Post written by Ja'La Wourman 11 minute read
October 24, 2019

The Rhetoric of Participation

Considering Genevieve Critel's work with Katherine DeLuca & Lauren Obermark


The Rhetoric of Participation is an edited collection that honors the legacy of Genevieve Critel, whose research addresses participation as a critical need in the field of rhetoric and composition. Throughout the 12 chapters in this digital book, authors build on various topic areas that not only extend, but additionally, complicate Critel’s four commonplaces (themes, practices, or concepts) of participation. The four commonplaces explored by authors in this collection are 1) Community, 2) Assessment, 3) Embodiment, and 4) Technology. Each of these commonplaces help us to understand the places where participation take place in the work of our students within the classroom and beyond.

For this particular blog post series, editors of the digital book were contacted to share the impact Genevieve has had on their personal lives, and pedagogical choices. As you will see throughout the blog post entries, the editors’ personal accounts and reflections have been interwoven to show how her work has been transformative and influential.

In her work, Critel argues that “the role of student participation is understudied, even though it’s a nearly universal expectation in the college-level writing classroom as well as many other classrooms across the disciplines” (Introduction). This collection is a way to extend and expand on that central theme and more, using personal narratives that better prepare us to help our students, while reflecting and evaluating our own pedagogical approaches.

In exploring the different commonplaces, many authors in this collection also reflect on personal experiences with Critel, sharing how her work has been monumental in the way they now understand and implement participation criteria.

Commonplace One: Community

The commonplace “community” refers to prevailing instructor conceptions of the classroom as a community of learners and writers (commonplace guide). In this section, authors explored the role of student participation in settings such as the writing classroom, writing center, and in collaboration with WPAs.

How can student participation foster community? This section dives into the important role instructors can play in creating hospitable spaces and participation opportunities that go further than students speaking audibly in class. What we find through each chapter are the gaps between the ways in which students draw upon community as an important factor in participation. For instance, Lauren Obermark addresses the question raised by Critel’s dissertation work, “what if we asked students to tell us how they will participate?” Through in-depth interviews with students, she found that participation was largely welcomed by students, but factors such as grading came off as “threatening” especially when you might be shy (as in the case with one of her students.) Michele Eodice helps us to consider participation and hospitable spaces, devices, and people, referring to these spaces as “sites that have been deliberately designed for access and interaction” Hospitality as a gesture in rhetoric and composition causes us to consider participation as more then a set of regulatory practices, such as attendance, preparation, and raising hands to contribute to a discussion, Eodice argues. In building community, however, instructors must think of hospitality as a way to reflect on their own role in participation, in addition to the students’. Because if we are truly enacting hospitality, the gesture must move in both directions.

Editors’ Reflection:

I was very fortunate in that Dr. Genevieve Critel was not just a friend and a colleague during my time as a graduate student at Ohio State, but she was also one of my many teachers. Teachers and mentors come in many shapes, and I have always found it important to try to learn from those who have gone before. And Gen was no different. I learned so much from her—all of which I think shaped her work in participation as it also informed her approach to her scholarship, her teaching, and to the world around her.

I first learned from Gen in the classroom as a peer, but even then she was a teacher. Gen modeled a different type of participation than others I saw in the graduate classroom. Gen didn’t have to speak out and up much to be heard. Her presence spoke plenty, and she always contributed to conversations in meaningful and measured ways. Gen perhaps didn’t talk a lot, but she always spoke thoughtfully and mindfully. Later, in working with her scholarship to bring it to publication, I realized that some of this quiet presence stemmed from her own struggles with shyness as a student in the classroom. At the time, I didn’t realize this was shaping her experience; as her colleague in the class, I just noticed her quiet poise and thoughtfulness and how she embodied this presence in the classroom.

I next learned from Gen as a student when she served as Assistant Director for the Digital Media and Composition Institute alongside a team of directors, including Cindy Selfe and Scott DeWitt. In this role, Gen taught me a lot about teaching and working with diverse groups of individuals. Gen taught me the power of telling students, “I don’t know,” and how that willingness to confess uncertainty and ignorance to students can be a powerful way to teach them about troubleshooting and taking risks in their learning. I learned that facilitating participation especially with and through technologies can mean making mistakes and being uncomfortable and that this discomfort is fruitful.

I also learned from Gen as a friend. Gen was the sort of person who genuinely cared about other people and though she was extremely intelligent and talented, she was never boastful or arrogant. Gen modeled for me the sort of scholar and educator I would like to be—one motivated by a desire to help people, especially students, to learn and take risks but to know always that someone cared for them and was focused on their success classroom and my impact on others, as a teacher and as a researcher. I am, and always will be, so very grateful to Gen for everything she taught me

– Katherine DeLuca

Commonplace Two: Assessment

The commonplace “assessment” refers to how participation is measured and/or graded in the classroom. Through various modes such as syllabus design and language, instructor attitudes, and student performance (commonplace guide).

