Mapping Student Participation in the College-Level Writing Classroom: An Exploration of Instructors' Definitions and Syllabus Policy Statements

Mapping Student Participation in the College-Level Writing Classroom: An Exploration of Instructors' Definitions and Syllabus Policy Statements

Genevieve Critel


In this piece, based on a chapter of her dissertation, Critel connects the commonplaces of assessment and embodiment, arguing that participation itself is a commonplace teachers often leave abstract and open-ended, so much so that it might be misleading for students despite good pedagogical intentions. To begin to interrogate the ways faculty define and assess participation in college writing courses, Critel conducted a national survey of faculty, the results of which highlight the prevalence of assessing participation, with 95% of participants indicating they do so. She points out that assessment practices for participation rarely are communicated thoroughly in syllabi, and she draws on the commonplace of embodiment to discuss how this lack of communication marginalizes students who might be less familiar with the norms of academic behavior and discourse. Critel concludes by introducing—ever so briefly and in a way that allows for both embrace and critique—the commonplace of community, opening up a rich opportunity for others to expand on her work. She notes that it may be possible to diffuse the responsibility for determining appropriate and inappropriate participation in the classroom, suggesting that instructors include students in defining participation, what it means, and why it matters.

Explaining participation in our own classrooms may require some reflection for teachers, for until we are forced to do so, we often treat participation like Justice Stewart's famous (and later recanted) definition of obscenity: we assume we know it when we see it.

—Margaret Price, Mad at School

I imagine that there are as many ways to grade participation as there are professors who assign it in their classes.

—Brian Croxall, "How to Grade Students' Class Participation"


The popular blog ProfHacker took up the issue of student participation in two 2010 posts by Brian Croxall and Ryan Cordell.1 In his post, Croxall makes the case for addressing classroom participation “in the interest of making visible some of the assumed knowledge of academia,” while Cordell discusses his own “experiment” in having students evaluate their own participation through writing brief, reflective, and evidence-based essays in class. Both ProfHacker posts demonstrate that student participation in the classroom—what it entails, what it should look like, how it should be addressed—is rife with unstated assumptions. The result is multifold: first, students don’t always have access to participatory acts, which is a concern particularly when those acts are assessed. Second, although teachers over the course of years and decades of teaching refine their own practices and find what works, without dialogue about the rhetoric and function of participation other teachers don’t benefit. Spaces like ProfHacker can change that by engaging in conversation about daily practices in the academy. However, this blog space offers something more akin to lore than scholarly research and is not an ideal space for the developed theorization of such practices within disciplinary conversations.

Fig. 1. CCCC presentation preview video, March 2011. This video was composed by the author to promote her presentation on this research in 2011.

The role of student participation—traditionally defined as oral contributions in a classroom—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. 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. The development of participation expectations in writing courses is no different, though some might make the case that writing instruction is more attentive to teaching practices than some other disciplines and therefore prioritized student participation before the student-centered classroom movement took hold in the academy at large.

Unlike some other disciplines that have found it easy to teach lecture-based courses, most college-level writing courses are to some measure activity based. Writing teachers have struggled with the ways they can give students credit for the work they do in making the classroom and their individual learning experiences a success. In other words, teachers want to give students credit for the work they do, and some of that work falls under the notion of participation. Giving students grades for participation both gives them another avenue to boost their grades if they are struggling with writing and gives teachers another way to signal they value the social elements of writing processes and practices. At the same time, however, as Croxall and Cordell imply, often the ways teachers assess and define participation are wrapped up in assumptions not always visible or knowable to students. As Margaret Price suggests in the epigraph above, teachers of writing need to reflect upon their own pedagogical practices in relation to the requirement and assessment of participation. As a discipline we need a more critical understanding of participation in the composition classroom.

In my dissertation, I examined the perceived functions of and discourses surrounding the notion of participation in the composition classroom—specifically, the uses of participation as an assessed category in college-level writing classes. I focused on three research sites: instantiations of participation in the flagship journal of writing studies, College Composition and Communication, between 1950 and 2010; a syllabus archive at a research-intensive university from 1959 to 2000; and a survey distributed nationally to college-level writing instructors. The project demonstrated the ubiquity of participation as a topic of discussion and as a graded item in college-level classrooms. I synthesized my research to uncover four commonplaces of participation in composition. I define commonplace as “a common site of invention in the conversation about student participation in the writing classroom” (Critel 123). These four commonplaces are community, assessment, embodiment, and technology, and they are the topoi from which common pedagogies of participation emerge. Through critical consideration of these commonplaces, my larger project uncovers the power dynamics constructed in the roles between teacher and student and maps the normative space of participation in the writing classroom.

This essay focuses on the results of my nationwide survey of college-level writing teachers about student participation in an effort to map contemporary notions of student participation. I address two separate but related categories of data: (1) instructors’ definitions of participation and (2) participation statements provided directly from respondents’ syllabi. I aim to better understand how the roles of instructor and student are constructed and the implications of these constructions in college-level writing classrooms.

A central goal of distributing this survey was to get a better sense of whether and how participation is being assessed in writing courses. One of the key findings is the prevalence of participation as an assessed category: 95% of instructors reported sometimes or always assessing participation. Although participation has been theorized to a limited degree, as I discuss below, this finding alone warrants further scholarship that theorizes, historicizes, and contextualizes the participation requirement in composition classes.

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1. Both Croxall and Cordell are American literature and digital humanities specialists and are regular contributors to ProfHacker. [return]