Helping Students Navigate Steep Steps: A Conversation with Macmillan Learning Author Dr. Jay Dolmage

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Picture a university college campus. Are you imagining majestic buildings standing tall, perhaps of Gothic architecture? How about the intricate stone carvings and pointed arches exuding academic excellence and tradition? What about the steep steps that take you inside that building? Those stairs are a key architectural feature and they are everywhere on college campuses. They’re also, both literally and symbolically, a barrier for many college students.

Jay Dolmage.jpegWe spoke with Macmillan Learning Author Dr. Jay Dolmage to discuss this and more as part of our ongoing Author Spotlight series. We recognize that the success of our content and courseware is in large part due to our outstanding authors, many of whom have years of experience in research and higher education. The series explores each author’s educational background, teaching interests, and the life experiences that impact their writing and teaching.

A co-author of How to Write Anything 5e with John Ruszkiewicz, Dr. Dolmage is Professor of English at University of Waterloo.  He has a passion for both writing and teaching (and in particular, teaching writing to first-year students.) And there’s a special reason he’s so passionate -- he wants to change the way we think about education. Dr. Dolmage argues that education is not always inclusive, and therefore for far too many people, not receiving the best education is an unfortunate reality.  

Early Influences

“Can I teach more?…”
“Can I teach writing more?…”

Those were the questions Dr. Dolmage asked himself as he made decisions about his career path. And the answer each time was “Yes.” He taught his first writing course about 20 years ago to incoming freshmen -- something that quickly became his favorite thing to do. He’s passionate about continuing to teach writing to new students year after year because of the oversized impact he believes it has. 

It made an impact on him. Dr. Dolmage went from a small town to a large university -- an experience that he said helps him relate to his students. “I like that I can connect with students in their first year, and that I'm a professor who knows their names, and can help them learn one another's names.” He believes that the skills he teaches his students in first-year writing will not only provide them with the confidence to succeed, but will act as the critical building blocks that they’ll use for the remainder of their college experience. 

His small town upbringing isn’t the only aspect of his youth to have had an impact on him. When Dr. Dolmage thinks of the things that prepared him for becoming a top teacher and prolific author, being a camp counselor is one of the surprising things that comes to mind. He also credits his parents, who were both “teachers.” While his dad was a high school physical education teacher, his mom was a social worker by trade. “You might not think of a social worker as being a teacher, but in fact, I really think she is, and continues to be, a powerful teacher.”

Teaching wasn’t his first dream. Writing was. “I really wanted to be a writer, and I loved writing. I loved the challenge of it; the feeling of creativity..” It was that very experience and struggle that made him want to pursue writing, a desire that followed him throughout his undergraduate degree into his master's degree where he was thrown into teaching writing. “I was excited about it, but I didn't know what it was going to look like.” He ultimately discovered that teaching was a fantastic way to support his goal of being a writer. 

Education is Worth Fighting For

“You don't realize the cost of exclusion in education unless you've lived through it.” Dr. Dolmage knows all about that cost, because he’s seen the impact firsthand as the sibling of a brother with disabilities. It’s just one of the many reasons why he’s so passionate about supporting inclusivity in education.

As an individual with disabilities, Dr. Dolmage’s older brother, Matthew, was not allowed to go to the same school as him and his sister. In a practice known as "segregation," children with disabilities were sent to schools with “specialized education.”  He and his family fought to have his brother attend the same school all the way up to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Ontario, in Canada. When that didn’t go as they hoped, they switched neighborhoods and schools.

After that move, Dr. Dolmage and his brother started going to school together and everything changed. The world opened up to his brother, who was finally included in the same activities and classes as him, and was welcomed into the neighborhood. It was then that Dr. Dolmage realized the power of inclusion and the impact it could have on someone's life. It emphasized for him that education is not something he would ever take for granted and it inspired him to help others in the same way.

“There always was an understanding that education was something worth fighting for. And that has been the thing that motivates my research and scholarship, and also my teaching. It's one of those things where you don't realize the cost unless you've lived through that kind of exclusion.” He added that it’s an unfortunate reality for lots of people, which is why he continues fighting for more inclusive education. In his career, he has worked to buck the ableist attitudes, policies, and practices that he feels are currently built into higher education. Or as he refers to them -- the “steep steps.”

