Light It Up: Accessible Learning or Academic Surveillance? (Part 1)

Published on: 31st December, 2022

How can we prioritize multiplicity and accessibility when designing learning activities? What does an “inclusive” pedagogy entail? Can design ever be universal? And how can teachers and learners make the most of digital tools while also resisting the creep of academic surveillance technologies into our classrooms, homes, and bodies?

Sarah E. Silverman, feminist instructional designer and disability studies scholar, breaks down these questions and their reverberant implications. Dr. Silverman is a leading voice in the multi-front movement to resist remote proctoring and educational surveillance technologies, as well as to promote authentic assessment and universal design for learning (UDL). A generous critic and prolific writer—especially on her extraordinarily useful blog—Dr. Silverman is currently based at the Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources at the University of Michigan, Dearborn. She holds a PhD in Entomology and Demography from the University of California, Davis.

Our conversation is divided into two parts.

  • Part 1 maps the terrain of academic surveillance tech and introduces universal design as a specifically feminist approach to pedagogy, with concrete examples from Sarah's own practice.
  • Part 2 (coming soon!) digs deeper into these issues, as we discuss principles of the “non-abusive syllabus," classroom practices of harm reduction, and the ambivalent institutional role of university centers for teaching and learning.

Credits: Outro Music by Akrasis (Max Bowen, raps; Mark McKee, beats); audio editing by Aliyah Harris; production by Lucia Hulsether + Tina Pippin.

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Lucia Hulsether:

Welcome to nothing never happens, a radical pedagogy Podcast. I'm Lucia Hall set, they're here with my co host Tina Pippin and today for our December episode, we are thrilled to welcome Sarah E. Silverman to the podcast. As a feminist pedagogical theorist who specializes in Universal Design for Learning, Sarah is a luminary in the multi front struggle to make education more accessible, open and free. She has been active in the movement to resist academic surveillance technologies, and to develop approaches to authentic assessment. And I'll just say if you're part of an institution that uses remote proctoring programs, for testing, we recommend that you run not walk to Sara's writing on these topics, which we will copy in the show notes. Currently, Sarah is based at the hub for teaching and learning resources at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, where she works as an instructional designer and where she also teaches courses in women in gender studies and disability studies. Also, just so everyone appreciates how multitalented Sarah is, we want to note that she is a scientist by training, and has a PhD in entomology and demography from UC Davis. No doubt because of this background. She's also got great ideas about accessible pedagogy and universal design in STEM classrooms in particular, you can find many of her ideas, about pedagogy, about surveillance technologies, about centers for teaching and learning and their histories about harm reduction and syllabus design on her amazing blog. Suffice to say that if you are someone who seeks to cultivate more accessible and open learning environments, or to just learn about what that might mean for you, Sarah can teach you a whole lot. welcome Sarah to nothing never happens.

Tina Pippin:

Sarah Silverman, thanks for being with us on nothing never happens. Could you start by telling us how you got to do the work that you do now?

Sarah E. Silverman:

Sure. And I first just want to say, thank you so much for having me. And it's it's really a pleasure, because I have listened to this podcast for a long time. And a lot of my, a lot of my like personal heroes and teachers have appeared on this podcast. So it's really, it's really quite the honor. And it's great to meet both of you also. Excuse me, I, the first thing that I want to say about the work that I do now is that I would say the work I do now is it's all about taking a disability and feminist informed approach to sort of instructional design and instructional technology. And some of that occurs in the official kind of context of the my my day job, which is being an instructional designer. I'm at University of Michigan, Dearborn, I work in a teaching and learning center there. And I'm also an adjunct in women's studies, I teach disability studies. But a lot of that also involves through like writing, teaching and activism outside of the institutional context. And a lot of that is it has to do with academic surveillance technology, which I hope we'll talk more about later on. But as as a big basic example, that many listeners may have heard about or have actually interacted with themselves. I do a lot of work in resisting and hopefully abolishing remote proctoring technology or E proctoring. So that's where somebody is taking some sort of test or examination online. And there is a computer program, watching them and monitoring them in various ways, in hopes to either deter or punish cheating, or any kind of violation of academic integrity. And all those Oh, those terms are in major air quotes and need to be unpacked and, and discussed but this is one of my my main projects that I approach from a feminist and disability lens is exposing what is so bad about these technologies, and why we need to keep them off our campuses away from our students and faculty. And yes, they do harm and impact faculty too. So that I would say that's a kind of overview of a lot of my work and So I want to talk about some of the some of the books and experiences that have brought me to this work. I'll say some books first, just because they're really top of mind. So one of them I was introduced to in grad school. And that's how the university works by Mark Busquets. And when you work in a Center for Teaching and Learning, what you are told by the administration is that you are just sort of supporting and lifting up teachers and giving them more resources for how to do their jobs. But what we've learned through how the university works is that, you know, everyone who teaches is part of a system to make money for the university, and they are, you know, actively being exploited from the level of the undergraduate student, all the way up through the graduate student, instructor, the non tenured faculty member, the tenured faculty member, everybody, you know, produces produces value for the university in some way. And that's become a major sort of undercurrent of how I think about the job of supporting teaching, and supporting teachers at an institution. And why I have a lot of critiques of the sort of teaching and learning center system. Another book, actually pair of books I want to mention is mad at school by Margaret Price and academic ableism by Jay dommage. And these were books that were the first step helped me understand my own experience in academia, as a person with a disability as a person who was undiagnosed autistic until adulthood. And, you know, there was so many, so many times, when I was almost kicked out of programs that I had been in my Bachelor's, my PhD. And I, when I eventually understood that it was because I was not following the norms of what was expected in academia, and also starting to understand how the intersection of identities of neuro divergence, but also Race, Class gender, work together, to pas to like, make people available for kicking out and marginalizing whether they're students or faculty. These books are really helped me understand that. And there's an anecdote in, in med school, where the author Mark Margaret Price is speaking to one of her colleagues, a professor, and saying, there's this student who keeps coming in to my class with food and just like sitting down and eating this, this big bowl of ice cream, basically. And she's, she's reporting this to, to the author as some kind of major problem. Like, you know, how can we go on basically, with this student, just like, just not following a pretty unimportant norm of the classroom, which is like you don't bring in a bowl of food, necessarily. And, you know, I that has just always really stayed stayed with me, because I in my career have done so much teaching, consulting and like trying to help instructors work through issues that are going on in their classroom. And so often, they're presented as something that you just hear and you're like, This is how is this a problem, there's just somebody who is not staying right within the lines, and you're presenting it as a problem. And that's how so many conversations about, about teaching start for me. And that's like, what I hope to disrupt an auto voice as well. And then, the last book I want to mention is a newer one. That's called Lean semesters by sicula, and syngo. Johnson. And this book is about how higher ed actively produces inequality for a lot of PhD students, and it's looking primarily at Women of Color PhD students and adjuncts. And it relates to how the university works in some ways, which is that one thing I've become very attuned to and hope to think about and addressing my work is the fact that working at a university is not always good for the people who are doing it. It's it's a job, but it can be harming them in pretty deep ways, especially economic ways, but also forms of it epistemic injustice. And I really have over over time delving into critical university studies literature and also just the experiences of Students and instructors that I work with, you know, come to this place of if you're someone who's supposed to be helping instructors with instructional design or pedagogy and things like that. You have to really be a student also of how the university works and how is harming its members. And I believe this is what you discussed with Joni, Jodi malema, like how not to become co opted? How do you remain somebody who is helping people, and not just fronting for the university and for the administration, how do you remain in touch with and you know, a partner in conversation about people's real lives and not just trying to shepherd them through administrative pathways and progress reports and student evaluations and all of these things. So those are a couple of those are a couple of books that have impacted the work that I'm doing a lot. And I'll just mention one more thing about sort of activism and didn't protest and things like that. So I went to McGill University in Montreal, for my Bachelor's, and I was there during a movement that was known as the maple spring, later on, and it was a, like a year or two, basically, of student protests, about the raising of tuition from about $1,600 to about $3,200 a year. And I was an I was an American student in in Canada at that time. And when I first heard of this, I was kind of shocked at that time, I didn't know the history of free tuition. Because, you know, I was, I'm only 30 years old. So like, I haven't lived it really a time that there was free tuition. I didn't know the history of free tuition of CUNY pre tuition of UC, basically, free tuition. And I was kind of confused about what this protest was all about, that we were supposed to be shutting down, just refusing to attend classes, according to the organizers. And that this was a time when I I really, I really understood that like increasing tuition at all, is a huge problem. And that's something to stand up to. And I really learned a lot from, from this experience of being among student organizers, who understood any increase any, you know, entry of this neoliberal perspective into Oh, well, everyone has to kind of pay for and contribute to their education, because you're going to be getting value out of it. And that was kind of my first introduction to student activism. And it's stayed with me. And if anybody's not familiar with that, that history, you can look up the maple spring 2020 12 in in Quebec, and then a little bit more about that. So yeah, does that answer the question?

