How to create an accessible and non-exploitative classroom (Michelle Ciurria on The Pebble)

 

Happy New Year All!

We are PEA Soup are happy for another entry in The Pebble, this time brought to you by Michelle Ciurria. Dr. Ciurria (self-identifying as a disabled philosopher) is currently on a Visiting Research Fellowship at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has some things to say about crafting classroom environments. This post will be of particular interest as we settle in to craft our courses for the Spring 2021 semester. Here is Dr. Ciurria:

One of the focal points of critical disability theory is the inaccessibility of higher education. Many theorists believe that this inaccessibility is related to the principles of the private sector, which, on a Marxist analysis, have been designed to maximize efficiency and productivity by excluding disabled people. On the same analysis, the workplace, from which disabled people are largely excluded, is a regime of exploitation and alienation that subjugates and exhausts workers. The only solution to ableist exclusion is to combat the capitalist principles that create both ableist exclusion and exploitative labour conditions for the largely nondisabled workforce.

In this post, I will elaborate on the problems outlined above, and then offer 5 proposals for how instructors can design more accessible and humanizing courses. Of course, this will not address the root problem – the close relationship between universities and private business – but it’s something that many instructors can do, even within the confines of the capitalist university.

1. The inaccessible university

Critical disability theorists generally agree that academia is designed to be inaccessible to disabled people, and that “reasonable accommodations” are not an adequate solution.

Shelley Tremain writes that “most institutions of higher education remain largely inaccessible to disabled people, not having incorporated the principles of universal design into their infrastructure, physical design, and day-to-day operations” (2017: 30). Nondisabled people are “tacitly expected and coercively compelled to assimilate into inaccessible educational and work environments” (ibid). Reasonable accommodations are not an adequate solution to inaccessibility, as they do nothing to address the structural barriers that disabled people face. As Tremain puts it, disabled people “must usually medicalize their circumstances and enter a bureaucratic morass in order to get the social goods that they require, that is, must make more effort (and usually considerably more effort) to get the services and resources that they require than nondisabled people make to get comparable services and resources” (31). Making disabled students work harder for equal access creates a “second shift” of invisible work, reminiscent of women’s unpaid caregiving labour, which feminists have correctly identified as a form of oppression and patriarchal control. Why should disabled students have to work harder for equal access to a postsecondary degree? Worst of all, these barriers may deter disabled people from applying to university at all, in anticipation of the extra work they will have to do on top of the nondisabled student’s already-onerous workload (more on which in a moment).

Another problem with accommodations is that they force students to medicalize their disability and present it as a “functional limitation” that hinders the student’s participation in academic life. In reality, it’s the university that has the functional limitation, in that the university’s design principles functions to limit disabled people’s participation, which in turn limits the university’s ability to produce objective knowledge through the incorporation of diverse standpoints (Ciurria 2017). So, the university is limiting its own epistemic functioning by limiting accessibility on campus.

2. The capitalist university

Some critical disability theorists trace the ableist design principles of the university to capitalism’s demand for high productivity at a low cost. Indeed, Marta Russell defines disability as “a socially created category derived from labor relations, a product of the exploitative economic structure of capitalist society: one which creates (and then oppresses) the so-called disabled body as one of the conditions that allow the capitalist class to accumulate wealth” (2019, 16). During the industrial revolution, capitalist owners designed factories to maximize efficiency by excluding people with “minority bodies”: “as work became more rationalized, requiring precise mechanical movements of the body, repeated in quicker succession, [disabled] persons… were seen as—and, without job accommodations to meet their impairments, were—less ‘fit’ to do the tasks required of factory workers, and were increasingly excluded from paid employment” (Russell: 14). Thus, capitalism effectively created a disabled class. We can still see the effects of this process on the workforce today: 80% of disabled people didn’t have a job in 2019, and that number has surely grown in the wake of the pandemic (BLS 2019). The capitalist university is part of the system of biopower apparatuses that exclude disabled people from the workplace, by denying them equal access to a degree.

