Academic (Re)Design: Resisting ‘The Return to Normal’ in The Academy

Illustrated graphic of adult students using various prosthetic devices and a wheelchair.

By Jessie Male

I first proposed an online college writing class in spring 2017, a time when the virtual classroom was controversial and far from common: a “lesser” option, one allotted to “nontraditional” students with circumstances that placed them outside the mainstream. The course was “Introduction to Disability Studies,” which, like most classes at The Ohio State University– where I was a PhD student–was being offered in-person, exclusively. This policy did not make sense to me. How could I teach about disability identity and culture, and accessible practices, while also taking part in academic systems that often isolate and exclude marginalized and vulnerable people? Why should students miss coursework when a panic attack meant they could not share physical space with others, or lack of transportation meant they could not get to campus, or because their children had a snow day? This online course would mean expanded outreach; the alternative mode was not inhibitive but rather a mode of possibility, an equitable shift in which an inability to share common space does not mean isolation from community.

At the time there was resistance. “Being on a computer isn’t the same as being in the classroom,” one faculty member argued. “Discourse will be limited when not in an in-person setting.” And even after the proposal was passed, there was an understanding that this was the exception and far from the rule. Of course, no one could not know then, what we know now, that a pandemic would force everything to change, online coursework would become a “new normal,” and all of academia would evolve into hybrid–or entirely virtual–settings.

I did not excel as an educator the first semester I taught online. The Learning Management System lacked structure and organizing information was often counterintuitive and cumbersome. The course was asynchronous, and I struggled with how to assess participation or facilitate peer interaction when there wasn’t a shared environment in which we could verbally communicate. Though I encouraged students to meet with me during online office hours it was rare that students attended as their minutes were precious, readings and reflections conducted on lunch breaks or between hospital treatments, or during late-night hours after children had gone to bed. I missed the small moments in kairotic spaces, defined by Disability Studies scholar Margaret Price as “the less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced, and power is exchanged.” These were those moments outside the classroom where students and I fostered added connections: walking together in the hallway; a chance encounter in an elevator; a chat over coffee. As someone who advocated for online education as equal to in-person classes, I worried the course was a model for the perceived failures of remote learning. And my understanding of “educator” was completely upended. Whereas I thrived conducting class through predominantly verbal methods, pre-recording videos and uploading materials were monotonous, my personality was flattened by awkward pauses as I moved between my cellphone camera and the script on my computer screen. I never knew where I should be looking. I could not see then—I did not have the skillset, the training, or the experience the ways that the online classroom can be dynamic and enjoyable, not as a replication of the in-person classroom but as a new type of scholarly journey.

Over the past three years, I’ve learned a lot about teaching online. I think we all have, whether educators, parents, scholars, or students—there is so much new knowledge about technology and pedagogy. Yet this isn’t just an article about the value of online education. This is about the remote classroom as a concrete example and metaphor for the ways that educational systems have been transformed due to global trauma, in many ways for the better, shifting away from classist and ableist gatekeeping practices that often isolate marginalized students, staff, and faculty–or prevent people from even entering the community. In 2023, many people in the academy–like in many workspaces–are promoting the “return to normal.” But I argue that higher education is not what it was in 2020, and to return to that state would risk destroying many diverse and equitable learning and engagement opportunities. For the university to truly be a common space, it must not return to a state that privileges physical presence, instead honoring the many forms (and formats) in which participation can take.

Campus Redesign: Building on What We Have Learned

In 2022, I began a position at The University of Pittsburgh as the Postdoctoral Associate in Disability Studies. In addition to teaching an in-person Disability Studies course, my primary responsibilities are developing programs to support disabled students and planning events around building a culture of accessibility. Having recently moved from New York City— once the hotspot of the COVID-19 epidemic—I remain struck by the more relaxed nature of policies such as masking. When in attendance at a packed college basketball game, I spotted only a handful of face coverings. In class one student out of 21 wears a mask, and though I can keep a six-foot distance, I too wear one due to my own health concerns, and out of solidarity. When I move through a lesson, I am acutely aware of the ways the ongoing pandemic informs my pedagogy and strategies from the online classroom entering the physical space. Building on the principles of UDL (Universal Design for Learning), students engage in multiple methods of engagement and composition. In addition to formal writing assignments, students give oral presentations and take collaborative notes. Through such moves, they support students who are absent or wish to return to previous information, by developing a classroom archive. The materials, too, have changed shape. Podcasts and documentaries no longer supplement but exist, in tandem, with formal academic scholarship. Almost all readings are available through hyperlinks. In class, most students review these materials on electronic devices, where they take notes while I move through our PowerPoint.

Even definitions of classroom participation have transformed over the years, no longer privileging the most vocal participants. Who is asking questions of their peers during group work? Whose fingers don’t leave the keys during free writes? I’m more comfortable in the quiet moments of class, allowing students several minutes to ponder and reflect on critical questions and concepts. This semester, I declare—citing the value of a supportive head nod—that “active participation can also be listening.”

Though there is an institutional emphasis on coursework returning to what it was pre-COVID-19, I am comforted by continued extracurricular events over Zoom and other virtual platforms. A remote talk with writer and scholar Jo Hsu on “how disabled and other marginalized communities use storytelling to drive collective action,” had thirty attendees from around the country. Such audience diversity isn’t possible when all attendees live in close proximity. As a scholar, I, too, benefit from the support of online integration in event planning and curriculum design. From my home office in Pittsburgh, I spoke about my dissertation work to a Nonfiction class at SUNY Geneseo, and a Disability and Literature course at Pace University. Such opportunities for discussion reserve time and labor and cut the often-inhibitive cost of traveling.

