changed.

During the Spring semester of 2019, I found myself with a fortunate problem. One course seemed more accessible than usual and I wasn’t sure why. I first noticed the difference in April when I came into my “Writing and Access” class with a plan. In ten minutes that plan went out the window and a much better plan, invented largely in-the-moment, took its place. It was a beautiful bit of chaos which highlighted two things. 1) I didn’t panic. In another context, I might have been shaken for days. 2) Because of pedagogical moves earlier in the semester, I’d inadvertently set myself up to succeed. Without making sweeping changes, I had done the work to create a class that was accessible to my own embodied rhetorical needs. That class period and that shift, which likely went by without much fanfare for my students, allowed me to re-evaluate the course and determine how I’d given myself the “room to move” (Cedillo). Or, more accurately, how we created a space where the students and the instructor could be supported in their access needs.

I found myself able to negotiate my embodied rhetorical needs in the classroom because I had chosen classroom structures, assignments, readings, and rhetorics that created what I am calling Access Negotiation Moments (ANMs). By that, I mean moments where instructors explore the limits of their own access needs. They are, by definition, limited and can therefore function as testing spaces for larger pedagogical transformations.

A few examples of Access Negotiation Moments in action:

  • A brief lesson plan that tests the full-length version of a trauma-related lesson

  • An asynchronous discussion of a triggering topic, so the instructor can gauge their comfort as a respondent

  • A low-stakes assignment that offers live conversation as an assessment option, thus giving the instructor the chance to navigate new meetings with a limited number of students

These moments aren’t radical. Disabled instructors and students will recognize them as the daily work of navigating an academic world that isn’t built with our lives in mind. However, these moments are rarely woven into the fabric of what it means to plan a classroom community. The work happens without being given meta-analytical weight. In pedagogical scholarship, we navigate student needs and, increasingly, our own acts of disclosure, but we rarely theorize how our bodyminds respond to new pedagogical contexts.

In response to that pedagogical gap, this article theorizes the choices that allowed my course to be flexible when it was most necessary. The choices that I made in this course are specific to my identities, my students, and my institution. However, the heuristic that allowed me to navigate my own ANMs offers a framework for engaging with pedagogical access needs. After defining an “access negotiation moment,” I offer a series of retroactively interpreted moments of access negotiation divided into four categories: classroom structure, assignments, readings, and rhetoric. From there, I theorize a framework for access negotiation based on this experience, and, finally, call for further attention to instructor access labor in the classroom. We, as instructors, are doing this work in our praxis, but we are only beginning to give it the scholarly space it deserves.

The Anatomy of an Access Negotiation Moment

Access Negotiation Moments (or ANMs) draw on key touchpoints in disability rhetoric. “Access” centers the conversation on creating pathways in the living and changing environment of the classroom, rather than on creating change in the individual instructor. The focus in this framework is not on “overcoming” disability, but rather on discovering new paths to consistent pedagogical goals. It leans into our understanding of access and disclosure as ongoing processes that may require multiple negotiations. The “access” in “Access Negotiation Moments” centers the discussion on the knowledge that our distinct needs and modes of reception all offer ways of performing accessible pedagogy (Cedillo). “Negotiation” centers the conversation on the ongoing act of discovery in which an accessible pedagogy cannot be declared complete. It is, rather, a discussion between the self and the larger community that is always “continuing to unfold” (Price and Kerschbaum 33). That rhetorical space between “access” and “negotiation” also highlights Jay Dolmage’s understanding of metis as a disability-centric “sideways” kind of cunning (“Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza, Medusa” 1). In essence, ANMs are identified contexts for adaptation. As disabled instructors, we are always engaged in metis as the rhetorical dance that makes a home for our bodyminds in inhospitable spaces. Naming our Access Negotiation Moments calls attention to contexts when we’ve created effective spaces for discovery. Finally, the word “moments” in ANMs draws on Margaret Price’s “kairotic moments” as temporally limited opportunities for creation (Mad). Together, these references frame structured moments when we test and re-test classrooms as environments for our own embodied rhetorical needs.