The problem is only exacerbated by the increasing privatization of public education. As Henry Heller writes in “The Capitalist University,” “the objective of [university] bureaucrats is to transform universities as much as possible to approximate private and profit-making corporations, regarded as models of efficient organization based on the discipline of the market” (2016: 2). Due to the decline of public investment in higher education, universities “are increasingly moving away from their ostensible mission of serving the public good to that of becoming as far as possible like private enterprises,” maximizing productivity and efficiency. This unholy private-public alliance doesn’t just exclude disabled people, but also subjugates the entire academic workforce to the exploitative and alienating conditions that Marx rebuked. In the capitalist university, scholars are encouraged to commodify their knowledge “through patenting, licensing, and copyrighting” deals, are subjected to “administrative standards laid down in accordance with neoliberal principles,” and are ranked by their ability to obtain “outside funding” (2-3). Rather than being a knowledge-producing community, academia has become a factory that produces ideologies and power structures that legitimate the capitalist class. In a sense, academia is now the very pinnacle of capitalism, with tenured professors working alongside “adjuncts,” who are not only grossly underpaid but denied access to basic decision-making forums such as faculty meetings. This is academia’s fascist underbelly.

The principles of the capitalist university also affect students, who are forced to work under many of the same neoliberal principles as their teachers, often by their teachers. Sometimes this is due to administrative overreach, and sometimes it’s due to the internalized capitalism of professors. Grades are a currency used to extract productivity from students, in the same way that wages are used to exploit workers. Rigid grading schemes create divisions between ‘Honors students’ and ‘students on academic probation,’ in the same way that capitalism segregates workers into haves and have-nots. Many students are subjected to capitalistic work regimes that foster a climate of exhaustion, competition, self-doubt, despair, and dishonesty. The main difference between students and professors is that students are paying hard-earned money to be delivered to their own exploitation. They’re oppressed at work, and then again at school.

Even if we were to create a fully accessible campus, this wouldn’t address the exploitative and alienating conditions that afflict even the most privileged students. The only solution to the structural conditions that produce ableism – which are the same conditions that produce alienation – is a rejection of the politics of capitalism. By moving away from the capitalist model, we can create a more inclusive campus that is also less exploitative and less divisive.

3. Ungrading

Since grades, like wages, are a means of maintaining exploitative productivity standards and hierarchies, we as professors need to “ungrade,” or assign less graded work. This doesn’t mean that students won’t do any work: it means that they will assume responsibility over their own education, and use their education as a means of cultivating their own skills and abilities.

For Marx, there is nothing wrong with labour: in fact, labour is essential to human wellbeing. It’s waged work that’s the problem. Capitalists can use their ownership over the means of production to control wages, and can use wages to drive up productivity at the worker’s expense, to suppress dissent by segregating workers into distinct classes and ranks, and to drive down production costs by excluding minorities. Instructors can do the same thing to their students: use grades to drive up productivity, suppress dissent, and marginalize minority students. This is what instructors in fact do when they impose heavy workloads and strict deadlines: drive up productivity along with exhaustion, exploitation, and alienation. Unsurprisingly, academic dishonesty is commonplace, and is a natural and inevitable response to exploitative and alienating work conditions, in which workers have no sense of personal responsibility over the product of their labour or the act of labour itself. In an Orwellian turn, some universities have responded to academic dishonesty by ignoring the underlying causes, and introducing surveillance technology that tracks students’ every move, reinforcing student objectification. This is a panopticon system of control that internalizes the gaze of the oppressor. It should go without saying that we should not accept such Draconian measures.

