Fulfilling promises: Susan Williams and Karen Winstead center accessibility and diversity in classes

May 25, 2021

Fulfilling promises: Susan Williams and Karen Winstead center accessibility and diversity in classes

Black, white and red illustration

Promises. We’ve all made them, and we’ve all had someone make one to us. We’ve also all experienced the disappointment of an unfulfilled promise. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a promise as “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified.” In the Department of English and in The Ohio State University community at large, we have made specific declarations about our commitment to diversity and accessibility. Wanting to participate in fulfilling these promises, Professor Karen Winstead and Department Chair Susan Williams are wielding their most recent grants from the Affordable Learning Exchange (ALX) to increase accessibility and diversity in their course materials.  

Winstead brings vampires to life 

Drawing on past experience (and success), Winstead is using her funding to create an “engaging and accessible” Pressbook, Vampire Classics, that includes contextualizing material to go along with online editions of “six foundational vampire stories from the nineteenth century.” Vampire Classics will be used in her class, English 3364: Special Topics in Popular Culture—Vampires, for although Winstead’s chosen vampire tales are in the public domain, students are still faced with the difficulty of navigating the cultural and historical references found in nineteenth-century literature. Through explanatory illustrations, audio examples and written descriptions, Winstead hopes to break down these barriers to understanding.  

She will also include contextualizing introductions, video lectures and discussion questions; audio recordings will be available for all written materials as well to increase accessibility. Vampire Classics itself will be available to students in the course through the syllabus and on Carmen free of charge.  

Expressing excitement for the impact of her project, Winstead cites her past experience using ALX funding to create a Pressbook. “My previous experience taught me that devising a ‘customized’ learning experience is highly effective. Students appreciate a textbook that is tailored to them and that includes engaging supplemental material,” she says. Indeed, multiple students from her previous class noted in their course evaluations how helpful the supplemental material was and how much they enjoyed the Pressbook. 

Aiding her in this project is her GRA, Rachel Stewart, who is an expert in vampire literature and has done archival work about vampires at Yale University. Stewart was also an undergraduate student in English 3364, which Winstead mentions is a huge advantage in deciding which content is most helpful for students.  

While this textbook is for an in-person class rather than an online class like her previous project, Winstead emphasizes that “what remains the same in both projects is my commitment to a customized, personalized reading experience.” 

Williams shines new light on slavery and abolition 

Williams, who received the ALX Social Justice Grant, has a two-fold approach to her project: affordability and racial justice education. To increase affordability, she plans to decrease the cost of materials for her course, English 4551: Special Topics in 19th-Century U.S. Literature—Photography and Literature, by at least 25% through working with Jennifer Schnabel of The Ohio State University Libraries to find digital copies of short stories. As a bonus, these digital copies will allow students to read the short stories in their original publication format, lending a deeper understanding to the context in which the work was written. For racial justice education, Williams’ goal is to add a unit that examines a digital gallery of photographs of enslaved persons and then compares those representations to the photographs of Black soldiers in Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War.  

Noting the complexity of the pandemic-era virtual workplace and school, Williams says, “… we are constantly making decisions about when and how to present our own images (when do we turn on the camera in Zoom?) and how to interpret the images presented by others.” Working from this, one of the goals in her class is to look at the origins of photography and use the historical perspective to understand what we are experiencing in the digital world today. The nineteenth-century writers that Williams chose for this class will provide this important context for analyzing images.  

Meanwhile, the digital gallery will lend new perspective to slavery and abolition. “Studying the poses, clothing and facial expressions in these portraits, along with the history of their production, provides context to literary representations of slavery as well as to our understanding of the diverse portraits we see online every day,” Williams says. She adds that the module on slavery is meant to illuminate the “power of photography to document black lives, both in the antebellum period and in our own time.” In particular, the class will take a look at how the rise of photography intersected with abolitionist literature to increase slavery’s visibility. 

Williams is looking forward to seeing how reading the class texts in their original publication venue encourages students to view them through the lens of their original readers. In adding the racial justice education module, she also aims to support the English department’s Commitment to Racial Justice, which states that new teaching modules will be added to courses to build on the diversity requirements we already have.  

Leaving lasting impact

While these materials are specifically engineered for their upcoming classes, Winstead and Williams both hope to make these materials more widely available. After the trial run and subsequent revisions, Winstead is considering making Vampire Classics publicly available on The Ohio State University Pressbooks website, and Williams similarly hopes to offer the gallery as a resource to other professors in the department, extending the projects’ impacts beyond their immediate implementation.

By Callia Steiner

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