How to Teach with Text: Platforming Down as Disability Pedagogy

Within days after classes moved online in March, chronically ill and disabled activists began sharing their expertise with quarantine, remote work, and tele-intimacy. Faculty in disability studies created toolkits for teaching online in an accessible, just—and yes, even riveting—manner.

As Aimi Hamraie argues on their Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19 webpage, “disabled people are leading survival practice in apocalyptic times.” When it became clear by early summer that the pandemic was accelerating in the United States,  the Accessible Campus Action Alliance called for virtual modes of education to continue into the next school year as a matter of health and equity.

Our universities have pushed new platforms and digital tools in response to COVID-19. Nondisabled faculty have reacted with feature lust (touch up! surveillance!) or pushed back with paens to the “normal classroom.” Among disability scholars, most discussions of remote teaching have emphasized workarounds and accessibility for multimedia software like Zoom. We are interested, instead, in the possibilities offered through “platforming down,” or paring down the technology we use for online classes.

The three of us—professors of Anthropology, Media Studies, and Literature—realized at the end of spring term that we’d each had profound online teaching and learning experiences in the past eight weeks via text alone. Two of us, Mara and Michele, had coincidentally participated in the February and April sessions of DeafBlind poet John Lee Clark’s “Introduction to Protactile Theory,” a class—taught via listserv—on the emerging language developed by and for DeafBlind people since the early 2000s. Rebecca had converted an in-person university class that included multiple accommodations to a multi-channel and mostly text format.

Without being prescriptive about text-based teaching and learning—or distance education—we relay here our enthusiasm for writing together, DeafBlind pedagogy, and teaching things with text.

A phone charger, the kind that plugs into a cigarette lighter socket in a car, with a coiled cord and a plastic head with metal springs.

Mara Mills, Learning by Listserv

 In early February, I enrolled in my first online class, “Introduction to Protactile Theory” with John Lee Clark. I was fizzy with expectation: I’d never taken (or taught) a course remotely and had no inkling that “zoom fatigue” was a phenomenon, much less right around the corner. And I had a longstanding interest in this DeafBlind language and movement, piqued by the invitation to study something tactile via weekly readings and email discussions. Clark is a DeafBlind activist and writer whose poems had arrived like surprise gifts in my inbox over the past several years, posted occasionally to listservs like DS-HUM (Disability Studies in the Humanities). In January, he sent around the course description for Protactile Theory (2 continuing education credits, $200) and I decided to sign up.

This distance learning opportunity focuses on the social and intellectual contexts in which the Protactile movement emerged. Key concepts include distantism, vidism, virtual and corporeal spaces, co-presence, co-navigation, and autonomy…

Participation expectations: Read materials, post several messages per week, and write a short (300-400 words) essay. We will use a flexible literacy approach; Deaf English and other pidgin writing styles are fine.

I had just launched my regular spring seminar on “Disability, Technology, and Media,” which introduces undergrads to disability theory and digital accessibility through techniques like captioning, alt text, and video description. Having taught the course for ten years at New York University, it seemed high time that I learned about DeafBlind computing and, as a sighted and hearing professor, immersed myself in a DeafBlind media space.

“Introduction to Protactile Theory” was one month long and spare in format: 20 students, maybe 300 emails organized into a few dozen threads. Minimalist in design, lavish in ideas; I learned so much. Unexpected to me was how engaged I felt the whole time. (My personal journal, titled “nightmares 3” and not generally a place for hopeful writing, is filled with exclamations throughout February like “Excited about the protactile seminar!” and “Why don’t we use pro- as a prefix more often?”)

Looking back from the end of a semester that swerved dramatically in March, so that I found myself running my own distance education experiments—with meetings and classes translated to Zoom and telephone and prerecorded described lectures—I have been thinking more carefully about how Clark did it. How did he run such a great class, accessible to all, via a listserv?

For one thing, he is a really good writer, and he treats email as an occasion for more good writing. His frequent and asynchronous essays, letters, and replies meant there was always something to look forward to, without immediate pressure to respond. Like any good syllabus, his had a captivating sequence: he opened with DeafBlind experience and critical theory, unsettling newcomers like me in the best possible way before proceeding to ethnographic and other synthetic explanations, and finally introducing some basic principles of the Protactile language. (This language is truly “born tactile” and hence distinct from translations of American Sign Language to the modality of touch.) Here, for instance, is a tiny gem from one of the first pieces we read, “My Dream House,” an unpublished essay written by Clark that transported us immediately into DeafBlind space and Protactile-design-to-come:

Take the love seat. The way it’s designed makes a clear picture of two people sitting side by side, looking at something, not each other. An expression of phonocentric culture if ever there was one! A Protactile love seat would be very different, having the two sitters face each other, thigh against thigh, almost hip to hip. To support three-way or four-way conversations, we’d have a nifty kind of plush chair that can be easily moved around. We’d also have nests. (unpublished, 2014)

