Another Look: Revisiting "Saying No to the Checklist" and "Thick"

Another Look: Revisiting "Saying No to the Checklist" and "Thick"

PWR is a community of teachers that takes ongoing professional development seriously. As part of our ongoing learning, we read great scholarship and essays from varied disciplinary perspectives. But we often have to move through rich texts very quickly. In what will be a regular feature for the PWR newsletter, we return to articles and books that we’ve read in the past year for another look. We hope this column will remind our community of some of the readings’ salient points and explore how instructors are using the ideas in their teaching or scholarship. 

Because of PWR’s commitment to remote learning during the 20-21 academic year,  September Sessions 2020 focused largely on scholarship that addresses online writing instruction (OWI). One of our all-program readings, Sushil Oswal’s and Lisa Meloncon’s “Saying No to the Checklist: Shifting from an Ideology of Normalcy to an Ideology of Inclusion in Online Writing Instruction” (2017) emphasizes the importance of access to online learning and critiques the too-blunt ways writing programs implement access frameworks. Principle 1 from the Conference on College Composition and Communication says “online writing instruction should be universally inclusive and accessible.” To achieve this goal from a curricular, technical, and legal perspective, writing programs often turn to the frameworks of outside organizations such as the Quality Matters assessment rubric. These frameworks, which are often translated to “checklists,” function as “heuristics that provide a list of actions that should be taken to make OWCs [Online Writing Courses] accessible” (62). Typically these checklists have to do with making the learning management system, content (videos, books, library), and video interfaces accessible to students with disabilities.

According to Oswal and Meloncon, the checklist provides a floor, not a ceiling, for access and encourages sometimes thoughtless adoption rather than interrogation of the frameworks or checklists themselves. More problematically, this approach might ironically decenter learners with embodied differences and reinforce an “ideology of normalcy” when the infinitely diverse and emergent needs of learners are simplified by a checklist. For example, Quality Matters [QM] is a national benchmark for online course design, used as a rubric to assess many online courses. But many of its recommendations are general and neither tailored to writing instruction nor to students with disabilities. To make the Quality Matters rubric more inclusive, Oswal and Maloncon ask “How might a QM reviewer address all the accessibility barriers for all the students in the design phase?” (65). Even Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a widely adopted architecture for K-12 education, can be tricky to adapt to OWI. UDL principles emphasize that courses provide learners with multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement, but they have been criticized for positing universality and focusing on policy. Further, Oswal and Maloncon ask, “How can instructors without sufficient knowledge about disabilities and disabled learners come up with appropriate means of representation, action and expression, and engagement?” (67).

Oswal and Maloncon note that the checklist often makes instructors assume they’ve made their courses fully accessible when the one-size-fits-all approach is “hard to adapt for human processes that involve information processing, imagination, critical thinking, and a whole array of mental and physical processes embedded in conceptualizing, designing, and composing on and offline writing” (67). They advocate instead for an approach that’s informed by the values of equity and agency and draws upon  the dynamic learning environment: participatory design. In this approach, all stakeholders have a say in the development of an experience or product to ensure that all users’ needs are met. In the case of OWI, participatory design can assure that all students, not just those with disabilities, can access the course materials and have an ongoing voice in course design. Oswal and Melancon point out “this sort of collaborative course construction would provide ongoing feedback specific to how an OWC actually performs when it is operationalized as a living course” (71).

Sangeeta Mediratta says Oswal and Meloncon helped her see how much of her pedagogy already supports participatory design but had often wondered if she gave too many choices. Oswal and Meloncon’s piece provided her a vocabulary and framework to think more critically about access and participatory design, in the online classroom and eventually also in the in-person classroom. For example, Sangeeta highlights the following in her classroom practice:

  • I start each class session asking students to say out loud or post in chat how they are doing. I encourage them to send me a note over private chat/ email if something seems particularly challenging or is going on that might be impacting their work, etc. 

  • For their "mappings and borders" assignment, an early-quarter assignment, they describe a moment when they encountered maps and borders in any significant way. This open-ended exercise seems to create an early opportunity when they can share if they have any particular concern about class.

  • Before sharing with students the specific activities for the class period, most of the time I check in asking for suggestions, what would feel really useful right now, and then again after I share the activity, I ask for feedback.

  • I leave the text-choice wide open for the RA and stress from the beginning that throughout the quarter students should try to work on something they feel really excited about exploring and /or a topic that has personal resonance for them.

  • I offer three different approaches to the TIC.

  • I ask them to offer suggestions/ edits for my assignment sheets, syllabus, as well as peer review form. Some take me up on this but mainly I'm interested in building out a classroom community that likes to communicate and highlights feedback and open communication as a positive.

For Hayden Kantor, Oswal and Melancon helpfully centered access as we think about what we do online. He especially appreciated their suggestion to check-in with students mid-term not just about content or learning objectives but also about accessibility. He has returned to his mid-term evaluation form to be sure that all kinds of access are queried. As he notes, “we can’t assume that just because we didn’t get an OAE letter at the beginning of the quarter that access issues won’t emerge.” 

Few of us likely think of inclusion as something that can be achieved with a checklist. Oswal and Melancon urge us to continue a conversation program-wide about what features of our online writing courses support an “ideology of inclusion” and to identify concrete areas for growth.


