Mini-series: Addressing exclusion and underrepresentation through boundary-pushing course design

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In this fourth post for the Mini-series on “Curriculum as a site for Social Justice and Anti-Discrimination”, Eleoma Bodammer, walks us through her process of designing the innovative, undergraduate course: “Researching Disability in German Literature and Society”. Through boundary-pushing assessment methods, the course aims to challenge students to critically reflect on excluded and underrepresented voices in the discipline of Modern European Languages…

Equality, diversity, inclusion (EDI), and unconscious bias are high on the agenda of many universities in the UK, and staff and students are being trained in diversity and equality awareness, mainly in relation to everyday social interactions and student-related adjustments. This focus on EDI has translated into some curriculum changes, as more teaching, learning and reflection spaces are emerging for Gender, Queer, Transgender and Black Studies, for example, and this is having a transformative impact on academic disciplines and the university itself.

When the opportunity arose in 2018 to create a new 10 credit 2nd year German literature course, I wanted to create a course that responded to the call within the discipline of Modern European Languages to diversify the curriculum by integrating excluded voices into the programme and by fostering critical reflection on the historical and cultural origins of the exclusion of underrepresented groups, whilst also being mindful of intersectional identities. I chose to introduce a course that is linked to my research on disability in the fairy tales of the German Romantic era and gave it the title “Researching Disability in German Literature and Society”. This focus on developing research skills allowed me to move away from traditional assessment formats and instead offer student-centred assessment. The course had many different aims that needed to harmonize. I wanted students to:

  • critically examine the treatment and presentation of disability and disabled characters in German literature, using the underused theoretical framework of Disability Studies;
  • become knowledgeable about accessibility, about how they presented their ideas in an accessible and inclusive way;
  • develop research and critical reflection skills;
  • see themselves reflected in the curriculum or see others they have not yet seen represented in course materials;
  • create an inclusive classroom environment.

Complex structural mechanisms of exclusion and gatekeeping are barriers to disabled scholars and tutors with visible and hidden disabilities, who are underrepresented in the academic teaching force. For social justice reasons, who teaches disability is just as important as introducing the subject of disability into the Higher Education curriculum. In order to include different perspectives from the side of the teaching staff, I asked my PhD student, who is physically disabled, to develop one seminar for this course on a topic of her choice that related to Disability Theory. This gave her valuable teaching experience in her field of research and was a conscious and collaborative pedagogical decision to put into practice the “nothing about us without us” policy that disability activists promote.

A further major focus was to push the boundaries on assessment types, so I designed the assessment around an undergraduate academic conference that would be organised by the students themselves. I didn’t want the students to have the pressure of exams or to submit written work on a regular basis, but to first spend time reading and talking about disabled characters and the concept of disability (before the concept existed as a collective term) in the selected fairy tales. Instead of the usual essays, towards the end of term students would present a paper on their independent research project at their conference. At the time of designing this course the idea of an undergraduate academic conference had a bit of a wow-factor and colleagues I spoke to thought it ambitious, innovative and not something undergraduates normally did. Now, after the first run of the course in 2019-20, I am seeing undergraduate conferences popping up in other universities.

The success of the undergraduate conference depended on the students working together, so I asked them to form committees that focused on the conference organization, accessibility, and publicity. They decided on the conference theme “hidden disabilities”, without any prompting from me. They made sure that this theme would accommodate all of the research papers, knowing full well the challenges of researching an under-researched topic in Disability Studies, and that hidden disabilities are sometimes encoded and difficult to uncover in literature. The conference committee then issued a call for abstracts, and the committees needed to decide on an open or closed conference format, whether to design posters and flyers, how to brief the conference participants on accessibility measures and accommodate learning adjustments, and if they wanted to invite a keynote speaker. This called for communication and organization skills and time and people management. For many of the students it was the first time they had encountered conference language and conventions, so I provided some guidance notes, a rudimentary plan and we discussed progress at the start of each seminar. Each conference paper was to be 10 mins long and had a 30% assessment weighting. To encourage reflection on poor conference dynamics and power and exclusionary gender performances at conferences, I recommended reading Emma Bell and Daniel King, ‘The Elephant in the Room: Critical Management Studies. Conferences as a Site of Body Pedagogics’, Management Learning, 41: 4 (2010), 429-442.

For the remaining 70% weighting of the coursework mark, I wanted to push at another boundary and abolish the essay, so it took the form of a critical reflective report (2000 words) that made use of the university’s reflector’s toolkit.

I needed training for this, since it was a new format for me, so I worked with one of the producers of the university’s reflective toolkit to set up guidance notes, a proforma for the critical reflection, and the marking criteria. As I didn’t want the valuable learning experience related to working in groups on setting up a conference to go unreflected, students were asked to reflect critically in their reflective reports on their actions, choices, assumptions, positionality, personal and academic development, and evaluate one or two experiences relating to the conference that either went well or didn’t. This reflection was submitted as an anonymous assignment to me and not shared with the other students.

The students learned a lot about how to work with others and that communication, making decisions early on and leadership was key to this. They reflected on the impact a closed or open conference would have on accessibility issues, and that the presence of outsiders raised the stakes and would cause anxiety for some, so they decided on a closed conference for accessibility reasons. They thought face-to-face communication was the most effective for planning, and the more they communicated the better they progressed.

The students also coped with a major disruption because the conference coincided with industrial action. After the strike was announced I decided that we would “pivot” to an asynchronous online conference with an extended deadline, with pre-recorded podcast presentations uploaded to a blog, where students could respond to the papers. I realise now that since the Covid-19 pandemic started, I have acquired the technical language to describe this change to the format and have since understood that it actually made the conference more accessible. Until the strike, I only had the online recorded presentation as a possible learning adjustment. The students reflected on the change to the conference format as a missed team-building experience, since the conference was no longer a synchronous event, and as a missed opportunity for personal development, but they also acknowledged that they had to accept that sometimes things do not go according to plan, which was valuable lesson ahead of the pandemic.

photograph of the authorEleoma Bodammer

Dr Eleoma Bodammer is a university lecturer and holds the position of Reader in German at the University of Edinburgh. She is the Course Organiser of the second-year undergraduate course “Researching Disability in German Literature and Society”. She was the co-editor and a contributor to the 4th volume of the German Department’s in-house academic journal, the Edinburgh German Yearbook: Disability in German Literature, Film and Theater and is currently working on representations of disability in the works of E. T. A Hoffmann.

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