I did not learn Protactile itself in this class; like so many other subjects and skills, it’s not possible to teach tactile communication via text alone. Clark is wonderfully circumspect about the imperfection of all media. In an essay on “Facebook and the DeafBlind Community,” he explains, “In the DeafBlind world, email rules supreme as the easiest, most accessible, and fastest way to communicate anything over long distances. Going online—as in the Internet—is too difficult, too visual in nature, too cumbersome.” For those who use Braille displays, and read one line of text at a time rather than taking in a visual screen “all at once,” e-mail is preferable even to text-based web pages and chat rooms; e-mail allows self-paced reading and replying, and it does not have as many “wormholes” of links, tabs, and navigation menus.

At the same time, Clark points out that text-based communication, even in the name of access, is one way that “English has colonized every part of our lives.” It was my turn, as an English-speaker (and typer), to only be “partially included” at the moments when Clark gestured toward other Protactile classes, other in-person events that are “wildly and joyously tactile” in their foregrounding of Protactile sign language as a language.

Michele Friedner, Socially Connected through Text

I enrolled in the next iteration of John Lee Clark’s class in February, not knowing that I would begin the course in the midst of social distancing and a radically changed educational landscape. My course started April 6th, the week that I was slated to begin teaching in the University of Chicago’s Core Self, Culture, and Society sequence as well as a graduate research development seminar. At the same time that I started Clark’s course, I was also frantically prepping for my own course and had just finished attending webinars and workshops on teaching over Zoom, creating meaningful asynchronous course discussions, and recording lectures, among other things.

I was doing this all while home with my child and partner and thinking about the meanings of “social distancing.” Meanwhile, here was Clark teaching us his theory of “distantism” and how it has affected DeafBlind people around the world:

The English word “distance” comes from “distantia,” Latin for “a standing apart.” A point could be made that distantism refers to the privileging of the distance senses of hearing and vision. The ways in which many cultures have evolved on the almost exclusive basis of these two senses have indeed been harmful to us. That insistence on sight or hearing to function in society means only one thing for us: death.

Clark writes about the ways that DeafBlind people have been injured by distantism and notes:

We already have a Protactile word that describes people who pull away from touch, who refuse to connect. It is an attitude and a behavior. Many hearing and sighted societies prize it highly, and their members seek to maintain physical distance, however thin those margins may be. Their rulers and heroes stand alone–the more remote they are, the more highly esteemed they are. Even when the less privileged are squeezed closer together due to poverty, exploitation, or as punishment, distantism manifests itself in the long lines, tight cells or cubicles, and above all, their being removed out of sight and hearing. For all the hype around its ability to connect the world, technology has often served to isolate people in every other way.

What is particularly interesting to me is this criticism of technology, especially in the midst of an intense focus on learning new tools—Zoom, Panopto, Slack, Google Meetings, etc—in order to be in closer contact with my students. I found that while, as Mara points out, Clark’s class was pared down, bare bones perhaps, there was rich opportunity within the structure of the course to connect with others and that the seemingly minimal affordances of text only led to the creation of new kinds of contact, touching, and close engagement. Once a week, John would send us a text to read and a short framing discussion. People were assigned to specific days to comment. We had to do two kinds of commenting: an analysis/discussion of a specific quote of our choice and then a more open/flexible meta-commentary or response. Each day it felt like there were at least twenty emails going back and forth and all over. The pace—and the contact—was overwhelming at times, but there was rich discussion that filled my head and permeated my daily life. I never saw any of the participants or met them in physical space (and we were a diverse group of interpreters, students, professors, administrators, and advocates, among others) but I felt that I got a strong sense of their personalities and commitments through their introductions, posts, and responses. The format—there were no limits to how many or how few messages one could send—also allowed for people to write casual asides, information about their days, and to experiment with different kinds of writing. And people, many of whom were working or possessed other responsibilities, could read and respond in their own time. Participants experimented with tactile riddles and others had to figure out what they were describing; we collectively analyzed and critiqued a New Yorker Magazine article about the effect of COVID-19 on DeafBlind people; and we talked about social distancing through the lens of tactility, for example.

Clark told us about the existence of animated and active listservs on which DeafBlind people participate. It made me wonder why this could not be a model architecture for a course. I asked the students in my Core course if they would consider an asynchronous text discussion in which everyone would be responsible for making a comment or asking a question and then replying to at least two other comments over a twenty-four-hour period, but the students were more excited about meeting on Zoom, face to face, for a 90 minute discussion. I must admit, I was disappointed as I was looking forward to the possibility of thinking through other kinds of engagements. Just as Clark taught us new ways of looking at (or touching) the world through text, I was hoping for my students to think about text as a novel paradigm and an alternate way of engaging perceptually as we read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Sketch of Protactile sign representing the metal springs on the charger. A hand with thumb, index and middle finger raised, ring finger pointing down, and pinky pointing forward. The forefinger and thumb of another hand pinch the sides of the raised index and middle finger.

