Post written by Ja'La Wourman 6 minute read
November 22, 2019

The Rhetoric of Participation, Part Two

Reflecting on Genevieve Critel's work with Paige Banaji

As we’ve been discussing in Part One of this blog series, participation occurs in vastly different ways in the composition classroom and community. Part one explored the commonplaces of community and assessment, with personal anecdotes from editors of this digital collection. This final blog post will continue to discuss the impact and legacy of Genevieve Critel’s work, while reviewing the commonplace of embodiment and technology from the authors in this collection, in addition to one final personal reflection from the editors.

Commonplace Three: Embodiment

The commonplace “embodiment” explores ways in which student and instructor bodies are coded in the classroom and the ways these bodies are asked, constrained, and sometimes excluded because of normative framings of participation (commonplace guide)

This section takes a look into the significant roles our bodies play in the act and understanding of student participation. Chapters presented here touch on subjects such as queer, second language learners (L2), and universal design participation. In the opening chapter, Matthew Cox in the composition classroom. His study expands on Critel’s argument that “the embodiment of participation is complicated by difference—race, gender, nationality, [and] dis/ability” (168). Because of these embodied experiences, instructors in rhetoric and composition studies can encourage students to express themselves openly through their writing, as they navigate complex experiences within themselves and the world. Thinking about the individual student, Tony Cimasko and Dong-shin Shin advocate for more instructors to consider how verbal participation is privileged above all forms but can be difficult for L2 learners due to cultural and linguistic differences. One approach instructors can take that acknowledge students’ embodied experience draws from universal design theory. Through universal design, Elizabeth Brewer argues that students will have more say in the creation of participation guidelines which fosters accessible participation expectations from all.

Editor’s Reflection:

I don’t include a participation requirement in my syllabi anymore. To be honest, I have always felt uncomfortable about the subjective nature of grading “participation.” I remember in my early years of teaching, I asked my mentor about how to grade participation. She suggested I ask students to write a reflection and assessment of their own participation. This seemed like a student-centered, reflective approach. However, the students’ reflections were superficial, and they gave themselves As. However, to be honest, I’m not sure my assessment would have been much different.

If I had known then what I know now about participation, I might have developed a more rigorous approach to this self-assessment. Instead, I reverted to what I was doing before: Giving participation a light but significant weight and grading it unsystematically and subjectively at the end of the semester. Despite my uncomfortableness with the participation requirement, I did not change it or interrogate it until Gen started working on her dissertation, when I was forced to re-think this part of my teaching.

Some of my most cherished memories from graduate school are of sitting in coffee shops with Gen while we wrote our dissertations. We would meet up several times a week and sit for hours while we wrote. We would talk through our ideas and read each other’s work; we became intimately knowledgeable of each other’s research.

One time she was talking through one of her ideas about participation; it was an insight I did not want to believe. She described teachers as puppet masters, and students, like puppets, performing according to the teachers’ manipulations. I argued with her about this point. (We liked to debate a lot back then. We argued like sisters.) Did she really believe that? Teachers aren’t like that. I’m not like that.

In her dissertation, she wrote: “The cynic in me sees [student participation] as little more than wishful thinking: does tying students’ grades to their performance of community create anything other than a collection of puppets, some more, some less, willing to do the teacher’s bidding? … In this line of reasoning, the participation requirement serves to construct the type of community dynamic the instructor envisions as a component in an ideal classroom” (119).

Gen makes many astute and smart observations in her dissertation. But this bold assertion is what has stuck with me the most. I believe now that my initial incredulity demonstrates the idea’s uncomfortable truth.

In my classes now, I don’t include a participation requirement. However, even without the requirement, I inevitably have expectations for how students should act and perform in my classes. My expectations are the result of my own pedagogical orientation, and I try to be mindful of how my expectations may or may not be accessible, familiar, or comfortable for each student. I try to be mindful of how my students may engage in ways that are useful and meaningful to them. I try to grant them the agency to participate in their own ways.”

- Paige Banaji

Commonplace Four: Technology

The commonplace of technology explores ways in which the computer technologies and communication platforms, such as learning management systems, used by students and instructors condition participation in the classroom (commonplace guide).

In the concluding section, authors explore how technology fosters participation, addressing issues of internet use in the classroom, MOOCs, and the role of participation in web memes. Jason Palmeri and Abby Dubisar’s opening chapter discusses what a digital participatory pedagogy might look like when we consider the role of digital technologies during class sessions. Being that this is an issue many instructors come up against, Palmeri and Dubisar suggest ways the digital classroom can encourage student to be more active in participation while presenting more options for them to engage. Michael Harker, Mary Hocks, and Matthew Sansbury shift the discussion while presenting a case for different approaches to participation depending on the infrastructure of the learning environments. In massive open online courses (MOOCs), participation should be carefully thought of and implemented with consideration to the online classroom structure.

Afterword & Conclusion

Reflecting on Genevieve Critel’s important body of work, participation is no easy topic to discuss. The commonplaces explored throughout this collection give us a glimpse into the many aspects of student participation that are many times overlooked, but necessary to consider when creating the kinds of learning environments for students to thrive in and succeed. As scholars in the field of rhetoric and composition, we can use these chapters and reflections of Critel to respond to her central question: what if we asked students to tell us how they will participate?