The Steep Stepssteep stepsv2.png

Remember those steep steps? Now imagine, if just for a day, you decided you weren't going to go up any stairs, but you'd only use elevators. You'd only use doors that had push-button entrances, or other accessible features on your campus. The steep steps make it nearly impossible for some students to access various areas of the buildings. Even when there is an accessible entrance, it may be located in a less convenient or less prominent location. That doesn’t even include considerations of the uneven terrain, bumpy sidewalks, narrow doors and steep ramps, which also make the campus difficult to navigate. More than just an inconvenience, having to locate accessible features of a campus could add about an hour each day -- time that could be used in class, or to study, work, or spend time with family and friends.

The steep steps are a powerful metaphor for the barriers that some students face. “They are physical features on campus that we keep reproducing. We associate them with upward mobility and say things like ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ and ‘step up.’” The steep steps determine who has access to privilege and knowledge, he added. “If we see it physically, then we can understand that it happens in other ways. It happens across the curriculum. It happens in the ways that we teach. There are so many barriers just built in because it's the way that we've always done things.”

He added, “The messages that are conveyed to disabled students that their access is at the back door and at the end of the syllabus are also forms of ableism.” Dr. Dolmage believes those steep steps represent a key reason why colleges lose so many disabled students. “The graduation rates are much, much lower. The amount of time it takes students to get a degree is much, much higher. The retention rates are really poor.” The cost of the steep steps is that colleges are losing a lot of students. 

Dr. Dolmage believes that the writing classroom can be a powerful place to change that dynamic. There, he said, we get to see a diverse group of students early in their college experience; bringing us full circle to explain why teaching first-year students in the fall semester is his favorite thing to do. “Since writing is a required class, there’s a good cross-section of the students who are coming into the university. We get to deliver our courses differently. That’s the reason why I like teaching in the first term.” 

It’s a dynamic that wasn’t present during Dr. Dolmage’s schooling. 

The Version of History We Choose

When Dr. Dolmage was in grad school, he noticed the absence of disability and persons with disabilities in the courses he took. That didn’t track with his own experiences. “I was learning all of these things as part of my grad program, these kinds of histories and theories of rhetoric, and disability was nowhere to be seen.”

This was a version of history that he didn’t believe or trust. He likens it to professors he had who had seen a version of the history of rhetoric that only included white men and knew there was more to the story. Just like those who saw the injustice set out to tell the fuller story, so did he -- but with a disability angle. “We've chosen a version of history here where we've cut out all of the rich evidence of the power of disabled people and rhetoricians, and we could have told it differently. And so we did.”

This experience has ultimately helped Dr. Dolmage’s role as a teacher and as a writer. He wanted to ensure that all students, regardless of ability, have the chance to learn, develop, and thrive in an inclusive environment. He wanted to challenge the version of history that excluded people with disabilities and to show the power of disabled people and rhetoricians. 

His first book, Disability Rhetoric, was the first of many titles about academic ableism that Dr. Dolmage would write. In the following years, he continued writing with titles that included: Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education (Michigan University Press), Disabled Upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability (Ohio State University Press), How to Write Anything (Bedford/St. Martin’s) and Disability and the Teaching of Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s).

Even with the focus on inclusivity, Dr. Dolmage recognizes that not all students want to be in class. To counter that, he seeks out creative and inventive ways to support students who have different levels of preparedness with the goal of using the 16 weeks an instructor has with them to change their mind, and help them feel connected to each other and their instructor. He focuses on classroom collaboration, helping students build confidence, and safely try new things and get out of their comfort zone.How to WRite Anything.jpg

He noted that writing books is a test of flexibility and inclusion. How to Write Anything, he said, can sound disingenuous, “as if we could teach people how to write anything.” But it’s not about teaching every single form of writing that a student will ever need. Rather, it’s teaching a student that no matter what gets thrown at them, they can figure it out because they have learned the basics and built in flexibility and confidence.

Building those skills are what he thinks about every time he sets down to write. He knows that students from all walks of life, taking a variety of different programs, will be using his text. “How can I support those students .... whoever walks in the room? Any kind of student, no matter where they're from, what they want to do, what zip code they live in, what background they're from, whether or not they're working a full time job in addition to being a student. Because those are the realities, aren't they?”