The students roamed around like detectives, checking out the doors, the windows, the aisles, the desks, you name it, in Room 1230 of the Undergraduate Science Building.
Compared to the classic, stuffy, windowless, tight-row/single-seat lecture classrooms of the past, this modern room is refreshing. One wall is entirely windows. Semi-circle desks host only four students, forming nice islands surrounded by elbow room. The lights are bright, the screens large.
This is what most students likely had observed so far in this class, 22 Ways to Think about New Media. But this day’s guest speaker Melanie Yergeau, assistant professor of English language and literature, discussing new media’s impact on the disabled, had challenged the students to take 10 minutes to observe the room from the eyes of those with even minor disabilities.
“Think broadly,” she told the students. “Who is this room designed for, and who wasn’t it designed for?”
The students seemed surprised at their own findings.
“There isn’t much distance between rows, so it makes it really cramped and hard to move in and out of the space,” one student offered. Another noticed the height of the desks — too low for many. A third noted the chairs — all the same size, with arms. A larger or very tall person would have problems. There was no Braille for switches on the wall, no handrails, no ramps, which automatically relegated “disabled” people to the front row.
“The room is really wide, and it’s hard to hear what people are saying on the other side,” one student said in a soft voice.
“Did any of you hear that?” Yergeau asked the students across the room. They had not.
Yergeau, who specializes in disability and trauma studies — and a host of other subject areas — exposed to students that not all is as it seems for those who have disabilities, even in a classroom designed to be accessible.
She introduced concepts such as “participatory design,” which involves including the disabled when designing public places; how social media has given the disabled unity and a vehicle for activism; and how closed captioning, which often is absent or woefully inadequate, is something to keep in mind for academic, personal and professional pursuits. She told students about captioning options on YouTube (who knew?), and how this function even can translate captions into other languages.
“There are phenomenal possibilities with this,” she said. “Just for those going on the job market, having this as a skill set is a hugely marketable thing.”
Students clearly gleaned a great deal from Yergeau.
“Evaluating the room for accessibility was very interesting,” said senior Lisa Chippi, 22, a dance performance major. “I’ve never really thought in detail about how a classroom is designed or for whom it is designed. It was eye opening” to see that inadequate design “could create worry or anxiety.”
“Throughout this class, we have been shown many ways technology is adapting and changing everything around us for the better,” said Alex Izen, 20, a sophomore and communications major. “Yet for those with disabilities, this is not the case. This is just another way that 22 Ways has exposed me to current issues I was previously unaware of.”
Yergeau was one of 15 guest speakers scheduled to appear in the class, which is part of a series of 22 Ways courses connected to U-M’s Sophomore Initiative. The mission is to present multidisciplinary perspectives on subjects to help students identify academic interests, said Carol Tell, director of the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program and faculty member of the Sweetland Center for Writing. Previous 22 Ways courses have focused on such topics as how to think about food, video games, translation and race.
Tell and Naomi Silver, associate director at the center, have teamed up to plan the course and line up speakers from all over campus. Silver also is co-founder and co-director of the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, a community webspace and digital book series with U-M Press.
“I have seen over the past several years how new media are changing the way students write and create and even think about creativity,” Tell said. “So that’s one of the central questions Naomi and I wanted to engage in. We’ve asked our speakers: ‘How have recent developments in new media changed the way you do your professional work or construct an argument in your disciplines or field?’
“We began the first several classes by trying to define ‘new media,'” Tell continued. “Interestingly, even some of our students see a difference in how they relate to technology versus their younger siblings, and they have a healthy skepticism about the next ‘new thing.'”
Students early in the term wrote reflections on their own use of media, and have been participating in interactive blogs, a “paperless” option they enjoy.
In other classes during the term, professors from various disciplines have offered how they are using new media in areas such as “screencasting” statistics; applying video game “thinking” to educational design; earth and environmental sciences; and digitizing physics data. Also planned was a trip to U-M’s Duderstadt 3D Lab/Motion Capture and Animation Lab.
It’s been quite a safari so far, students said.
“We have covered a large span of new media and its effects,” said Isabelle Abrams, 19, a sophomore and psychology major. “Some days, we learn how screencast technology or game-like points systems might revolutionize the classroom. Other days, we learn about ridiculous technology such as having a camera attached to a garbage lid that records a person’s waste output and posts the information to social media websites.”
Perhaps most important, though, is how the class is helping students identify applications of new media in their own academic and career plans.
“I plan on working in marketing and advertisement,” said Izen, “and I strongly believe that social media and the Internet will have a significant influence. … As technology evolves, the majority of marketing and advertising will transition from print to digital. Being well-versed in multiple aspects of digital media will give me a significant advantage.”
Freshman Madison Brow, 18, said that the class “not only gives me a look into the many disciplines this school has to offer — in hopes of clarifying or giving me ideas for a possible major — but also highlights how new media can be a part of every single one of those disciplines.
“I think that just being given the knowledge that new media has a broad range of applications is important, so you will then have it in your toolkit wherever you choose to go.”
— Sheryl James is a freelance writer for the University of Michigan.