In the context of ANMs, one’s “embodied rhetorical needs” indicate two forms of rhetoricity: 1) how the body speaks through writing and 2) how the body speaks through movement. The former draws on the ways that writing can “reconnect our thinking with our particular bodies” (Knoblauch Bodies of Knowledge 60) and the latter on the ways that bodily movements can themselves make arguments in the world (Dolmage, Hawhee, Chavez). Therefore, the embodied rhetorical needs negotiated in these moments include what is necessary to make both forms of communication possible. They are the moves needed to allow a relationship with disability to speak in written course materials (such as assignments) and in physical movements throughout the course (such as toggling between screenshare options in Zoom).

While many rhetorical spaces can serve as testing grounds for instructor access, the framework for Access Negotiation Moments in this article is deliberately narrow. ANMs share a limited timeframe, lower stakes, and greater instructor control. Those limitations, as artificial as they may be, allow for greater exploration, particularly when the access choice being explored feels urgent. When planned in advance, these limited ANMs can allow for structured negotiation and targeted access goals. For a counterexample, imagine rhetorical spaces where disabled instructors must adapt to fundamentally inaccessible contexts: someone enters the classroom and assumes the wheelchair user isn’t the instructor, a conference organizer doesn’t tell presenters to describe their images, or a Deaf professor teaches to a room full of masks. Those are forced (often traumatic) moments of access negotiation, but they aren’t ANMs. As common as they may be in academia, they aren’t temporally limited, low-stakes, or under the instructor’s control. They also aren’t moments that we willingly plan into our pedagogical process. The goal, then, is to use ANMs to limit the traumatic power of those moments we cannot control. By working ANMs into our planning process, we learn how we move and reserve energy for the ableism that arises without our consent.

As opportunities to increase the range of possibility in the classroom, ANMs overlap with learning theory frameworks such as scaffolding (Wood et al.) and the Vygotskian zone of proximal development (Vygotsky). The zone of proximal development, or ZPD, refers to the difference between the skills a student can accomplish with support and the things they can accomplish without support. While scaffolding and ZPD are often relevant to an instructor’s negotiated classroom access, it’s important to have separate terminology for growth that is not centered on new knowledge or development. During Access Negotiation Moments, instructors may limit the variables involved in a given decision, much like the ways a teacher scaffolds new skills. They may also draw on external expertise to reach behavior that might not have been possible in isolation, like an instructor trying to understand a student’s zone of proximal development. However, Access Negotiation Moments specifically center on limited risk and on the space to discover pre-existing skills. For example, we might consider a class that doesn’t engage in large-group discussions. A scaffolding framework might focus on new strategies a teacher could gradually teach themselves, while an Access Negotiation framework would focus on existing strategies from other aspects of the instructor’s life that might transfer to this context. ANMs allow existing forms of knowledge and abilities to flourish in inhospitable spaces. In other words, many ANMs may include elements of self-scaffolding and may draw on an instructor’s ZPD, but the terms are neither interchangeable nor suited to the same goals.

ANMs can also provide space to prioritize the instructor’s intersecting pedagogical identities. For example, in Access Negotiation Moments, as in all educational spaces “the histories of white supremacy and ableism are inextricably entwined” (Sins Invalid 18). Therefore, disabled instructors with historically marginalized racial identities must simultaneously navigate two forms of self-representation in the classroom. Students may respond differently to access choices made by nonbinary Black instructors as opposed to those who present as cis white men. Moreover, the entwined connection between racism and ableism can also shape the instructor’s negotiation process in ways that go beyond audience response. For example, an instructor’s lifetime of responding to academic racism may shape whether they feel prepared to share their experience of chronic illness. Those experiences may provide transferable strategies, but they may also cause trauma that imbues ANMs with greater peril. For multipy marginalized instructors, ANMs are simply one more space where “risk and vulnerability are imperative for participation in academic life” (Jackson and Cedillo 111).

Allowing Disclosure to Carry Less Weight

This article supplements necessary arguments for disclosure by theorizing additional tools that instructors use to negotiate access needs in their classrooms. By exploring the ways that instructors create their own accessible paths, I aim to add to the literature that frames disclosure as a vital choice. Like M. Elston, “I do not owe the details of my diagnosis to anyone,” but she and I have both chosen disclosure when it is the best pedagogical tool at hand (17). The goal is to help instructors analyze the full range of tools they have been putting to use and thereby allow disclosure to carry less rhetorical weight.

