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.

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

  1. I remember those chair/table arrangements. They were ridiculous even for people who weren’t plus sized. I cannot imagine being a college professor having to face a classroom several times a day where plus-sized students were visibly uncomfortable, rustling around trying to "fit", squirming, all while trying to take notes and absorb the course material. How can an instructor not be distracted by this? And what about the college athletes, many of whom are sacrificing their bodies in order to earn an actual degree?

  2. It’s not just students, it’s also parents and staff. I had to skip most of my daughter’s college tour because it simply wasn’t accessible for anyone with a mobility impairment, whether on 2 feet or on wheels. As faculty at a national conference, there were no accommodations for help with moving materials, a ramp to the stage, or other simple things despite letting them know ahead of time about the need. I was just expected to suck it up. In grad school, I did ask for accommodation in seating but found it was often "forgotten."

  3. THIS!!!!!! I always felt alone in this matter, like it was me to blame for being uncomfortable, all plus size college stufents need to read this and know that they have as much rught ti learn than everyone else. They shouldnt have to have the fear of not fitting, schools and communitues should do better.

  4. 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.”

    Yes, you were correct. You need to loose weight. You are too fat.

    1. Wow, way to be an a$$hole Dave. You are literally on a website that is created for people of size and you’re going to try and tell people how they should exist in the world? And so what if the person is fat. You don’t get to decide who is "too fat" and you also don’t get to decide who is worthy of taking up space in a learning environment. Take your troll self elsewhere.

    2. And until they manage to hit that perfect weight, they should just drop out of school? They don’t deserve an education because they’re overweight? That’s ridiculous, especially with the links between poverty and obesity. And if they deserve an education they deserve to be able to sit in classes.

    3. Oh shut up Dave, your trim waistline is just biology. It isn’t some great achievement you can low key pat yourself on the back for by snarking on fat people like me

  5. Undergrad students aren’t all the same size and age – I am not a traditional undergrad student and I dislike those chairs and have dropped classes because of them.

  6. Great essay, excellent comments (except for the troll, of course). Never say, “I’m too fat for the chair;” always say “the chair is too small for me.” A chair is an inanimate object, and engineers can design them to fit big people properly.

  7. Combine those chairs with a ban on laptops in the classroom, and I can’t take notes. Can’t put the desk down, can’t type on a laptop, How am I supposed to take notes? I’ve definitely skipped a class because I couldn’t get to it 10 minutes early and thus would have to climb over people to get a seat.

  8. Excellent article, and I echo your observation: "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." We just published this article in the Learning and Teaching with Technology Journal that we hope will advance Universal Access: Ready for Equity? A Cross-Cultural Organizational Framework to Scale Access to Learning-Ready Classrooms That Support Student Success https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/jotlt/article/view/26889

  9. I was pregnant in my last semester of undergrad, and the desks were a major source of anxiety for me! I was already much older (and pregnant!) and stood out more than I was comfortable with. The seating made things doubly hard.

  10. This might be an unpopular opinion, but… The general gist of the article is that colleges should design new and bigger stuff. I disagree. If someone is so large that they can’t fit into desks and bathroom stalls, they have a medical problem, and society at large has a duty to try to remedy it. If obesity is the root cause, we should tackle that. We should not just try to design around it. And we certainly shouldn’t ask colleges to bear all of these costs. We should have a system of truly universal healthcare, and students should seek and receive the care they need.

    1. did you miss the part where the article said these chairs are uncomfortable for everyone?

      also- are you really suggesting we cure obesity by making it harder for fat people to get an education?

      1. I think we should cure obesity by making sure that everyone has access to a nutritionist and psychological professionals, to gyms and to bariatric surgery. I also think we should consider things like sugar taxes. I nowhere said that we should deny obese folks an education.

        Here’s an analog of my claim. Suppose there were students who needed vision correction but weren’t getting it. Should schools design around that? Should they, for instance, make all signs around campus in 1000 point font? No. Our healthcare system should pay for students to get glasses or contacts. Of course, in the meantime, schools should try to do individualized accommodations as they do for all students with medical issues (eg if a student has the flu, you let them make up their test; if a student is deaf, you get them a note taker).

        1. Chris, there will always be fat people. Fat is complex, multifactorial, an evolved adaptation to the environments of tens of thousands of years ago, and an epigenetic outcome of the experiences of more recent ancestors (see: Barker hypothesis). And while surgery is the only intervention that shows any success if keeping a significant amount of weight off is the goal, its other effects can be destructive. All of this makes low eyesight + glasses a poor analogy.