Sadly, many professors have little control over these matters, as we are increasingly subject to oversight and overreach by administrators who value productivity and efficiency over human decency and autonomy. But many of us do still have some degree of freedom over our teaching. Those of us who do must use this leeway to resist the cooptation and “elite capture” of higher education (Taiwo 2020). Here are a few suggestions for how we can de-capitalize our courses:

(1) Eliminate deadlines and let students turn in all assignments at the end of the semester. This eliminates the need for accommodations for missed work during the semester. This is helpful to students with episodic disabilities such as chronic fatigue syndrome or MS.

(2) Make all readings optional for synchronous classes. If students don’t do the readings, let them learn about the key concepts in class, through the Socratic method of question-and-answer. Many philosophers say they use the Socratic method. If Socrates didn’t assign any readings, then you don’t have to, either. (For asynchronous classes, you will probably have to assign readings or video/audio recordings since you won’t meet with students).

(3) Offer all students an asynchronous and a synchronous option and explain the pros and cons of each. Students with mobility issues, hectic work schedules, or caregiving responsibilities may prefer the asynchronous option, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

(4) Make graded assignments short – a few paragraphs at most. Let students talk about them in class. Less homework improves work-life balance and reduces alienation.

(5) Foster cooperation instead of competition by letting students do assignments in groups.

This proposal might seem unrealistic, but is it any less realistic than decarceration or abolishing the military-industrial complex? All of these industrial complexes are enmeshed with private businesses, which use schools and prisons to commodify people and generate profits and power. Such complexes are naturalized and depoliticized, yet they are part of a network of biopolitical apparatuses that produce disability along with exploitation and segregation. We need to sever the business class’s links to education, medicine, rehabilitation, and other public goods.

Introducing these principles in your classroom will help your students, and will also improve your own life, as you won’t need to work as hard. But that’s not even the best part. You’ll have better relationships with your students if they’re less exhausted and alienated and actually enjoy your class. You’ll feel less hostility towards students if you focus less on their ability to conform to bourgeoise grading rubrics and more on their ability to contribute creatively to class. Do your students enjoy spending time with each other, discussing interesting and important philosophical issues (such as capitalism)? Then you’ve succeeded. You’ll gain more satisfaction from your work if you think of yourself less as a publishing/teaching machine and more as a builder of community, inclusivity, and respect. And you won’t have to deal with academic dishonesty as much – or at all – because you will have eliminated the structural incentives for cheating and lying. Eliminating capitalism from the classroom has a slew of benefits for everyone, and is the best thing you can do for yourself (if you can get away with it).

 

References

  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook,
    Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary, on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/disabl.nr0.htm (visited January 12, 2020).
  2. Ciurria, M. (2017). Objectivity, Diversity, and Uptake: On the Status of Women in Philosophy. Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, 3(3), 1-22.
  3. Heller, H. (2016). The Capitalist University: The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States (1945-2016). Pluto Press.
  4. Russell, M. (2019). Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell. Haymarket Books.
  5. Taiwo, O. (2020, May 7). Identity Politics and Elite Capture. Boston Review: A Political & Literary Forum.
  6. Tremain, S. (2017). Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. University of Michigan Press.

4 Replies to “How to create an accessible and non-exploitative classroom (Michelle Ciurria on The Pebble)

  1. I wonder if you could write a longer version of this post where you provide arguments and reasons to believe your conclusions. As written, this whole thing is “extremely controversial premises. –> extremely controversial conclusions”. (Putting forward these citations as authoritative is extremely controversial, too.)

  2. P.S. Note that while the Marxist analysis of capitalism stuff is obviously nonsense, I am onboard with much of the ungrading stuff here, but for different reasons. My reasons are that in the course of writing *Cracks in the Ivory Tower*, I read a tremendous amount of work on the psychology of learning, and it turns out grading impairs learning.

  3. Thank you for sharing this perspective on the difficulties the university can pose to disabled students. I would be very interested in making my classes more accessible to all students. I do, however, have concerns about the specific suggestions offered here for improving class access.