Disclosure remains a vital pedagogical tool in the classroom. It allows instructors to model how “one can have authority and an intellectual life and a career” as a disabled instructor (Bruggemann et al. 13). For professors read as inherently incapable, that public presence constitutes a “political argument about the rights of disabled people to exist in public space” (Ho et al. 129). Existence, education, and accommodations remain contested ground for disabled communities and, as long as that is the case, publicly claiming a disabled identity at work will remain radical. It will also remain vital because that rhetorical work isn’t possible under “a veneer of neutrality” (Ho et al. 137). Teaching tips and resources that encourage invisible adaptations, so instructors can avoid disclosure, may seem liberatory, but they often mask internalized ableism. Instructors may be negotiating rational fears that their employers will not support public disclosure and that fear impacts multiply marginalized disabled communities more acutely (Selznink; Brueggemann et al.). However, that fear calls for external critique and instructor support rather than tacit agreement that disability ought to remain a secret.

When instructors embrace its radical possibility, disclosure becomes an opportunity to perform self-identity as a process and to create ongoing spaces for students to share. Even in the most controlled contexts, disability disclosure is “an ongoing process of continuously, in a variety of settings and contexts, performing and negotiating disability awareness and perceptibility” (Kerschbaum et al. 1). Those who wish to do so can help students to understand disclosure as an ongoing relationship with people, spaces, and contexts by highlighting their own changing access needs. That performative labor creates rhetorical spaces for students to disclose their own relationships to disability and fosters an environment where disability isn’t taboo (Pritchard). As Hillary Selznick argues, her choice to disclose “fostered a spirit of what DS and rhetoric scholars refer to as interdependence in our small writing community.” In Dr. Selznick’s case, students didn’t choose to disclose, but they did frame a reliance on others as a communal good.

Even as disclosure remains an important part of a disabled instructor’s toolkit, it can provoke more questions than answers, particularly when professors don’t know what it is that they’re disclosing, what access support they need, or why they should have it. Disability “stabilizes most in its instability” and our identities are “made and remade” as instructors navigate through new classes and contexts (Brueggemann 794; Brown et al. 4). They change, morph, and emerge. Instructors are also moving through their lives, so the access needs of a first-time graduate instructor may not map onto the same instructor ten years, or even ten months, later; the road from one classroom’s accommodations to the next may not be direct or predictable. In other words, instructors—much like students—may not show up fully-formed. If we map that fluidity onto the ongoing nature of disclosure, bringing the instructor’s access needs to the fore can feel less like adding one variable and more like adding a dozen.

Disability scholars are well aware of disclosure’s logistical and emotional complexity. We are often called upon to become an object lesson in our own classrooms, thus turning our bodyminds and experiences into “the sites of students’ education about minority and minoritized identities, including disability” (Ho et al. 135). Allowing our bodyminds to model disability’s potential can be generative, but that labor disproportionately weighs on minoritized bodyminds. When disabled faculty are isolated on campus, disclosure can read as an implied requirement and refusing to disclose becomes a rhetorical act synonymous with shame (Samuels My Body, My Closet; Siebers; Mauldin). Often, “to ‘fail’ to disclose is to indicate that [instructors] are not comfortable with their identities” or even “that they are at a more nascent stage of personal development” compared to their colleagues (Sanchez 217). That ability to “speak openly” and with ease seems to indicate maturity and a readiness to use embodiment as a teaching tool. Beside the implied judgement of “failed” disclosure sits a false dichotomy; one is presumed to be either “out” or not. This black and white narrative is belied by the complexity of disclosure as a lived, ongoing experience for students and their instructors.

Disclosure can help students to find their own paths through an inaccessible education system, but a single rhetorical choice (performed a million times and a million ways) need not carry that weight alone. ANMs instead include a multitude of small moments of access negotiation thereby giving acts of classroom disclosure the same theoretical nuance we afford to other contexts, where it is constantly one of many viable options (and one that is never politically neutral). With the weight distributed more accurately, the act of disclosure has the freedom to be more imperfect, more tentative, more limited, and more of a choice.