Lucia Hulsether:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think, yeah, there's so many threads that we want to like, kind of follow out, I guess, um, maybe one to start. But of course, if you want to pivot and talk with me, I want to talk about something else, that's fine, too. Is this is talking about instructional design and universal design? And maybe this is kind of a complementary question with threats to or like impediments to not being co opted? What are so can you talk to us a little bit more about what Universal Design inclusive learning feminist disability informed pedagogy is for you? And maybe as part of that, we can either ask the follow up question, or maybe it'll just flow naturally. What what you see as sort of the sort of the things that are necessary to kind of work around or through in order to have a kind of authentic version of that, because I think you're you've already here and certainly in a lot of your writing started to point out that often, what goes under the flag of universal design or inclusion is not that



Sarah E. Silverman:

Okay, so I'll talk about a little bit about what the definitions that are currently operating of what your universal design for learning might be and how that connects to feminist pedagogy. And then I'll talk a little bit about the term inclusion and some research I've been doing on that and kind of thinking, thinking about that term. So universal design for learning, even though I've been a critic of it, I still a critic of some of the ways it's been implemented and CO opted, I am still a big believer in the basic premise, which is, I think I would put it this way that learning needs to be designed for a variety of people and needs to be desert designed with learner variability in mind, instead of assuming that there's some sort of normal normal learner, and then maybe there'll be options for people who happen to diverge from that norm. But there is still like some students that we have in mind, that's like, Okay, this is being designed for a normal student, an average student, universal design for learning would design with a whole range of people in mind, what that typically looks like, is providing multiple options to engage in any certain learning activity. And I think like a really concrete example of this that I think most people will be able to grasp onto, is that, okay, for learning to occur, obviously, there's, there's a pedagogy, there's a selection of materials and all of this stuff. But very, basically, everybody needs to be able to perceive the end for the information that you're going to be working with. And not everybody can see or read something visually, not everybody can hear something at all, or as well as other people. Not everybody speaks the same language as their first language. Not everybody speaks a spoken language. And one sort of basic element of Universal Design for Learning would be thinking about perception and making sure that there is an equitable design so that everyone can perceive can perceive information. There's other elements of Universal Design for engagement. So everyone not only needs to be able to perceive, but they need to be able to participate in the learning activity. And not everybody does that the same way. And there needs to be multiple, multiple options for them. The way that I think that Universal Design relates to a feminist approach, or a feminist pedagogy is that, you know, as, as feminists, we want to take a critical perspective on power and authority, and confront power and authority, and also recognize and incorporate diversity of experiences, and identities and intersectionality. And I think that I think that this overlaps very nicely, which is that we're not looking for that, nor mate, learner and thinking about, Oh, there might be people who diverge in this way in that way. But understanding that each student is going to be coming with their own unique set of identities and experiences. And that is a strength. It's for sharing, it's for building community. And not trying to kind of calculate, okay, like, is this person just a little bit different from this person and that way, but more of a holistic approach to the classroom community and to individual students. One, you know, one critic, one, one potential critique you could make of Universal Design for Learning is just the word universal in the first place, how is it possible to design something that is universally accessible to every single person? Probably not. I think what we're going for with universal design, again, is not that we any one person has the ability to make sure every single person is included in every, every way, like one person's limited experiences will make it that they can't, you know, you can't imagine what every person's learning needs are their disabilities, their experiences that are gonna affect their learning environment. But it is more than taking the perspective that learner variability is expected and, and embraced. So, so that's a little bit about universal design, how I think how it connects to feminist pedagogy. What kind of mini research project that I've taken on in the past couple of weeks is to think about this term, inclusion and inclusive teaching. Now, if you go on the TGA Learning Center website of like, literally any college or university, I'm gonna go in North America for right now. I'm not as familiar outside North America, I hope I hope to become more. They're gonna have a page on inclusive teaching, and they probably did before 2020 in Georgia. Right, but they definitely do now, that's for another time how this became the institutional