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Amy Lobben, AAG President

“You Baby.” It’s Saturday morning. Jeffrey, who is chronologically well out of his early teenage years, but very much still there in spirit, is awake and calling to me with his favorite insult. He’s mostly non-verbal, but this particular phrase is one that he articulates well enough for anyone to understand.

It’s catchy. A friend and I agree that sometimes we would love to deploy Jeffrey’s favorite phrase at select times, such as… some faculty meetings, for example.

I have mostly resisted using this nifty phrase. However, there are times when I do get fed up with the socially constructed marginalization that is the lived experience of my son and many others with disability. That’s usually when I let loose with “You Baby.”

My husband Andrew and I have started a winery, but not just any winery (terrapacem.com). Our goal is for this winery to provide community, training, and work experiences for people with disabilities. Our son Jeffrey and some of his friends from his school and support program will be among its first employees. Our urban tasting room is set to open this month. (As a side note, this process—and to be honest the many pallets of wonderful wine—have been a great distraction during the Covid pandemic. It’s one of the only things in my life that seems to be moving forward over the past year.)

Image of grapes hanging from the vine in dappled sunlight. The grapes are different shades of purple and gold in a single cluster.
Image: Lucas George Wendt

I have no idea how well this new venture will work. But, there’s no wading in; we have to jump! In addition to making wine and building a tasting room, we’ve partnered with local nonprofits supporting people with disabilities, including an amazing art program—we are dedicating wall space to displaying art from local artists with disabilities. Last week, Andrew and I visited the studio and saw some of the art that will be the first showing in our tasting room. While there, in addition to interacting with some of the artists, the instructors, and enjoying the displays, I saw a graphic on the wall (see the graphic here, with context about how it has been interpreted and shared). I’d seen it before. But last week, I found myself staring. I was awestruck by how hard inclusion is to achieve and the dramatic (and expensive) steps Andrew and I are taking in order to create opportunities for inclusion. Sometimes I feel like everything we are doing feels contrived – and to an extent it is. Sometimes the barriers seem unsurmountable. And sometimes I get very grouchy when I think about what we are having to do to overcome systematic and systemic bias and exclusion.

But, what we are doing is necessary. Everyone in society exists in constructed space with  boundaries of access and exclusion. Which people are allowed passage is based on intangible cultural, ethnic, racial, gendered, disabled, or economic boundaries. Spatial boundary patterns vary for every individual, driven by these geographies of exclusion.

One of my activities over the past several years has been mapping privileged and disenfranchised space and looking at the patterns of disconnected spaces that emerge. These patterns can reveal spaces that are dominated by a single group or multiple groups. The greater the privilege, the larger the space.

While I feel that Andrew and I are going to fairly extreme lengths to create inclusion opportunities for our son and his community, I also feel that our path is obvious and manageable. But, it’s my professional role – as geographer, educator, administrator, and AAG member, that presents the most confounding inclusion challenge for me.

In a coming column, I will share solicited responses I received from many faculty regarding what they wish they had known and been trained for before beginning their faculty career. One of those respondents mentioned frustration with the lack of preparation for teaching varied student learning needs. This same sentiment was part of a long, ongoing conversation between some of my colleagues, beginning about 2 years ago when we began to notice an uptick in students reporting disability-based instructional accommodations. Usually, those accommodations include extra time for exams or a notetaker. But those are often BandAid solutions.

The real problem is our institutional, instructional, and traditional pedagogic barriers. Major among these barriers is inadequate educator preparation, coupled with classic sage-on-the -stage or zoom-in-the-room instructional practices. The combination of poor training and one-size-fits-all instruction creates a serious disconnect between instructor delivery and student learning needs.

But, of course, institutional goals are the overarching barrier. And these goals are largely out of the hands of most faculty. On the institutional side, especially at public colleges and universities, we may need to think about our mission—our public mission. If we’re really in the business of education, maybe that should be our priority.

Just an idea.

Here’s an example: Research. Research is often the first thing universities celebrate in their missions. Yet it is expensive. As one upper administrator once told me, the university pays $1.3 for every $1 of external research funding it receives. In addition, as the Carnegie research activity classification increases (i.e. R3 to R1), the teaching load usually lowers.  At what cost do universities prioritize expensive research metrics over inclusive education?

I’ve spent most of my career at an R1 university.  I do see some contribution to society and I see the benefit to some students.  But, looking back, I’m honestly not sure whether I served society better by publishing a couple of articles per year in obscure academic journals, as opposed to focusing on more inclusive education of our next generation.

If we’re going to address the problem of educational access and inclusion, the answer seems obvious:  As geography educators, we (and our institutions) need to adopt Universal Design of Instruction. One of my favorite summaries of UDI is from the Do-It program at the University of Washington. Yet while simple to discuss, the principles of UDI are difficult to implement, primarily as a result of attitudinal, administrative, resource, and institutional barriers.

During our PhD programs, most of us are taught to be researchers. Some of us are formally taught to be teachers. But, few of us are taught Universal Design of Instruction. This approach represents a monumental shift from the traditional pedagogy: the lecture-driven course design. Yet, if we are going to achieve educational inclusion, our practices and institutions must shift out of comfortable models designed for the “typical” student and make way for a new approach – instructional design for a broad range of students. This range must include the very students who make up our classes whether they have disabilities, are of a non-traditional age, are raised in another language, come from any race, ethnicity, differ in learning style, or—most often—have lives that combine several of these.

As I reflect on the inclusion graphic I saw on the studio wall last week, I realize that in education—at all levels—we have a long way to go to create true inclusion. Rather than holding on to our normative, mainstream educational practices and relying on using accommodations for those students who don’t fit the norm, we should build inclusive instruction and learning. Then, the wave of student accommodation requests will reduce to a trickle.

I know, personally, that I need to do better. I need to learn and practice the principles of UDI. If I don’t, I know what Jeffrey would say… “You Baby.”

—Amy Lobben
AAG President and Professor at University of Oregon
lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu


Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.