Access Negotiation Moments in Motion{3}

I am an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of the Writing Center at a public, teaching-focused college. However, in the Spring of 2019, when I taught the course I discuss in this article, I was a non-tenture track, grant-funded staff member. As anyone in academia can attest, that difference matters. As of Fall 2021, Nevada State College serves roughly seven thousand, two hundred students, 40% of which identify as Hispanic and 32% of which identify as first-generation college students. The course in question, “Writing and Access,” was an upper-level English class on accessibility rhetoric designed for a broad range of majors and academic levels. While the community included one upper-level English major, it also featured two freshmen, one math major, several STEM seniors, and three Deaf Studies majors. By the end of the class, we were able to co-create a more radically flexible conversation, but first we needed the opportunity to negotiate collective flexibility in small, temporally bounded contexts. We needed Access Negotiation Moments to serve as a roadmap for larger structural change.

For analysis, I break the Access Negotiation Moments in “Writing and Access” into four categories: those created by course structure or policies, those created by a specific assignment, those created by course readings, and those created by classroom rhetorical choices. This doesn’t cover all of the negotiation moments from that class, nor does it cover all possible contexts. This selection identifies one set of contexts in which we, as instructors, create access opportunities and models how to plan for those contexts in future classes.

Moments #1 and 2: Course structure

“Writing and Access” used a contract grading structure drawn from my colleagues, Dr. Laura Decker and Dr. Kathryn Tucker who, in turn, drew on a laundry list of scholarship on the value of assessment grounded in labor and process (Inoue; Womack; Stommel; Danielewicz and Elbow). This was my second time using a contract grading structure and my first time in a 400-level classroom. I chose this framework, along with livegrading meetings and a class-determined participation rubric, to bring my grading practices in line with the course’s learning goals. If I wanted my students to see large-scale revision as the most important part of the class, then revision had to be the most important part of their final grade. This meant that writers who came in with more experience might have an easier path to the highest grade, but that path would be accessible to all writers who engaged in the revision process.

I intended for these grading structures to make my classroom more antiracist and more accessible than it had been in previous semesters. “Ungrading,” contract grading, and other labor-based grading practices can address academic racism and ableism by decentering the forms of assessment that reward normative language, rhetorics, and time (Inoue; Womack). In practice, they also created Access Negotiation Moments, which meant moving through moments of rhetorical miscommunication. In a weekly reflection, for example, one student asked a question about the contract grading system that I thought I’d explained. I followed up with other members of the class and discovered that I needed to clarify this grading system more than with previous structures. Each new explanation—through models, discussion, and one-on-one conversation—became an opportunity to negotiate new ground. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was testing response strategies that would allow me to be publicly flexible. I tried powering through without practice, leaning on humor, responding asynchronously, and giving the class the opportunity to explain what I couldn’t. Only one or two strategies worked, but that was fine, because the stakes and timeframe were both low. If I found myself shutting down, I stopped, switched direction, and planned for a context when I could try again.

Without conscious planning, negotiating access moments in my course structure reframed my assumptions about instructor access. Some part of me believed that I needed to arrive to the class with my access pedagogy in hand. That meant not needing to revise as we expect our students to do on a regular basis. For example, while co-creating the participation rubric, one student asked whether we could change how course participation would be evaluated. I’d planned on assigning one participation reflection, but he asked if they could reflect more often, so they could gauge their progress. The rest of the class agreed, so the syllabus changed and that change rippled through the semester. As the first of many changes to my grading process, this moment created space to navigate my own movement, because it took place in a planned, limited space for co-creation. It also offered one of many opportunities to respond and reevaluate a previous plan. I couldn’t have predicted the specific student request, but because I’d set aside time to co-create the participation rubric, I had created a time-bound, low-stakes context where that kind of request could have space to land.