response to black lives to Black Lives Matter. But okay, so every teacher learning center is going to have a page on inclusive teaching. And what it will probably say, is something along the lines of inclusive teaching recognizes the diversity of all of our students and their identities. And we embrace that diversity. And we want to make sure that our lessons are designed again, using this for all language so that they are relevant and accessible to all students and inclusive of all students. It may you know, those definitions may depending on the school, begin to address something of the isms Oh, also inclusive pedagogy acknowledges racism, it acknowledges sexism, classism, ableism, maybe. And, you know, acknowledges that these, these forces are systemic, and we oppose them and fight them in some way. I have no idea how the that particular definition of inclusive teaching got started. I learned it when I was a grad student working in the Teaching Learning Center at UC Davis, I learned to teach it to other people to facilitate workshops on it. And to kind of like cherry pick all sorts of different teaching methods from Universal Design from feminist pedagogy from culturally responsive and culturally sustaining pedagogy and just call this inclusive teaching. And if I'm being honest, I don't know, I don't know where that came from. Now, I want to mention, there's a not completely different but alternative definition of inclusive teaching. But I only learned once I started learning, studying disability studies, I took a class in disability studies and education. And the term inclusion or an inclusive, inclusive educational environment. in that realm refers to one in which people with disabilities, students with disabilities are not segregated from non disabled students. It refers to integration. And the word inclusion is also used in other educational conversations that have to do with segregation and integration, it was also applied to the segregation and integration of schools, for black and white students, as well. And so this is one thing I'm trying to pull apart and and work through is how did American higher ed, get this term inclusion? And why is it employed in the sort of like, multicultural diversity? Sense? And how has it been stripped of this meaning that has to do with segregation and integration? And what does that all mean? And the reason I really started thinking about this was one, you know, after learning about this history of inclusive education, and the inclusion of students with disability with disabilities, but also, you know, the more that you work with pedagogical texts and theories, and try to teach them to other people, you start seeing what is inclusive teaching, it has all of it seems to draw on all of these other pedagogy is particularly feminist pedagogy, and in my opinion, and so why is it? Why is it called this? And how did it become a doctrine in the teaching and learning center? So, you know, you asked me to talk a little bit about what does it look like when these terms are not being employed and deployed in an authentic way? And I want to say like, the biggest red flag for me, is definitely the for all inclusive of all kind of phrasing. You know, if you go back to the disability informed approach, it rights disability out of the conversation completely, it's saying like, okay, yes, we have disabled students, but we need to make this relevant to everybody. And so we come up with reasons why, you know, you know, universal design also helps non disabled students, but it also relates to racial justice, right, like, like I said, I, I think that you will find that if your university did not have a page on inclusive pedagogy, but for 2020 and George Floyd protests they do now and it was a direct response to it. And I think a lot of the term inclusive teaching, when used by the administration, when use at the institutional level is making an attempt to erase identities and For, frankly, students who have asked for certain changes, and to kind of like lump everything under the same umbrella. Another major red flag is anytime any of these terms or approaches are deployed in connection with enrollment and retention, which means money. And, you know, I am a very committed feminist pedagogue, disability informed pedagogue and I try to teach these methods to other people, but it's so easy for administration or even just like the, the university media to come in and say like, oh, you know, enrollments are really down. But you know, what students really appreciate is feeling a sense of belonging or feeling included. And so we must implement this in order to maximize retention and maximize enrollment. This, this happens at my own job all the time is like, we're talking about a certain pedagogical approach, and somebody will chime in with, yeah, this is a way that we can get students to actually enroll here and stay here because we're bleeding students to other institutions. And we need to give them a reason to stay here, pay us that tuition money, which by the way, is just debt for this debt for the students, so that we can continue to have our jobs. So, you know, I think that that's a I think that's a pretty common storylines, with a lot of institutionally approved pedagogical strategies, or like, you know, classroom approaches, which is, yeah, there's a lot of good folks who really care about students and really care about creating a better teaching environment, a more equitable teaching environment, but using the language that you use before in this podcast, it's co opted very, very, very easily. And it's it's something to look out for.