    1. Let students turn in all work at the end of the semester. — This may help some students, but it will hurt many others. Lots of us need external deadlines to nudge us to start and finish projects, and this strategy will result in an impossible workload at the end of the semester – for the student and also for the teacher. (I assigned a term project due in stages last year, but didn’t put deadlines on the stages. It was a nightmare.)

    2. Make readings optional for synchronous classes. — Reading philosophy texts is a skill that will help students read other dense, difficult texts later in life, such as legal documents and technical articles. So I don’t just want students to understand and engage with the material – I want them to learn this skill.

    3. Offer all students a synchronous and asynchronous option. — This may be good for students; I have no comment on that. But working up both modes is a huge burden on professors, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect it of them.

    4. Make graded assignments short. — I am working towards making most assignments short, but writing a longer paper (structuring it, guiding the reader through transitions, etc) is a skill that I think it’s valuable to teach.

    5. Let students do assignments in groups. — I’ve been assigned group projects as an undergrad. Coordinating, negotiating, dealing with students who don’t do their share… This may well be valuable for teaching teamwork skills, but I for one would not find it made any class I was taking *less* stressful.

    I’d love to hear experiences others have had with any of these suggestions.

  4. Thank you for your comments.

    Jason (if I may), I’m glad to see that you agree with the solution of ungrading, even if you disagree with the problem as stated here. It’s worth elucidating some of your reasons for readers. You say in your book that the math used to calculate grades, and especially GPAs, is incoherent on multiple levels. Different instructors ascribe different meanings to the same grading symbols (A, B, C, etc.). Averaging grades across courses introduces yet more incoherence: if Sally has a 90% in philosophy and 60% in math, her average will be 75%, which doesn’t give a clear picture of her ability in either course – each of which may use very different grading methods (e.g., essays vs. multiple choice). Comparing students across universities introduces yet more incoherence. In addition, there is little evidence that grades represent student ability. Raw GPAs have increased over time, whether due to inflation, better-quality work, more freedom in course selection, better teaching, or some other variable. Instructors have no control over these factors, so we should eliminate grades and use an alternative mode of evaluation, e.g., short qualitative descriptions of students’ work in different aspects of the course.

    Thank you for bringing to light these reasons for eliminating grades.

    There are, of course, other reasons in favour of ungrading. Susan D. Blum, author of “I love learning, I hate school,” argues that “colleges promote credentials, obedience and the sorting of haves and have-nots, but not necessarily learning” [1]. Like Jason, Blum worries that grades don’t provide adequate information. She also worries that grades reward conformity and reduce intrinsic motivation, enforcing compliance through incentives of fear and intimidation.

    The last worries are closer to my concerns about capitalistic/totalitarian forms of behaviour-control through formal education. But these worries are not unique to a Marxist framework: feminists and critical theorists of all stripes worry about the naturalization and institutionalization of hierarchies of power. Grades can be, and are, used to produce marketable skills and labour power while stifling intrinsic motivation, collaboration, and creativity.

    Jesse Stommel writes,

    “Agency, dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice are not possible in a hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages competition by ranking students against one another. Grades (and institutional rankings) are currency for a capitalist system that reduces teaching and learning to a mere transaction. Grading is a massive co-ordinated effort to take humans out of the educational process” [2].

    The capitalist university is not interested in producing humans, but labour-power, which is needed to fuel productivity and profitability. Human agency is not an essential part of the capitalist project, but is rather a liability given our ability to protest exploitative conditions.

    Feminist philosophers and critical theorists share some of these worries. Feminists have always had a problematic relationship with capitalism because it enforces a gendered division of labour and extracts unpaid labour disproportionally from women (Weeks 2011) [3]. Critical race theorists argue that racialized minorities are both hyper-exploited and expropriated under (racial) capitalism (Fraser 2016) [4]. Critical disability theorists take exception to the forced medicalization and exclusion of disabled students and faculty. As Jo Stramondo observes,

    “The problem is not just that the practice of using medical professionals as the gatekeepers of civil rights reinforces a questionable ontology of disability, but that [medicalization] also reproduces exactly the sort of concrete disadvantage the ADA is meant to relieve. Amidst the chaotic processes of setting up your email account and getting your University ID, adding doctor visits to the list of tasks that need to be achieved before you can even request access to your office or dormitory is a significant disadvantage indeed” [5].