Moment #3: Course Assignments

One of the smallest changes from my previous classroom practice may have yielded the greatest dividends for my navigation in the classroom. Like most instructors, I’ve long assigned some form of presentation. I offer alternatives for those with presentation-related disabilities and students often collaborate on their chosen topics. In this class, I reframed presentations as “co-teaching” days. In groups of three to five, students chose their own means of building on the week’s topic and then had 30-45 minutes to teach their chosen concepts to the rest of the community. Since the time was designated for teaching rather than presenting, almost no one chose to simply talk at the class. Instead, they got creative. One group had the class write haikus, another assigned the class to design a codemeshed course description, while a third group used a trending hashtag to discuss travel accessibility. In other words, they designed lessons with themselves in mind.

In addition to the new framework, I factored crip time into the assignment. Since, going over or under the planned time wasn’t penalized, I also practiced navigating temporal choices that were out of my control. The concept of crip time is part of a larger Crip Studies and Crip Justice project to destabilize ableist and homophobic normativity (McRuer; Schalk; Kafer; Kuppers). Cripping time is to reassert the value of temporal flexiblility because bodyminds don’t work according to statistical norms (Price; Samuels; Wood Cripping Time). For classroom instructors, featuring crip time means de-centering normative expectations for how students move through time. In my case, timeliness wasn’t a learning goal of the assignment, so I made the timeframe a suggestion rather than a requirement. Every student’s teaching choice was effective and, since few of the class participants were experienced instructors, they took wildly different amounts of time. Most took longer than expected, and each instance of flexibility created a small Access Negotiation Moment as I reshaped my plan for the hour, the day, and (occasionally) the semester. Some days, that meant quietly clinging to my chair to keep from cutting off a brilliant student lesson, but the moments paid off. After five or six instances, I found more effective ways of navigating that anxiety. By the end of the course, I was capable of tossing out a full day’s plan, because I had already navigated multiple paths in more limited contexts.

Moment #4: Course readings

I chose my course readings in “Writing and Access” for the usual mix of content coverage, genre modeling, and sheer pleasure. Inadvertently, I also chose pedagogical models that would keep me accountable. I had the luxury of teaching a class about accessibility, so I could ask the students to read scholars like Manako Yabe and Vershawn Ashanti Young, who explicitly speak to the pedagogical implications of their research (Young et al.). These texts provided in-real-time aspirational models and kept my feet to the fire when other pressures might have led me away from my pedagogical goals. A foundational concept in genre theory involves offering students models for the “typified rhetorical action” we expect them to complete (Miller 159). By providing examples of how they might navigate the rhetorical expectations of the assignment, we demonstrate the elements which should remain static and those that offer room to move. In the context of my own negotiation, that meant incorporating pedagogical models into the class itself. When my students discussed the ethical and pedagogical value of specific classroom practices, I made myself responsible for the ethical practices in my own classroom. For example, we read Neil Simpkins’ “Toward an Understanding of Accommodation Transfer” and then found ourselves addressing a gap in my grading schema. I originally chose the article because it offered a relatively user-friendly way to explore the impact of student accommodations in college writing classrooms. I’d explored all of the course readings in the past, along with scholarship from Price, Wood, Womack, and others who argue for the inherent ableism of normative timeliness and presence in the classroom. I just hadn’t negotiated how that student-centered accessibility would work for my own bodymind.

Reading scholars such as Simpkins and Cedillo with my class created the Access Negotiation Moments I needed to turn an access goal into practice. Those discussions forced me to confront the harm caused by policies that I knew weren’t the best for my students and gave all of us the time to work through the access conflict inherent in such a move. I never directly brought up my own conflict about fully flexible course structures, in part because students took on that role. While some students spoke to how freeing they found self-paced courses, others spoke to the anxiety flexible courses could provoke. One classmate’s open space for creation was another’s unbounded wilderness. That discussion allowed us to work through lingering concerns that we shared because of access conflicts and because we’d been socialized in the same systems. They asked how students could be “trusted” to push themselves when given flexibility, and expressed fear that faculty members might lose productive forms of structure in the classroom. Together, we worked to identify the systemic oppression behind our shared assumptions and to move forward without causing harm.

