Domenica Vilhotti

Abstract proposal for CCCC Graduate Research Network

October 31, 2007



"Retrofitting" is not a Regression: A Panel[1] on How to Best Train Composition Teaching Assistants to Identify and Instruct a Learning Disabled Population



"If teachers do not learn about disability from the perspective of the disabled, they will not recognize a need to change their pedagogy."

- Introduction to Disability and the Teaching of Writing. Lewiecki-Wilson, Breggemann, and Dolmage.


    Although a cornerstone assumption in the field of disability studies, we believe that the above statement too simply categorizes the motivations of teachers of writing.  Instead, we diverge from the current critical perspective of disability studies; we assert that Dolmage’s concept of "retrofitting" the writing classroom, including the creation of "ramps," which serve as post-facto access points for disabled students, is not necessarily equivalent to regression.  Temporary faculty, specifically graduate teaching assistants (TAs), are not adequately trained to handle a Learning Disabled (LD) population; consequently, LD students are currently not granted adequate access to the writing classroom. We work with our LD students, many of whom we never realize are LD, to do just enough to pass them along, ill-prepared, onto the rest of their university careers.

    According to Lewiecki-Wilson, Brueggemann, and Dolmage, the number of LD students in writing classrooms has tripled in the last twenty years to almost 1 in 10. Because many students choose not to self-identify for fear of stigma, disability resource officers estimate that there are more students with disabilities in colleges than these numbers indicate.  As learning disabilities covers a wide spectrum of cognitive function, we choose here to focus on the most prevalent- dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADD, and ADHD.

    Unfortunately, much of the literature aimed at college composition instructors ignores the TA instructor population.  We differ from our lecturer and professor colleagues in significant ways: we are temporary, responsible for graduate course loads, often working part-time, and, in an institutional sense, the least able to affect administrative change.  The problem, as we see it, is that by engaging in the dominant critical perspectives of LD empowerment, we are denying TAs the needed training and solutions to teach LD students: 1) intensive programmatic training, on-going professional development, and institutionalized relationships with disability resource officers, 2) access to a well-organized list of diagnostic strategies, and 3) pragmatic assessment and categorized list of best teaching practices. Change is necessary, because under the dominant critical perspective of disability studies, we are doing a disservice to our LD students: instead of empowering them, we are dis-empowering them.

    The third paper in our three-part graduate panel seeks to develop a protocol of best practices to be used by TAs when working an LD population in the college classroom.  The protocol will be drawn from a comparative and evaluative literature review of studies that evaluate the efficacy of methodology and procedures subscribed to instruct an LD population.  The task of compiling an annotated list of scientifically-based best practices is a substantial one because currently there is a dearth of information dealing with which pedagogical methods are most effective in the college classroom.  In contrast to the K-12 population, where the concepts of differentiated instruction and individualized academic instruction have served to educate teachers on effective teaching strategies to deal with a wide range of academic ability, few studies have been conducted to amass information on how best to teach academic writing to college-aged LD students.  Further, as mentioned above, the information currently available in the field of composition and disability deals predominantly with LD student empowerment, yet tends to avoid  scientifically-based inquiry of actual teaching practices, supporting activities, and assignments.  We therefore seek to codify the best practices available to develop an effective, yet flexible, protocol that can be understood and adopted easily by TAs unfamiliar with the special challenges of working with LD students.  To further make these practices asseccible to a TA population, this paper will conclude with an annotated sample Introduction to Composiiton course syllabus that integrates this protocol of best teaching practices.    

[1] This paper is meant to be presented in conjunction with papers by Kimberly Bowers and Matt Davis. We envision these papers are the three components of a panel on how to best prepare composition teaching assistants to educate learning disabled students in the composition classroom.