Rebecca Sanchez, The Communicative and Pedagogical Potential of Text

My university moved online between March 9th and 11th. My most recent online teaching experiences prior to that had been asynchronous. Due to my familiarity with that format as well as the various access challenges myself and my students were facing, I opted to keep things asynchronous and primarily text-based through the end of the spring semester. Students submitted work and accessed additional texts via Blackboard. They interacted with one another on discussion boards and completed group projects in Google docs. Our synchronous conferences took place typing back and forth on Google hangouts. And there was a copious amount of email.

Disability studies scholars and disability justice advocates often write about crip time which, as Alison Kafer explains, involves “reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time…how expectations of ‘how long things take’ are based on very particular minds and bodies” (27). One of the benefits of working in text-based formats that this semester highlighted for me is the flexibility they build into interactions, a flexibility that makes space for us to engage at different paces, for different durations, with different amounts of repetition, based on our own needs and preferences. When I type out a lecture, students can move through it at their own pace, pausing when they need a break (or are called away by caretaking or other responsibilities), returning as often as desired to the parts that are confusing or particularly interesting. Communicating in text (even in “real time”) also slows the speed of interaction. The pauses it inserts (especially notable at a moment where such emphasis is placed on the value of speed) offer opportunities to reflect. There is time to review what the other party has written, to analyze your own response and, vitally, to potentially rethink what you had originally intended to say. These pauses (the equivalent of the blank space around the words on the pages of a poem) are much more difficult to create in a physical classroom. There it is inevitably the case that some people would have benefited from more time being spent on one idea, less on another. I often break up discussions by inserting writing into those physical interactions, stopping class to give students a few minutes to record their thoughts so they are better able to engage in discussion. But there are limitations on the level of personalization that can occur when we are all proceeding at the same pace.

Communicating through text is not universally accessible; nothing is. But for some, it provides an opportunity to more fully organize thoughts before presenting them. And that was demonstrated in the writing I received from students this spring. Many who rarely if ever contributed to class discussion this term consistently produced detailed, nuanced analyses of our course texts. There is also a higher frequency of interaction; rare is the student who consistently comes to physical office hours multiple times each week. But it is common in the text-based classes I’ve taught to have daily emails from students. The increased frequency of one on one exchange leads to a greater personalization of education and a deeper relationship with more of my students. It also leads to me getting access to a wider range of the registers in which they write (and provides the chance to share more of my own). As an English professor, that opportunity to validate this range feels particularly important, and it is my anecdotal observation that in this context a higher percentage of students initiate conversations with me about material beyond that which is strictly course-related.

These interactions with my students are differently personal than the ones we would have if we were all sharing the same physical space, or even if we were on a video call. But they are not inherently less personal. As someone for whom typing has always been one of my preferred means of communication (not infrequently, I type back and forth with students even when we are in the same room and, like many disabled people, I have many rich relationships with individuals I interact with solely or primarily through text-based digital exchanges), it has struck me that many of the assumptions being made as we scramble to more effectively work in online and hybrid modes ignore the rich communicative realities of people for interaction through text.


Just Text:  A Few Concluding Thoughts

 To be clear, text-only courses also pose access challenges. Not everyone is comfortable in written English (across registers), and not everyone functions best engaging through technology. We are not suggesting that text-based approaches to education represent a universal best practice, either in terms of accessible digital pedagogy or digital pedagogy more broadly. But there is a long history of devaluing communication that does not take place through speech, as well as the people who engage in it. The presumption that speech is inherently superior to other modes of communication and interaction has directly led (and often still does) to the dehumanization of disabled and neurodiverse people. The effects of that dehumanization are legible in hospital policies that make no accommodation for individuals requiring care who do not hear, speak, understand, or interact normatively and in some cases such individuals have been framed as less deserving of potentially life-saving intervention in the context of resource scarcity.

Whatever forms we as individuals or our institutions decide our classes will take in the fall, then, it is vital that we not justify those choices through repetition of the ableist misconception that one can only effectively teach, learn, think, or fully be in synchronous speech. The idea that we cannot meaningfully connect with our students and with one another through text devalues the interactions and lives of people who have been forming relationships in precisely those ways long before COVID-19. And it is simply false.

Rebecca Sanchez likes dinosaurs.
Michele Friedner loves email.

Mara Mills recently joined the New York Mycological Society.

We thank Terra Edwards for permission to use images from her article “Sign-creation in the Seattle DeafBlind Community: A Triumphant Story about the Regeneration of Obviousness,” Gesture 16, 2 (January 2017): 305-328.