Moment #5: Course Rhetoric

Finally, it’s important to note that disclosure created its own Access Negotiation Moments in my classroom. When we first discussed the intersection between Deaf Studies and Disability Studies, I chose to frame a comment in class by referring to my identity as “a disabled instructor.” I aimed for a casual tone, even though I’d been thinking about that moment since I decided to teach the course. The students in the course who knew me in other contexts might have been surprised by how much I planned my disclosure, since I speak about my relationship to disability so often in my Writing Center leadership roles. In retrospect, my resistance to in-class disclosure had to do with the weight I’d allowed that rhetorical choice to carry in previous classroom contexts.

In the past, I’d found myself trying to use disclosure as a political, rhetorical, pedagogical, and logistical act. As a political act, it felt necessary to make my embodiment and access needs legible. As a rhetorical and pedagogical act, I wanted to draw, in part, on my own experience to discuss how neuroatypical writers navigate the revision process. As a logistical act, I wanted to frame the importance of respecting access needs in the classroom. Add in the relative liminality of anxiety disorders in disability studies, and it made sense why I either couched my disclosure in studied nonchalance or chose not to disclose at all (Vidalli Disabling Writing Program Administration). I figured that if I couldn’t do it “right” I might as well avoid the conversation altogether.

Luckily, this class was filled with ANMs, so disclosure functioned as one part of a larger conversation. Scholarly voices ensured that I wasn’t the lone representative for disability in the classroom, previous discussions of psychiatric disability removed some of the weight of proving my place in the disability community, and previous references to the work of disclosure made performativity a spoken part of the conversation. As such, the moment required little negotiation and I could focus on the ways that students responded to the rhetorical call. Many students in the class responded by sharing their own relationships to diagnosis, medication, and neuroatypicality.{4} Just as importantly, students made nuanced connections between that choice and other ways in which classroom writing assignments call on students to disclose intimate relationships with language, class, race, sexuality, and gender. In other words, disclosure played a small part in creating a rhetorical space where students could draw on their relationships to disability, but where they weren’t required to disclose in order to join the discussion. It enriched our classroom as a context for “learning with’ disability,” but wasn’t responsible for the rhetorical weight of creating that kairotic space (Kerschbaum Anecdotal Relations).

Retrospective Recognition

Access Negotiation Moments may be pedagogical tools, but they are equally significant for their normalcy. I hadn’t noticed their impact until one day, late in the semester, when I announced that we were going to create a workshop for the all-faculty and staff meeting known as Convocation. Convocation is made up of mini-workshops spearheaded by campus leaders and I thought the class would be excited to have space on the agenda. I figured we would create a list of practical changes that would make classroom pedagogy more accessible to students. I had visions of snappy titles like “5 Steps to a More Accessible Classroom” that could demystify access discourses around disability, race, sexuality, and gender without alienating an administrative audience. To my mind, it was a kind of undercover operation.

As I laid out my plan, I couldn’t read the energy in the room, so I paused and asked how they felt about the idea. I’m infinitely grateful to the student who let me know that what I was proposing was beside the point. The faculty could make changes in their own classrooms, but that wouldn’t change the fundamental academic structures that left individual students and teachers to create their own accessible spaces. As she spoke, others arrived to the conversation. One quiet student said that she’d had to create similar presentations for other classes. In her experience, students gave everything to create the perfect workshop and the powers-that-be ignored what they had to say. Campus leaders used the students as evidence of their virtuous work, but never seemed interested their experience or knowledge. As my students spoke, they explicitly framed campus accessibility as raced, classed, and deeply limited. They had performed their respectable genres over and over again, like good little students, and nothing had changed.

So, we left the day’s plan behind. We decided that rather than coming in with a planned genre (such as a proposal, a researched article, or a list of strategies), we would let our chosen access problem(s) guide the form of our response. Together, we filled whiteboards with forms of inaccessibility on our own campus. None were specific to our campus and all had a local relevance. The problems were both as small as the options on the cafeteria menu and as large as the role of standardized testing in education, but they coalesced around an intersection between the class’s research and their lived experience. That engagement with personal pain brought up anger and frustration, particularly for students who knew they wouldn’t be on campus long enough to create meaningful change.

