The “Hidden Curriculum” Taught by Desks in College Classrooms (Almost) Everywhere

Photograph by  Michael Poley  for AllGo

Photograph by Michael Poley for AllGo

To kick off AllGo’s series on being fat in college, I’m starting with a look at the challenges with seating and desks. This is the most referenced issue voiced by plus-size people who have occupied college and university campuses and since the issue of literally fitting in is so central to AllGo’s mission, it just makes sense.

When I was in college, I was around a size 18 for the first couple of years, and while I don’t remember ever strictly not fitting in any of the seating I encountered, I do remember always having anxiety about it. I chose my seat strategically based on trying not to inconvenience other students or find myself wilting under their judging gaze. But looking back, I realize that I never blamed the seats for being too small. I only blamed my body—and myself—for being (almost) too big. I thought to myself, “Clearly the university—and probably other ones just like it around the world—thought this seating was perfectly reasonable. Most other students don’t seem to have a problem with it. If only I weren’t fat. I’m the problem.” 

Here’s what I know after looking at the data: I’m not the problem. Colleges and universities simply aren’t designed with the needs of plus-size students in mind.

Sarah Q., who attended undergrad and graduate school in the Texas, likened her experience with seating at college to an oppressive dark cloud. The fear of not being able to fit followed her everywhere she went and put a damper on her college experience.

Mine and Sarah Q.’s anxiety around seating and desks, not to mention the very likely anxiety of approximately 19.9 million students who will attend undergraduate classes in the U.S. this fall, should be a wakeup call to college and universities. There are plenty of things for college students  to feel anxious about: sharing a living space for the first time, making friends, succeeding at a new challenging level of academia, and how they’ll pay off their student loans. Fat students are thinking about all of those things and they are constantly worried about whether or not they’ll even be able to sit comfortably in their new, challenging classes or whether they’ll be too distracted by the pain of pinched thighs and bellies to focus on the lessons they’re paying  thousands of dollars to learn.

This isn’t new news. Experts have been writing about this issue since 2003. Early and mainstream articles have focused on how uncomfortable seating impacts students’ ability to learn, regardless of whether size is what makes the seating uncomfortable. In a 2003 article about students and learning environments, the author found that many classrooms “have a type of chair that is widely used, but that classroom-design experts can’t stand.”

These chairs are known as “tablet-arm chairs”. I’m sure you’ve seen them and you’ve probably had the misfortune of having to use them. In his capacity of Facilities Manager at the University of Connecticut, Larry Shilling said, “Experts object mainly to [the tablet-arm chair’s] insufficient desk space… [but] for some students, it’s not the desks that are too small, but the seats.” He continued, “Each semester several students complain about not being able to fit into the tablet-arm chairs in Arjorna.” (Arjorna is a building on the campus of the University of Connecticut.)

Imagine how many people are too embarrassed to complain.

As a person still occasionally fits in tablet-arm chairs, I have to say, they are terrible. If I had a choice of seating options, I’d always choose them last. And I don’t know anyone who disagrees. 

Photo by  Michael Poley  for AllGo

Photo by Michael Poley for AllGo

This sentiment has long been echoed in AllGo’s work. Many of the seats plus-size people loathe are also hated by people who aren’t plus size. The bad design is just more obvious to people in larger bodies. Eugene J. Harvey and Melaine C. Kenyon published an article in 2013 in the Journal of Learning Spaces about how seating considerations impact learning psychologically, independent of body size. 

Another study highlighted that incorrect computing, an activity in which sitting is common, may increase one’s risk for back and neck pain and injury, resulting in missed school and work (Yildrim, Capanoglu, & Cagatay 2011). To prevent these types of health problems, Breithecker (2006) suggests engaging in active-dynamic sitting, which is accomplished through the use of a chair with a swivel feature and constructed to be flexible or open on all sides. Enabling any movement when seated encourages postural change, which promotes effective and continual movement. Such movement improves blood circulation, stimulates muscles, and allows pelvic and spinal shifting.

People who write about the experience of being plus-size in college repeatedly bring up seating and desks. In her article in 2007 about being fat in college, Kristen Crepezzi said, 

The importance of fit should not be ignored, though research on its application to higher education settings is missing. When individuals cannot physically fit comfortably in the environment, there is an important message that the needs of heavier people are not valid and that they do not belong in the seats that do not contain them adequately.

Crepezzi acknowledges the gap in the literature in an application to fat bodies but makes the point clear: small seating tells fat students that they are not welcome at school.

For the blog Adipose Activist!, Amber wrote a post titled, “The Attack of the Chair Desks,” in 2011. She says,

I cannot fit into the majority of these desks. My belly simply won’t allow for it. In far too many classes, I’ve had no choice. I have to squeeze myself in, looking obviously uncomfortable, to the point where I have to restrict my breathing and my ass is hanging halfway off the seat. It’s not pleasant, and frankly, it’s embarrassing…although I’ve accepted that there are certain places that I just won’t fit, I really hate that my classes have to be one of those places. It’s nearly impossible to learn to my full capacity when during the entire class, my belly is aching from being squished, and I’m getting sharp pains in my butt from having to rest all my weight on one side of my body. In a very real way, it impairs my education.