    The issue addressed here is that disabled students are made to work harder for equal access, just as women and BIPOC must work harder for equal access to income, wealth, and respect.

    The modes of subordination and expropriation addressed by feminist, critical race, and critical disability theorists are not unique to higher education, but the capitalist university plays a central role in normalizing and depoliticizing these apparatuses of power. The use of grades as currency makes it easier for us to accept money as an incentive for exploitative labour demands, and to ignore the role of financial markets in maintaining hierarchies of power. Grades also introduce the potential for bias, shrouded under opaque alphabetic characters. Racial bias on student evaluations, for example, is “larger on grading scales with vague or overly general criteria versus scales with clearly specified criteria” (Quinn 2020) [6]. Conventionally attractive female-identifying students are given higher grades than their unconventional counterparts, especially by male professors (Kamenetz 2016) [7]. Students who speak African American Vernacular English get lower grades than students who speak Standard English, even though neither vernacular is innately superior (W. Brennan 2018) [8]. Specific feedback wouldn’t eliminate these biases but would at least force instructors to justify their appraisals, which would provide students with more opportunities to question their instructors’ criteria.

    The most important thing that we can do, however, is re-evaluate the central role that graded and waged labour (which go hand in hand) play in our lives… and, by extension, in our courses. As Kathi Weeks puts it, “feminism, including much of 1970S Marxist feminism, has tended to focus more on the critique of work’s organization and distribution than on questioning its values” (26); but this critique is insufficient. Feminists need to reassess the primacy of the value of work, and the assumption that “hard work and long hours” are natural and inevitable (35). We need liberation not only from the patriarchal norms of the workplace, but from waged work itself.

    In terms of my proposed solutions, they are merely suggestions based on techniques that have worked for me in the past. I found them to be very successful this semester. I welcome comments and criticisms. I am using this blog mainly as a forum for conversation on how we can best reduce student and faculty workload and create post-work spaces and imaginaries.

    Thanks, Pam, for your feedback. In terms of offering both a synchronous and an asynchronous option, I’ve found that there’s equivalent work if I use the same notes and discussion posts for both. In terms of collaborative learning, I let students do all group work – in fact, all assignments – in class or Zoom meetings. This makes coordination easy. Having said that, I think that there are is a multiplicity of ways of reducing grading work – and overall work – in the classroom, and instructors should use their discretion and do what works for them. The main objective is simply to reduce everyone’s workload by whatever means possible and practical.

    Thank you.

    [1] Blum, Susan D. (14 Nov. 2017). Ungrading. Inside Higher Ed.
    [2] Stommel, J. (26 Oct. 2017). Why I don’t grade. Blog post.
    [3] Weeks, K. (2011). The problem with work: Feminism, Marxism, antiwork politics, and postwork imaginaries. Duke University Press.
    [4] Fraser, N. (2016). Expropriation and exploitation in racialized capitalism: A reply to Michael Dawson. Critical Historical Studies, 3(1), 163-178.
    [5] Stramondo, J. (31 Jan. 2015). The medicalization of reasonable accommodation. Discrimination & Disadvantage (blog).
    [6] Quinn, D. M. (2020). Experimental evidence on teachers’ racial bias in student evaluation: The role of grading scales. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(3), 375-392.
    [7] Kamenetz, A. (14 Jan. 2016). Pretty girls make (higher) grades. NPR.
    [8] Brennan, W. (April 2018). Julie Washington’s Quest to Get Schools to Respect African-American English. The Atlantic: Education.

    (This blog unfortunately doesn’t allow me to post links in the comments).

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