Just before lunchtime, I receive an urgent call. The colleague, whose class I’ll be taking over in two weeks, needs me to start tomorrow. Tomorrow!? I’d planned to go in and observe tomorrow; I’d given the assigned poems a cursory reading. I wanted to sit in the back and be unobtrusive. I must dispense with these half-plans and begin new ones. Luckily, I know where the classroom is; another colleague helped me find it when we were activating our electronic keys.
I begin the process of making the materials accessible. I send a series of emails to our department secretary, asking him to enlarge the poems for tomorrow’s class. In their current state, they’re dingy photocopies – not as grungy as some I’ve seen, but far too small to be legible. The photocopies were made in the usual manner of English professors: Open the thick book and mash it, pages down, onto the copier glass. The thicker the book, the more the professor resists copying each page to its own sheet of paper – so the text slips and curves into the graying vortex of the book’s spine and the edges of each page are muddy and dark.
To make these texts accessible, someone – usually our meticulous secretary – will have to apply OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to the existing PDFs. OCR will change the way that the computer interacts with the PDF. Instead of treating the PDF as a giant picture, OCR will allow the computer to recognize individual letters. Then using the text-to-speech function, my computer will read the texts aloud to me. This accounts for half of the ideal accessible text.
The other half of accessibility is visual; I must be able to visually interact with texts. Here is where I usually clasp my hands and stare woefully at the ceiling – Why oh why did I choose a profession that demands such intense interaction with texts? – but it can’t be helped. I know that any career I choose will present its own challenges.
Because I will thoroughly annotate each text and later read it silently or aloud under the variable lighting of a classroom, I require a larger font than I would use at home or in my office, beneath the cozy mood lighting I like best. This means that the dreadful 2-pages-per-sheet photocopies must be printed so that one book page covers one 8.5×11 sheet of paper. Occasionally people take it upon themselves to enforce “bigger is better,” enlarging my work to fit on 11×14 paper, but this measure begins a textual misadventure. Because my visual fields are limited, I work better with smaller areas, like the 13-inch screen on my laptop. To work with a larger screen up close, I would have to scan it more frequently. If I stand a few feet away, my central vision can accommodate larger areas.
My use of text in class is intimate and specific. I need a clear font with serifs, like Times New Roman or Cambria, and I need the text printed on a manageable area – standard letter-size paper. For longer texts, I need clear (enlarged) page numbers and a solid system for organization, whether it’s staples, binders, or tabs. Fortunately, for this class, I am dealing with two short packets of poems – each packet is about 15 pages long.
Because of the short notice, I worry that I will end up teaching without accessible copies of the poems. I am unfamiliar with the two poets, and I can only reason that I’ll ask students to read some of the text aloud. This will be my first time teaching these students, and I know the need to appear confident and capable.
Just hours before my class begins, my colleague and I briefly discuss the poems. She describes major themes, and I suggest possible directions for the class. Our secretary manages to enlarge them in the nick of time, and I shove the two packets in my bag on my way to another meeting.
All too soon, I stand before a low table at the front of my new classroom. Though I have folded my white cane, I have not removed my burgundy-framed sunglasses – the overhead lights are intense. My colleague introduces me briefly and asks the students to introduce themselves. My hands slide idly along the edge of the table. I feel my fingers start to tap the table, and I stop myself. I remember that, though I can only see parts of them – fuzzy heads, colorful blurs of clothing, dark lumps that must be schoolbags – they can all see me. I refuse to think about the loose bow on my shirt (is it straight?) or the shine that a warm classroom and two pairs of glasses add to my face. I smile, grateful that I remembered to apply lip balm.
Even before I’ve given the blind professor spiel, introductions flow smoothly. All the students speak clearly, and most speak cheerfully, giving me their name, major, and an interesting fact about themselves. Once my colleague has fielded a handful of questions about past assignments, she leaves me alone with the new class. I take a breath and begin The Talk.
I explain that I’ll be identifying them by their voices: “If I don’t hear you, you’re not here. So you’ll want to speak up often.” I say that I’ll be asking them whether the whiteboard is clean before I write on it. “It’s a pain to write over some previous math class,” I intone seriously. When I am greeted with silence, I grin, “That’s a joke. You can laugh.” They oblige – my first clue that they’ll be a fun and cooperative group. Lastly I ask, “Where’s the lightswitch in here?” A male student leaps to his feet, offering to turn off the lights for me, but I resist. “No, I’ll do it – just direct me.” I explain that this is an informal test of their ability to communicate clearly and use direction-specific words. That gets a genuine laugh. Several voices chime in with succinct and accurate directions, and I flip off three of the four switches. Lastly, I add that they’ll need to submit their assignments in 18-point font. “And if your printer is running out of ink,” I pause dramatically. “Do us both a favor and print from the library. Faded ink is not fun to read.”
The students receive this information stoically, though they chuckle in all the right places. There are no questions or complaints; they seem to digest what I’ve said without a problem. I can’t believe I’m at the end of my “this is how your professor is different” talk already. Don’t I have more to say? DId I forget anything?
After my introduction, I lay out the plan for that day’s class – a length of 3.5 hours with three 10-minute breaks. As we move through collective and individual peer review, an informal lecture on poetics, and an interactive annotation exercise, we subtly amend the course plan. The students readily answer my questions about the course procedures and the day’s material. At one point, they can’t remember the criteria for individual peer review, so we invent a new procedure. During the final break, students chat about the feedback they’ve received. “We don’t get a lot,” they tell me. “We don’t get graded.”
“Do you know why?” I ask, knowing full well that my colleague has explained her methodology to them. But because it’s so new and foreign, they don’t remember it.
I offer them an explanation, and they indulge me, letting me pontificate for ten minutes on the value of the teacherless writing class. I scrawl Peter Elbow’s name on the board and explain, with more zeal than eloquence, the need to make writing a daily habit, the virtues of freewriting, and the growing confidence and command of words that accompanies such a pedagogy. I finish by saying that they’ll always read more willingly the material that interests them – but there is also value in learning to read texts that don’t interest them. Like the daily practice of musicians and athletes, writing takes rigor and commitment before you can expect to perform, to produce something of value.
I doubt my speech pleases them, but I can sense that they are happier knowing what philosophies structure this course. I am excited to watch them grow as writers, curious how much they will choose to develop. And I feel I’ve accomplished something for myself. I expected the class to be chaotic: I imagined myself stumbling through unfamiliar poems, trying to articulate someone else’s theories, while students unaccustomed to the quirks of my instruction gave stilted responses or none at all. I feel an intense gratitude for the cooperation that brought us all success – a powerful appreciation for my colleague’s guidance, my secretary’s resourcefulness with the myriad and confusing features of Adobe Acrobat, and my students’ willingness to help me settle into the new rhythm of our course. Yet again, I find myself amazed at how quickly challenges disappear when people decide to work together.