Considering the role of assessment, this section interrogates and even complicates traditional notions of how participation has been assessed in the composition classroom. Additionally, readers get a snapshot of Genevieve Critel’s dissertation work that inspired this collection, along with scholars who investigate the role assessment has when implementing participation criteria.

In the opening section, Critel connects the commonplaces of assessment and embodiment to show how both topoi go hand in hand. Critel argues in her work that participation itself is a commonplace that is often left open-ended and abstract, making it difficult for students to clearly understand what is being expected from them.This can be misleading, despite what Critel calls “good pedagogical intentions” from instructors. Critel further explains:

The phenomenon of grading class participation is perhaps the direct result of cross-disciplinary moves toward student-centered learning. The assumption is that to make the shift from lecture-based classrooms to student-centered classrooms, teachers must articulate and perhaps assess student participation. Without this articulation or assessment, students wouldn’t participate.

Drawing on the commonplace of embodiment, she is able to then to discuss how this lack of communication marginalizes students unfamiliar with academic norms and expectations. Similarly, Kelly Bradbury and Paul Muhlhauser also examine instructor perspectives on participation, expanding on Critel’s research by examining what college-level writing teachers expect, require, and/or access is “intellectual participation” in the classroom (how it looks, feels, and sounds). Through their work, we find that participation perceptions are a little different for everyone based on the senses. In order to approach participation from an assessment standpoint, instructors should apply a standardized rubric for assessment, while also paying attention to the words used to describe. As Ryan Omizo points out, even the most mundane language can have a significant impact on how people recognize what’s expected of them.

Editors’ Reflection

When I started my doctoral work at Ohio State, Genevieve Critel (Gen) was in the first class I attended. It was a seminar in literacy studies, with Dr. Beverly Moss as our professor. The topic was “Race and Literacy,” and we spent the semester reading work that felt daunting to me—canonical critical race theory mixed with very recent book-length studies of literacy and race written by scholars in rhetoric and composition. It was an amazing class, which I knew at the the time I was taking it, but I see now even more in retrospect.

When I took the class, first-semester graduate student that I was, I was intimidated by new material that felt “out of my league”; haunted by imposter syndrome (did they really mean to admit me?); and my struggles with anxiety were at an all-time high as I tried to prove that I “fit” in the program. At this point, it probably seems like I should tell a story about how Gen made me feel like I did indeed “fit,” or how she supported me and made the space feel more inclusive. Because, without a doubt, Gen did those things many, many times for me. She helped me know I could participate, too, because I was a valuable voice in the field, a valuable colleague, a valuable person.

But that is not the story I need to tell. I want to tell a story that is important because it is about a time when Gen forced me to be uncomfortable; a time when she asked me to sit and dwell in my own identity and assumptions, my own privilege. (Though I am not sure I would have known to use that word, privilege, at the time.) So this is a participation story that is not warm and fuzzy, but it is a crucial one because Gen always challenged me. And I hope the legacy of her work challenges readers, too.


Before class one day, some of us were casually talking to Professor Moss about teaching and our students, lamenting moments when they did not listen, when they appeared disrespectful or surly, or moments when we felt, simply, like we were failing to engage them. Professor Moss—who is, might I add, a master of quiet but powerful leadership in the classroom, always listening, always guiding, but often with few words—made a comment about a recent struggle she had faced with an undergraduate student. The details of her story I no longer quite recall, but it was something common, and she explained the issue with her student sensitively and respectfully.

Rather than thanking Professor Moss for her openness and guidance, or acknowledging her struggle, I instead rushed to show some sort of mastery myself, to be “right” during a time when I often felt not good enough. I replied, “Huh, I never have that issue in my class. Students never do that with me.”

It was a small comment, nothing important or interesting. One I would easily forget today because it really was not worth responding to, except that Gen did indeed respond. She said, “Well, Lauren, do you think maybe it might be different for you as a teacher because you’re a white woman?”

I don’t remember how I replied. I think I likely did not reply at all, eager to move on, eager to not talk about race and racism (even, yes, in a class where it was at the very center), eager to leave unacknowledged how uncritical I had been about my own whiteness at that time. (I still cringe now, recalling this moment.)


One of Gen’s participation commonplaces that emerged from her dissertation was embodiment. When I think of this commonplace, the short version that pops into my head is “who we are is how we participate.” I didn’t see it back then, but what I can understand now is that Gen was asking me to reflect critically on who I was and how that shaped my participation—as a teacher and as a student in a Race and Literacy seminar, with a well-known African-American professor.She was asking me to reckon with my own white embodiment, in a way that I had not known how to do before I began my doctoral work, or, in fact, why doing so was so very necessary.

This moment also laid the groundwork for my own evolving understanding of participation as something that will not always feel good, successful, or comfortable. Participation is a work-in-progress, a moving target, and a lived experience, and, accordingly, it is sometimes messy, awkward, and discomforting. Gen’s question rings in my ears even now because it pushes me to rhetorically listen—that is to slow down, center difference, and reflect and revise my perspective—with my colleagues and my students, even (and perhaps especially) when I would rather avoid such challenges.

- Lauren E. Obermark