During the 15 interviews I conducted for this series, inaccessible seating was the most popular topic and often the reason interviewees volunteered to chat. Something that came up repeatedly was the “accessible” seating that some classrooms offered in addition to the inaccessible seating was often the chairs with desks attached. Karli noted that at their schools in Pennsylvania, the desks were uncomfortable and “anyone over a size 12 probably wouldn’t fit.” In the beginning, Karli was embarrassed about not fitting but, by grad school, they no longer cared what people thought. Karli just wanted to be able to learn comfortably. They noted that during undergrad, their professors thought they were “being dramatic” but in grad school the professors were much more empathetic and did not make them feel ashamed for not fitting in desks.

Erin, who attended college in Denver, Colorado, noted that she always had issues with the seats with attached desks. She did not realize she could get an accommodation from the accessibility center on campus to use the accessible desks in the room until she started working for the center mid-way through her time at the university. Until she knew about how to gain access to this seating, she often chose her classes based on where they were going to be held, even if it wasn’t as convenient of a time for her schedule. She even dropped classes if the room got changed after the semester started and she could no longer find a place to sit. The accessible seating was much more comfortable but making use of it wasn’t. There would often only be one or two accessible desks available in a small classroom. And sometimes, Erin had rearrange the other desks to make the accessible one useable. Erin felt awkward and about this and was disappointed that she regularly had to choose between sitting comfortably in a seat off  to the side and sitting near her friends.

Similarly, Sarah M. also felt that the accessible desks, located almost exclusively, in the front of some of her classrooms at Portland State University placed people in the spotlight. Additionally, she had to register as someone with a disability in order to gain access to this seating, even though she was able-bodied. This required her to get a letter from her doctor saying she is “medically obese” and going through this process was very traumatic for her. She felt that by asking for an accommodation she was appropriating language not meant for her but, without doing so, she would be without any seating options as the other seats in her classrooms were “tablet arm” style desks that can’t accommodate plus-size students.

In 2018, two articles were published in peer-reviewed journals, one which addressed the broad experience of being fat in college, including the challenge of seating and desks, and one which focused specifically on seating and desks. In the beginning of his broad study of being fat on campus, Corey Stevens says, “Even the size and shape of classroom space can have a discriminatory impact on fat students. Difficulty fitting into classroom chairs and desks causes physical and emotional discomfort, reinforcing a ‘hidden curriculum’ about the proper size and shape of student bodies (Hetrick and Attig 2009).” I especially appreciated Stevens’ acknowledgement of the emotional discomfort inaccessible seating causes plus size students:

College campuses—like most of society—create environments where fat students feel a heightened sense of anticipated stigma and hyper(in)visibility. This is especially true when one’s body literally doesn’t fit into campus classrooms, bathroom stalls, and bus seats. The experience of being simultaneously exposed to ridicule and marginalized from sight is enhanced by spaces where fat stigma is more salient, such as places where people eat, work out, drink, and hook up.

This point about physical space is an important one because, as Stevens is arguing here, fat people can often feel as though the stigma against them is merely perceived. Internalized fatphobia can teach us to distrust our perception of marginalization. It is impossible to ignore the reality of marginalization when the physical space is discriminatory. 

In a 2018 issue of Fat Studies, Heather Brown published an article in which she interviewed thirteen women who experienced fatphobia in many forms, including because of the inaccessible classroom design and furniture, namely desks that were too small. This environment left them feeling unwanted. One of the women Brown interviewed said, “Maybe if I lose ten pounds then I wouldn’t look so fat in this desk.” Much like my own experience, this interviewee blamed her body rather than the school and designers who did not think about inclusivity when purchasing the desk.

Colleges and universities can do better. And some of them are. At the university library where I currently work, when a director spoke with middle management about spending down our operations budget at the end of the fiscal year, a colleague of mine (who dosen’t wear plus sizes!) requested that half of the chairs in our public areas be replaced with chairs without arms. This is the kind of action that is needed. It never would have occurred to me, as a plus-size person who often struggles with the seating in meeting rooms, to make this request. If it had occurred to me, I likely would have felt too self-conscious to make this request. In order to change the physical spaces on college and university campuses, everyone needs to be thinking about how to best serve all members of college communities. The needs of fat students cannot continue to be ignored. A small desk tells every fat student on campus that they are not welcome. It is one more piece of evidence that something is wrong with them, and they don’t belong. Instead, college and university leadership must take steps to increase the accessibility of their spaces, especially classrooms.

Meaghan O'Riordan27 Comments