What I am describing are expansive strategies for sharing knowledge, a practice that, during the height of COVID-19, was modeled in the institutional acquisition of open-access materials, increased journal subscriptions, and expanded relationships with local libraries and other colleges and universities. In this, we see how the common space must also be a reciprocal and collaborative space with public and private institutions coming together to support knowledge production. During the summer of 2020, I wrote my dissertation from my apartment in Brooklyn, relying almost entirely on sources that were open-access and newly digitized. And though this is an extreme scenario—a strategy built out of necessity—this system continues to aid student success, especially those who live off campus, who are still avoiding high-traffic areas, or who, for an array of other legitimate reasons, cannot enter a physical library.

Recognizing Institutional History and a Hope for Change

Although college brochures and websites are filled with images of jovial students in communal gathering spaces, it’s important to acknowledge the ways the university has historically been an unwelcoming—even violent—space for vulnerable members of the community. More specifically, many practices and policies around admission and retention risk isolating—or erasing the presence of— disabled and other marginalized persons. Jay Dolmage, Disability Studies scholar, and author of Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, refers to such practices as the “steep steps” of academia, “enacted to keep certain bodies and minds out.” One such move is recruitment emphasis on standardized test scores, which are often impacted by access to high-cost preparatory courses and services; for example, The Princeton Review’s 1400+ course comes with a price tag of 2,199 dollars. During the height of COVID-19, when lockdowns were prevalent, hundreds of universities suspended their testing requirements, aligning with a more comprehensive approach to admission. And though many people have returned to in-person settings—enabling the reopening of testing sites— what if inclusive admission became the new academic tradition? What if a comprehensive redesign of academia also involved its entry point?

Yet it is also important to consider how breaking barriers of admission does not ensure academic protection. As Esmé Weijun Wang chronicles in her essay “Yale Will Not Save You”, later part of the New York Times bestselling collection The Collected Schizophrenias, institutions of higher learning often fail students with mental illness. The essay, originally published in Sewanee Review, addresses Wang’s experience of navigating mental health services while trying to adhere to the expectations of the “traditional college experience.” Wang describes taking a yearlong voluntary medical leave and returning to New Haven “for four interviews that would determine whether I was fit to return.” She writes: “I flew home to California and waited to hear back from them, and when I did, the answer was no.” Letters of support from therapists and professors did not deter their decision. She could never again set foot on campus without a dean’s permission.

Wang was a member of the Yale class of 2005. Thankfully, conversations about mental health on college campuses have expanded exponentially since then. This has emerged out of shifts in social discourse but also out of necessity. With over a million dead from COVID-19 in the United States alone, how many of those had children or grandchildren in college? How many students lost friends and colleagues? How many are navigating their own transformations of bodies/minds affected by the virus? Colleges had to acknowledge the impact of trauma and provide resources and policy shifts that enabled many students to return to campus. Even Yale’s policies have undergone revision. As of January 2023, students experiencing mental health crises are no longer being pushed to withdraw from the institution. In an email directed towards students who might otherwise not report mental health issues for fear of retribution, Dean Pericles Lewis wrote, “I hope these revised policies ease any concerns about your student status, allowing you (and the people supporting you) to focus on what is important.”

I hope to witness similar shifts at my own institution. By the midpoint of the semester, students and faculty are already exhausted. Most courses have returned to in-person formats, and even the labor of moving across a large campus can be grueling. Walking to the elevator, I spot a student sitting at a communal table, asleep with a book in her lap and her computer propped open. Midterms are approaching and I can feel the influx of anxious energy. In my inbox a story appears from The University of Pittsburgh Times revealing that student registration with Disability Resources and Services is up 200 percent since 2016 and up double since 2020—a number that indicates students are accessing necessary support systems, but also highlighting the need for added flexibility. I think often about former students who thrived when able to attend class from their beds with the camera off, sharing thoughts through the chat function on the side of the screen. Or students who preferred an asynchronous format where learning was on their own timeline and ideas could be shared with peers without ever having to speak. How are they navigating the shift back to “normal?” Do they feel their school is meeting their individual needs?

A year before the emergence of COVID-19, at a workshop for digital media scholars, I gave a presentation entitled, “Online Teaching is Not the End of the World.” The title strikes me, now, with bitter irony. When met with what seemed like—to many—the end of the world, we turned to online teaching. At that presentation, I spoke about the necessity of adaptation, more specifically about responding to student accommodation requests or making readjustments to group activities. I was thinking on a small scale and could not know what “adaptation” would look like when a deadly virus was happening. But educators, staff, students, and administrators pivoted in ways I could never imagine, utilizing tools for multimodal engagement such as Zoom webinars with transcription options and live captioning. What these moves prove is, even in a time of isolation, higher education can be a space to build community. Now, these adaptations need to become permanent fixtures—in fact, we should continue to expand upon them–thus continuing to break down the barriers between “traditional” and “nontraditional” students and forms of engagement. The university common space is vast and multi-dimensional, vibrant and complex, and made up of many different modes. I hope we can continue to embrace this altered form–and look forward to new possibilities.

Design Museum Magazine cover
From Design Museum Magazine Issue 025