Lucia Hulsether:

One of the things I think about with your this language of inclusion and inclusion as part of the history of including disabled students in not not segregating disabled students, and also part of the racial, the histories of racism that are tagged segregation that are attached to that, is the the term I often hear about that I think, is used similarly to the way you're naming inclusion being used in this other context is mainstreaming let's mainstream disabled students and I there, I don't know what to make of that. But this use of the word mainstream as a sort of synonym for some kind of inclusion might be, yeah, a deep pool of revealing.

Sarah E. Silverman:

I think inclusion. I mean, it's a very nice, it's a nice term, like I like I like it in the way that it can be used. But I think most of the way it is it is used in that like special education, Disability Education, conversation, it is a euphemism for mainstreaming, right, like mainstreaming is just the term that is too explicit about what we're talking about two years, and that's where inclusion comes from. So, you know, I don't know exactly how that is applied in, in the university context. But I would, I would say that there's, there's like, so much of that, like, inclusive language, that you kind of start wondering, okay, like, has it already been determined, basically, in this higher education context, who is on the margins, right? And we know that we can go too far in segregating those students in certain types of classes, certain types of, you know, what, whatever it may be. So, you know, our response to that is we're gonna become inclusive, we're gonna do inclusive pedagogy, we're gonna have an inclusive campus campus environment. And, you know, I don't have all the answers. I'm not as much of an expert or a theorist as like some of the other guests you've had on this podcast. But I do think that that's, it's an important clue, right? That inclusion used to be, or an alternative definition is something about integration, lack of segregation, and that it feels like that's been lost in a certain way from from the conversation like in in higher ed and the way that it's used, so I don't know, it's something I'm thinking with and through. I haven't fully worked it out yet.

Tina Pippin:

Yeah, this is all really helpful, you know, not only centers for teaching and learning, but offices of diversity, equity and inclusion are all in collusion to muddle these terms, right? I want to switch

Lucia Hulsether:

into collusion. Honey, continue to Sorry, I interrupted.

Tina Pippin:

Yes. Well, I want to switch gears a little and ask you about effective classroom practices, including, you know, emergent models that you're seeing, you know, what kind of ideals are there. And also, one of the rabbit holes I went down review in your material was on, you know, creating the non abusive syllabus and thinking how over how many years have I written abusive syllabi? And how do I not do that? So could you take us through some concrete classroom practices?

Sarah E. Silverman:

Sure. Um, I think there's a, there's a healthy amount of healthy debate about what I am going to share. And it really has to work for the individual instructor. But one of the sort of things that that guides me is it's not necessarily any one thing to implement, but what do we have to resist and reject. And there's this idea of Cockshutt, right? In the classroom. And I think that's what's being referred to in this idea of against the syllabus as an instrument of abuse. And what what that idea is about is, you don't want to be making arbitrary rules for your students that, that don't have anything to do with learning that don't mean anything else. Besides, I am the instructor, I have the authority. And I think, you know, the basic rule of thumb is, if the statement can be followed with, because I said, so you know, that it probably shouldn't be on the syllabus or in the classroom. And so I, I have been a proponent of things like flexible scheduling and flexible deadlines, to kind of avoid getting to that place of it's due on this date, because I said, so. Because there's any, you know, true value to it being turned in on that date. Um, I'm a proponent of limiting grading of thinking about different ways of providing students feedback, and this kind of general umbrella it's called, it's called engraving, it's, it's been picking up steam over the past couple of years. But then, you know, this is my cautionary note, oh, I'll share something that I, I wrote in a blog post on a site called feminists teach online. And this is kind of a story about I was teaching an online Disability Studies class. And I thought, you know, I have implemented all of my best techniques, flexible schedule. You know, you can turn things in whenever you want. You know, we go by the week, so you always know what's coming on different days, you have the whole syllabus ahead of time. So you can go ahead or catch up, you know, all of these things that I thought would really help help students and a student came to me and she was like, I got to drop out of this class. It just, you know, it just doesn't work for my schedule. And I thought to myself, how could this not work? I was a little bit upset and incredulous. I was like, How could it not work for your schedule, I already told you, you can turn things in late you can do them whatever you want. And there's not going to be any penalties if you turn something in late and all this other stuff. And she just she just told me. You know, I understand all of that. But here's the truth. Your class goes week by week, there's assignments due each week. And I've got these two kids, they're teenagers. And they require a lot of me on the weekends, and I only have someone else to help them, you know, every other week, basically. So every other weekend, I'm completely I'm completely tied up. And I she worked full time also, of course. And so she was like, I don't want to have to feel like I'm behind. You know, I don't want to have to feel like, again, like I'm on the fringe of this whole situation. I know. You said I can turn things in late and I won't be punished but but she was basically saying to me, the design of this course makes me feel like I'm playing catch up. I have the life, the schedule, the needs, the experiences that is considered marginal to this learning experience. And that's how I'm feeling it that and she wants to drop the class. And, you know, I went when I heard that it took me a long time to think through it. And I was like, yeah, no, I really wouldn't be making any student who, who doesn't have basically the same weekly schedule each week. Feel like they're really on the margins of this class because it follows this weekly schedule. I know I said you can hand things in late, but that doesn't necessarily change. The feeling that this isn't designed for me, this isn't thinking about what my life is like. So I eventually I eventually was like, I gotta I gotta change this. And so I guess my cautionary my cautionary note about any practice that seems to fit in with universal design is that it's very unlikely to be universal. And you really need to be in conversation with your students. And, you know, I was just thinking about this today, I know, this isn't related to academic writing, or activist writing or anything, but you know, I'm a lifelong student of also the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic Jewish thinkers. And I just want I just want to share this, this as thinking about it yesterday. Hold on, I'm just gonna pull it up, because I know you can edit this part out. So you know, there's like this very famous statement from, from this rabbi, Robbie kunena. Who's quoted in, in the Talmud, and it's, it's, it's quite famous, because it just is very simple, but very meaningful that teaching, he says, I've learned much from my teachers, even more from my colleagues. But for my students, I've learned more from all of them. Okay, that's very nice. He's saying the students have taught me more than any of the sort of like, professionals or more senior people or even like my peers have taught me. And you put it in context, I think you can think of it a little a little bit differently, which is that directly before that, another rabbi is quoted he says, his name is Breathnach Minbari. Gets Flack. He says, Why aren't is the torah and I would sub in study you gardening in this situation, like into a tree, because it says in Proverbs, it is like a tree to those who grasp it. And he says, you know, this verse comes to tell you that just like a small piece of wood, can sit on fire, a larger piece, Junior Scholars can sharpen, you know, their teachers. So I think part of what we learned from this is that when you learn from your students, and obviously we should all learn from our students, and most of us do it, he's likening it to setting something on fire and break something down completely. And I just really appreciate I really appreciate this sentiment, what's it's not just like, oh, yeah, I'm gonna write down my student's name in the acknowledgments of my book, because, you know, they said something in class one time that really made me really made me think it's like, no, maybe some students aren't inspiring us to just say, you know, what you're doing is not working. You need to really reconsider it. And that was my, that was my experience with this student. And that's kind of my like, major Asterix to universal universal design in general, which is that, you know, you think something can be universal. And then once one students experience can can tell you like, yeah, you kind of need to rethink the whole thing and burn it down in some way.

Tina Pippin:

You've been listening to part one of nothing never happens, the radical pedagogy podcast, and our interview with Sarah Silverman. Stay tuned for part two, where we talk with Sarah, about surveillance culture in higher education and ways to resist it.

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Nothing Never Happens
A Radical Pedagogy Podcast
Nothing Never Happens is a journey into cutting-edge pedagogical theory and praxis, where co-hosts Tina Pippin and Lucia Hulsether connect with leading voices in radical teaching and learning. We engage a range of approaches — including but not limited to democratic, feminist, queer, decolonial, and abolitionist models.
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