Over the past few months, I’ve been able to give presentations on some of the reading list and resourcing work I’ve been doing with colleagues. These give an overview of the developments and initatives we’ve been implementing in relation to reading lists and their impact on curriculum teaching, with greater inclusivity and accessibility in mind. The focus of these can be divided into two strands, with separate aims, but linked by the wish to remove barriers to learning and to foster a more inclusive curriculum. The first is accessibility and inclusivity as seen through the lens of barriers to reading, which I have presented on twice with my library colleague Tom Peach. The second is the centring of student agency via the co-construction of reading lists, with my colleague from our School of Education, Language and Psychology, Dr Charlotte Haines Lyon.
Inclusivity and accessibility in reading lists: practical discussions, knowledges and tools – presented with Tom Peach
Tom and I have presented on this issue twice. Once at the May meeting of RIPPLE, our internal forum for learning and teaching discussion, and again this week at the university’s learning and teaching conference, Talking About Teaching. The presentations were very similar, but you can link to both and see the approaches we took.
Our aim in these presentations was not only to promote awareness of the work we have been doing, but also to gain feedback from colleagues about the guidance they would value in implementing it in their work.
We began by outlining some key evidence that reveals systemic bias in publishing, both in academia and more widely. This included Anamik Saha and Sandra van Lente’s 2020 work on the lack of diversity in the publishing industry , Relebohile Moletsane, Louise Haysom and Vasu Reddy’s 2015 article on the skewed nature of peer review, and Claudia Gillberg’s 2020 book chapter on ableist gatekeeping of knowledge.
Tom expanded upon this by explaining how the imposition of Digital Rights Management and paywalls on publications used in research and study puts barriers in place for access, especially for disabled people. An example of this is when ebook platforms prevent simple PDF downloads, instead requiring third party software for download, which does not interact well with screen-reading software.
One potential solution to this is to use Open Access sources, which should still be checked for accessibility, but which do not require extra software. I explained how Open Access often provides an alternative to traditional publishing too, and so could open up the potential pool of resources beyond the traditional canon. Potential sources include Oapen, DOAB, Core.ac.uk, DOAJ, and the Unpaywall browser extension. We also expanded this to include discussion on other media, such as blogs and podcasts, which can provide valuable contributions to academic work, but are often dismissed as not ‘academic’ enough. These must also be evaluated for accessibility – for example, does a podcast have a transcript, and is this transcript an acceptable alternative to the audio version, or will something be lost?
We wanted to facilitate discussion on this, to understand how this impacts across the different disciplines we have at the university. We had a practical aim in mind too, as we are currently re-writing our collection development policy (see the Comprehensive Content Strategy introduced at the University of Sheffield for the type of inclusive approach we wish to implement), and we want a simple guidance document to aid our academic colleagues in collaborating on this.
The key things our colleagues revealed they would like included were;
- a list of open access search tools, linked directly from the guidance,
- links to help and guidance on choosing where to publish their own research in an inclusive and accessible way,
- links for contacts for the university’s assistive technology and digital training teams, to aid with evaluating the accessibility of chosen sources, be they text-based or in other media.
In addition they welcomed debate on shifting the focus in teaching and research from the idea that some publication types are ‘academic’ (e.g. peer review = good) and should therefore be used, and towards the notion that all types of sources should be critically evaluated on their content and delivery, and included in learning, teaching and assessment on that basis.
This lead well into the presentation I gave with Charlotte, as this centred on student agency in critiquing and co-constructing reading lists, with the media of the sources within the lists being one of the things they were encouraged to critique.
Co-constructing reading lists: breaking down the barriers to political agency
Charlotte began by explaining that she is an academic on childhood, youth and education courses, from foundation degree level through to doctoral supervision. She has often taught on issues of global education and on modules which focus on issues such as life chances. As is often the case in universities, she inherited modules which had already been designed and resourced, and used the reading list as one of the first ports of call in familiarising herself with its focus and content. One such module was on global education, but had a reading list made up almost exclusively of white, European and American-centric authors. We decided to work together on not only tackling the content of such lists, but also moving towards the students having agency in these analyses and changes.
Underlying this shift was our belief that critical pedagogy and critical information literacy should underpin our practice. As can be seen in the slides, we were greatly influenced by Lauren Smith’s work on political agency and the benefits of equiping students with the skills they need to understand the systems which impact upon their learning, and to challenge it where they need to. In my practice as a librarian, the thing I experience constantly is the student struggling to get over the hurdle of viewing themselves as a researcher whose perspective is just as valid as that of the staff teaching them. Such agency is vital.
Through asking the students to critique existing lists, and find other resources which provided a wider range of experiences from which to draw, they were able to better understand the systemic biases in publishing and information availability. They also came to the conclusions that much of the information they found was not in the traditional academic publishing forms of journal articles and books from well-known publishers, which in turn led to a questioning of why those are valued above other media. A prime example of this was on a life chances module where the value of memoir was drawn out, providing counterpoints to the academic literature. The frustration of having to dig so hard for these was evident too.
Our question to our colleagues in the discussion with us is how we continue to develop this student agency via the critique of reading lists, and the resources available to us to add to them. The avenue of a checklist for inclusion of different voices on the reading list was suggested, but it was agreed that this could lead to tick-box compliance, the ethically dubious practice of making a judgement on someone’s ethnicity or identity based on scarce information (e.g. making assumptions based on a name), and also that this didn’t help with the agency of the student as researcher. Instead, the reading list was viewed as something that could easily exclude a student through a lack of representation, and so it should be inclusive, but that this should be a tool to critique the wider issues we’ve outlined. Designing this into modules throughout a degree course was seen as very important, so that this agency builds over the programme. It was also key to build in support to mitigate the inevitable frustration encountered in trying to locate sources.
These were 30 minute discussion papers, so there was a limit to how much we could explore such complex issues in the time we had. For example, the primacy of English language texts and sources, and how to overcome this, was mentioned, but we didn’t have time to dig into it further. Nevertheless, it was encouraging to see how much ground we covered and the enthusiasm for developing these initiatives further.