Another recent PWR reading has informed my teaching this year: Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick. Fall 2019, PWR faculty director Adam Banks led a pop-up reading group discussion of this collection of essays, which blend personal narrative, sociological data, and high theory to reveal the individual and structural costs of racism in America. In “Dying to be Competent,” for example, Professor Cottom addresses the medical system’s failure to recognize and address her precarious pregnancy. As she narrates the death of her baby and the extraordinary effort required of Black women to establish their expertise about their own bodies and much else, Cottom links her inadequate care with endemic bias in the healthcare system. In “Girl 6,” Cottom describes “a fuss” she made on Twitter, arguing for the need for Black women opinion writers at “prestige publications” such as The New York Times or The Washington Post. Their striking underrepresentation is apparent not only on mastheads but also in Twitter follows. The title of the essay comes from David Brooks’s follows: out of hundreds and hundreds, just six are Black women. 

Throughout the collection, as Hayden put it, there is an “emphasis on visibility”: “at what moment does she [Cottom] become visible to the structures of medicine and media?” Cottom show us “how easily white mainstream voices exclude her voice and experiences." Yet, “she reframes these public issues around her experience and [the experiences of other] Black women so they have to be accounted for and included.” For example, the theme of thickness runs throughout the book. The idea initially comes from an encounter Cottom has with “a man” at a restaurant who observes that all of her features are “thick.” As she says, “It was true if not artfully stated. Being too much of one thing and not enough of another had been a recurring theme throughout my life” (7), whether in school, Girl Scouts, or academia, where she writes genre- and discipline-defying prose. Through the practice of thick description, Cottom reframes thickness. As one of her epigraphs to the volume explains, “‘Thick’ ethnography provides readers with a proxy experience for living in another culture such that they engage with its richness, pick up the threads, and do what members do--which is to generate new meanings from the same cultural repertoire” (Roger Gomm and Martyn Hammersley, qtd in Cottom, 2). Cottom brings us into the homes, conversations, and decision-making of precisely-defined circles--“good poors,” “Southern, almost pedestrianly so”--to investigate and illuminate social locations misrepresented or overlooked by the predominantly white media.

One of Hayden’s “favorite essays ever” is “The Price of Fabulous.” In this essay, Cottom concretizes abstract theories of conspicuous consumption and status. What the elites might see as illogical, wasteful, and insane--the purchase of expensive handbags, cars, shoes, or televisions--has its logic. Cottom distinguishes between “presentable”--the bare minimum of social civility--and “acceptable,” which is about “gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership” (165-166). “Acceptability”--signaled through clothes or cars or any number of consumer goods--attracts and keeps the positive attention of the teacher, the hiring committee, and the town council member. “Acceptability” is about survival; “and there’s nothing more logical than survival” (161). Cottom takes head on “the tropes of lazy and wasteful directly from her own experience,” says Hayden, “debunking the accepted narrative so thoroughly, but in a way that any person can understand.”

Hayden observes that “Theories won’t do any good if students can’t pick them up and see them working in their own lives.” So he asks himself before he assigns any reading in a PWR class, “Is this accessible to my students? You want to push them, but you don’t want to turn them off.” Cottom’s essays cite everything from Department of Labor and Brookings Institute statistics to monographs, articles, and essays by thinkers such as Michelle Alexander, Pierre Bourdieu, Brittney Cooper, and Michel Foucault. They combine personal narratives--striking stories of characters such as The Vivien, Cottom’s mother, negotiating white condescension in her fine coat and boots--with an explanation of the paradoxes of capitalist ideology in everyday language: for example, “If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor, and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers, and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it” (169).

In my “PWR91 Intermediate Science Writing: Self & Science” class, I ask students to explore the intersections of the personal essay and science. I assigned Cottom’s essay “Thick” because it not only demonstrates all the virtues of an engaging research-based argument, it also directly addresses the affordances and limitations of the personal essay, a genre that Cottom “would like to kill,” as one of my students put it, and remake in ways that I hope they will find inspiring. Cottom observes that for a moment pundits predicted the death of the personal essay as it had become associated with click bait, exhibitionism, and absurdity. But Black women writers “have shoehorned political analysis and economic policy and social movements theory and queer ideologies into public discourse by bleeding our personal lives into the genre afforded us” (23). Cottom works in this tradition, and in all the essays in Thick, moves beyond the merely personal. Her essays begin in sociology “by interrogating social location with a careful eye on thick description that moves between empirics and narrative” (28). 

I also gave students a link to Cottom reading “Thick” outloud to help us think about the ways writers realize voice on the page. We initially discussed her style, citation practices, and use of personal narrative, which students found captivating. In a follow-up discussion of essay structures, I had students analyze a reverse outline to see how Cottom layers personal details, story, data, and theoretical significance to construct transitions. My hope is that Cottom’s work will inspire students to draw connections between their lived experience and recent science--not just as a way to make it meaningful to themselves personally, though that matters, but also to make change. As Cottom says, “I have never wanted to only tell powerfully evocative stories. I  have wanted to tell evocative stories that become a problem for power. For that I draw upon data and research” (29).  


Works Cited

Cottom, Tressie McMillan. Thick: And Other Essays. The New Press, 2019.

Oswal, Sushil K., and Lisa Meloncon. "Saying No to the Checklist: Shifting from an Ideology of Normalcy to an Ideology of Inclusion in Online Writing Instruction." WPA: Writing Program Administration-Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 40.3, 2017, 61-77.