        2. Wow. Okay.

          Chris, I’ve always had access to nutritionists, psychological professionals, and health care/excellent doctors (so I could reasonably have bariatric surgery). But guess what? I’m still fat. Your comments are extremely fat phobic. Here’s why:

          1. You are equating health with a low weight. This is medically unsound. Not everyone who is straight-size or of an average weight or body size is healthy. Not everyone who is fat is unhealthy. For example, I gave up sugar years ago. Still fat. Your comment about a sugar tax is both incredibly ignorant and truly beside the point.

          2. It is not your job or anyone else’s job to "remedy" fatness. You said in your original comment that if folks are too large to comfortably fit into bathroom stalls or chairs then they have a medical problem and society has a duty to remedy it. You underscore that this is what you think with your note that students (you’re referring specifically to fat students) should seek and receive the care they need — as if fat people are again in need of medical attention to correct a problem. This is hateful and dehumanizing of fat people — as if we are all sick and in need of help. We are not. Some people are fat. Get over it.

  11. I wrote an article about this on June 2, 1994, it was printed in the Daily Pennsylvanian (the student newspaper). https://dparchives.library.upenn.edu/?a=d&d=tdp19940602-01.2.12&srpos=6&e=——-en-20–1-byDA.rev-txt-txIN-McAfee——
    It’s a little hard to read in this format, but at the time quite a few people came up to me and thanked me for the article. They had never thought about fat people’s needs for seating and mobility accommodations. It didn’t make a big change but it’s important to just chip away and keep the issue in front of people. We have to be in it for the long haul.

  12. Im plus size and I call bull. If you are letting a chair keep you from your education then there is more at work in your brain than just a chair. There were times I sat on the floor, in front so I could see the board when chairs were empty and using my knee as a surface or I pulled chairs from others rooms. Life does not accommodate anyone, if you allow poor seating choices to dictate your life and education that is on no one but you. I dont allow my size to disable me, the moment you do that you take away your power. I sure as heck wasnt going to let a chair or desk decide my education.

    1. Because you were able to sit on the floor, everyone should be able to do that? There aren’t always other options available and you completely missed the point of the article.

  13. This is a nightmare aspect of college I had forgotten. I was way smaller back then, barely the average size 16/18, and oh boy. A certain classroom had fixed tablet arm desks and I remember being cramped and miserable. I don’t even remember what the class topic was.

  14. Those chairs are awful for someone who is also just tall. I’m 6’4" and fat, and it’s a huge pain. However, my friend, who is also 6’4" and fit, hates them as well. His knees are crushed against those stupid desktops.

  15. No-body likes these chairs. Full stop.
    It’s important to remember though, if you are in a situation where you need to get a medical note so that you get accommodation for your obesity, then you do have a problem. You may not like being in that predicament, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s dishonest to say that someone else is culpable.
    Most of these types of desks seem to be old; from decades ago when people were a more moderate size. They were a semi-practical solution to the problem of saving space (and furniture costs!) in classrooms. There is no "hidden curriculum," no conspiracy, and you are not being discriminated. You aren’t worth any less as a person because of your size. You’re also not a victim of "small spaces".

  16. Disabilities and arranging for accommodations are not only for the non-able-bodied. That’s only a mobility disability. Accommodations are for any disability, physical or “invisible” such as mental or learning or whatever. You just effectively said I’m not as bad as them, they need help and I don’t.
    As a tall person, almost every chair is too short. That causes back and hip and knee pain as well. Sitting in the back of the room so I can get up and stand as needed is what I have to do at times. Chairs without arm rest are not amazing either because you can’t push up/off to help you stand up.
    Must also be nice to be able to select what classes you want to take based on classroom location and still graduate. For many mid to upper level courses, there’s one section offered so it’s not possible to just take a different course.

  17. I had this problem when I was in my last month’s of pregnancy while finishing graduate school. Had to swap with the teacher as his chair was the only non desk chair in the room. It was miserable.

  18. Can you discuss this with the ADA person at your college? Of course, fat is only a disability if the school has chairs that are only for straight sized people, but if you get an empathetic ADA person, they maybe able to advocate for you.

  19. It is true! The sight of a chair usually represents a moment of relief for a person who has walked a lot or who has some difficulty in walking. But for a fat person, it can be a torment. Not to mention places like food courts with tables and fixed seats, without space. The other day, I took a group of friends to a downtown restaurant. As the furniture was like this, we had to go elsewhere.

  20. My daughter is attending a large university that has these arm tablet desks. I was very surprised when I found out. I immediately thought “they look like kindergarten desks!” She is not plus sized, but I wondered how on earth can a larger person feel comfortable sitting in these “desks?” I also wondered about any woman who is pregnant feeling comfortable. My daughter is having a hard time writing on the “desk” space and is annoyed by the whole thing. She was previously at a community college that had long tables with comfortable chairs. I just don’t understand why the college would use them.

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