As they spoke, I realized that their response had also brought up my own fears as a disabled white woman performing “whitestream,” academic professionalism (Cedillo). The response that my students wanted to explore wasn’t neat, easily-contained, or couched in the language of neutrality. It was leaky and unpredictable. It was broad and emotional and embodied. It was grounded in the experience of students made to sit on panels and parrot language given to them by those who could revoke their student aid; it was grounded in the experience of bussing hours through transforming identities to get to campus and the pain of being repeatedly told that their bodies, minds, and languages, might not be the right fit for college after all. Their responses were pissed off and exhausted and bored to tears of having to parrot the same thing ad nauseam.

They were also right.

The “workshop” I’d envisioned was an opportunity to translate our dynamic course conversation into language that faculty members could—theoretically—take on without reshaping their relationship to accessibility. It also didn’t require buy-in from administrators, because that felt like a different fight, one best held behind closed doors. Most of all, my strategy was eminently ignorable. It offered the opportunity to feel educated while ignoring the lived impact of being left out of education.

In the end, we embraced long-term, messy, and ambitious ideas. They centered on a student-led organization for institutional accessibility that cared about both adjunct health care and whether Deaf students had access to captioned lectures. The class imagined an organization that wasn’t particularly interested in respectable, established forms of change. As an early group action, they imagined following the model of the Disability Studies Special Interest group (SIG) at the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). That year, the SIG took direct action by adding post-it notes to signs celebrating the conference’s accessibility. Each note highlighted one way that the conference was not, in fact, done becoming accessible and the students imagined doing the same for our own campus (Osorio).

By the end of class, they’d created a plan that was simultaneously impossibly ambitious and more realistic about the labor required to create institutional change. In this article, I’ve chosen not to write about their choices after our class came to an end, in part, to honor the fact that the process continues. Many of the students from the class are still in college and are still making change on our campus. I also want to ensure that ANMs aren’t defined by their immediate transformative power. Instead, I want to celebrate the smallness of their visible impact on the class.

Even after all those Access Negotiation Moments, the pedagogical flexibility they enabled was tiny. A single class period followed an unexpected course. If not for our previous work toward accessibility and flexibility, we likely would have gone right into my planned activity. We would have created a workshop and it would have been fine. It would have been an empty little exercise, nothing more. In fact, when I think back I’m struck by how I might not have realized a better opportunity had been there at all. I want to celebrate that smallness because, for those of us who teach and study classroom equity, doing everything as fully as possible can feel like a moral imperative. Of course, we must not do harm. We must teach our colleagues not to do harm. And we are often part of a very small cohort on campus doing access work. It’s also true that all of that labor can leave a pile of recrimination when our own bodyminds aren’t ready to perform the kind of pedagogy we preach. In those moments, it can be difficult to keep creating space for new negotiations, rather that highlighting the seemingly insurmountable gap between our classroom practices and the instructors we wish to become.

This valorization of the moment is not an acceptance of a bit less justice or a bit more harm. It is, instead, a variation on the adage (and famous misquotation) that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.{5} Accessible pedagogical labor, like the work of classroom disclosure, is socially just and non-negotiable as a representative good. Thus, we need frameworks to identify, theorize, and celebrate the small pedagogical inventions that ensure that that we can continue doing the work.

Reflection, Identification, and Negotiation

Theorizing our access negotiation choices in the classroom allows us to plan for upcoming semesters. We already do that work in other aspects of our pedagogy and our access needs deserve that same respect. If we want to support the next generation of disabled teachers, scholars, and public professionals, we must be ready to model all of our pedagogical strategies. The framework that I suggest focuses as much on retroactive analysis as on proactive planning, because we are already doing this work. We are creating space to negotiate new moves in our classrooms. We are building opportunities to try out new technologies, activities, and structures to increase classroom accessibility. We simply aren’t giving ourselves the metacognitive space to understand our own labor and to actively improve our methods. It’s that reflective space that allows for analysis and for pedagogical growth.

To push on the pedagogical choices that feel inaccessible, I offer a reflection-focused set of questions in Appendix 1. Unlike checklists, which imagine disabled people as disembodied symptoms or, worse yet, as lawsuits waiting to happen, I hope these questions can prepare us to “actively work within the times and spaces of disability” in our classrooms (Wood, Dolmage, Price, and Lewiecki-Wilson 147). I encourage you to take notes as you work through the steps and identify the places where an alternate path worked. In this case, identifying what doesn’t work is as important as what does, as long as you’re still tracking the negotiation process.

