Conclusion: The Challenges of Participation Requirements
The findings and challenges discussed in this essay demonstrate that participation is more complicated than its accepted status in instructors’ classrooms would belie. As the survey findings reveal, participation requirements point to teachers’ (and institutions’) desire to emphasize the social aspects of the class—the performance of behaviors and actions of students and instructors to and for each other in the classroom—but unfortunately the social nature of participation is fraught with challenges related to the asymmetrical power relations between students and instructors in a system whereby students’ social behaviors and actions are to be delineated, observed, and assessed by instructors.
For one thing, many of the common elements of participation described in instructors’ definitions are difficult to assess. For example, oral contributions in class are fundamental to most instructors’ composition pedagogies yet notoriously difficult to assess. Oral contributions are intangible and ephemeral, thus difficult to record; moreover, as teachers observe and assess students’ oral contributions, it is difficult to distinguish desired oral contributions from the prohibitive or disruptive behaviors described as antiparticipatory in syllabi statements. As Brooke’s notion of underlife demonstrates, instructors can never be sure they know what classroom activity is actually off topic.
Second, instructors can easily underestimate the effort required to perform the key elements of participation. This is particularly true of attendance, which most survey respondents situated as a precursor to other participatory actions and behaviors. However, as Price has demonstrated, attendance can represent a significant effort for some students and shouldn’t be discounted or underestimated. Similar conclusions can be made about the other five common elements of participation described in survey respondents’ definitions: preparation for class, professional behavior, oral contributions, listening, and even written contributions each assume certain normative value systems, behaviors, and abilities.
Indeed, the third and perhaps largest challenge posed by the participation requirement is that it is imbued with normative value systems that may or may not be familiar to students. Teachers expect signals that students have bought into the ideological frame of the class. Participation is the system whereby teachers receive these signals. However, students may come from different backgrounds and have varying degrees of familiarity with such ideologies. Students unfamiliar with the class’s ideological framework have a steeper learning curve to tackle. Moreover, there is also an inherent risk for students in giving those signals to the teacher because they're simultaneously giving signals to the other students. Performing the role of student involves a complex negotiation of various cultural and social identifications.
This negotiation of student identity is complicated by the fact that syllabi statements leave some expectations unstated or assumed. Unstated expectations about participation generally demonstrate normative value systems, and since students may not be coming from the same background as the teacher, unstated assumptions are most likely to disadvantage the already disadvantaged. In fact, some instructors indicated that they didn’t include a statement about participation on their syllabi because it’s such a universal requirement. As Margaret Price writes in the epigraph I’ve used for this essay, “We often treat participation like Justice Stewart’s famous (and later recanted) definition of obscenity: we assume we know it when we see it” (92). The problem with such an assumption is that for students to know what we are looking for, they must come in with similar cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and from similar educational environments where certain kinds of participation are valued, and they must not have mental or physical disabilities that would make it difficult for them to be knowledgeable or savvy about the unstated assumptions this instructor makes. Ultimately, many, if not all, students would benefit from instructors clarifying expectations in writing as well as in what Price calls “kairotic spaces.” She defines such spaces as “the less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” (60), characterized by the following: (1) real-time unfolding of events; (2) impromptu communication that is required or encouraged; (3) in-person contact; (4) a strong social element; and (5) high stakes (61). Examples include classroom discussions and individual conferences between instructors and students.
In addition to the problems of assessing and underestimating students' participatory actions and behaviors, instructor and student actions revealed in teachers’ definitions of participation and in syllabus statements show the sharp dichotomy between the roles instructors construct for themselves and those they construct for their students. What if we asked students to tell us how they will participate? What if we asked them what they need from us? Perhaps these questions seem outlandish to some readers; however, there’s no way we can know how much these changes could benefit students unless we try.