What’s Next

While each of the questions in Appendix 1 builds on existing scholarship in disability, accessibility, and pedagogy, we’re left with lingering questions about how instructors can create our own accessible classrooms. Writing instructors need research into faculty access negotiation, particularly for remote instruction. The pandemic has made campuses more likely to frame disabled (and particularly immune-compromised) instructors as disposable and disabled students as unpredictable roadblocks. The field urgently needs scholar-practitioners to engage with pathways for sustainable change in remote, hybrid, and face-to-face learning spaces.

Our discipline also needs further scholarship into the ways that institutional equity shapes the access negotiation process. As the prior discussion suggests, individual reflection can’t replace systemic change. Instructor and student access needs are more likely to be at odds when institutional policies are designed to create conflict. For example, if a part-time instructor isn’t allowed to implement class policies that celebrate crip time or interdependence in student work, any access needs they display are likely to appear hypocritical. After all, the instructor is asking for the kind of flexibility they aren’t allowed to give their students. In this case, the instructor can reflect and theorize. They can design a beautiful classroom that negotiates the conflict with grace, but that labor could have been saved by providing them with accessible policies from day one. On a fundamental level, pedagogy cannot be accessible for instructors or students when institutions refuse to support that mission (Womack). I hope future research into Access Negotiation Moments can empower individual instructors while serving that broader, systemic goal. It’s only when students, faculty, and institutions have the tools they need that everyone can simply get down to business and “make it happen.”

Acknowlegements: I would like to thank Molly Appel, Christina Cedillo, Kathryn Tucker, Jollina Simpson, Amani Hoyle, The Nevada State Writing Center community, and the Spring 2019 “Writing and Access” crew. You made this possible and I’m more grateful than I can say.

Appendix 1: Access Negotiation Reflection Questions

  1. Identify a single access-oriented pedagogical goal that has been inaccessible in the past.

  2. Interrogate why this pedagogical goal is important for creating a more accessible, equitable, and effective classroom: Why does your choice feel necessary? Are scholars calling for your choice? Have you considered whether the call to center that pedagogical move is grounded in ableist and/or racist assumptions about classroom norms?

  3. Reflect on what currently makes your chosen pedagogical choice inaccessible. Consider the forms of training, labor, community, support, and time that may not have been available in previous teaching contexts. Which elements of your pedagogy are moveable and which elements are out of your control?

  4. Are there previous contexts where this pedagogical goal has been accessible for your colleagues? What variables made that choice possible? Could you implement those elements in your classroom?

  5. Reflect on teaching contexts where you felt enabled to make accessible choices. When have you come the closest to your vision of pedagogical excellence? Can you recall creating access negotiation moments in previous contexts, regardless of what you called them?

  6. Select a small number of contexts in your next class to prepare for ANMs. It may help to find a pedagogy buddy in your field exploring similar forms of accessibility.

  7. After the semester, consider ways to build on successful ANMs in your pedagogy. How can you build your chosen shifts into new courses?


  1. During Vershawn Ashanti Young’s 2016 talk at the UW Tacoma Symposium on Writing, the final audience question framed antiracist writing instruction as a valuable “long-term” goal that was impossible to do “tomorrow.” Young responded that “If people are dying, you can’t wait.” In fact, he argued, “it needs to happen today.” (Return to text.)

  2. Universal Design for Learning can be understood as “the use of multiple and flexible strategies to address the needs of all students,” much like its umberella term, Universal Design, addresses the use of physical and intellectual space (Dolmage Universal Design: Places to Start). (Return to text.)

  3. This section header is a direct homage to Multimodality in Motion by Kerschbaum et al. (Return to text.)

  4. It is important to note that a student’s disclosure choice is not, in and of itself, a mark of classroom accessibility. See Vidalli Performing the Rhetorical Freak Show, Wood Overcoming Rhetoric, and Saunders on how academia incentivizes student disclosure as a performance of overcoming rhetoric. (Return to text.)

  5. As Robbins argues, the adage is, at best, a misquotation. However, that only supports its use as an antedote to academic perfectionism. (Return to text.)

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