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

Discussion: Participation and Power

Survey responses, both teachers' definitions of participation and the syllabi statements, emphasize the social nature of participation: instructors define participation in terms of the actions students engage in with each other and with the instructor. It is the student's responsibility to participate, and the act of participation is defined by the instructor as a set of expected behaviors and actions the student is to perform (attendance, preparation for class, professional behavior, oral contributions, listening, and written contributions) as well as a set of prohibited actions the student is to avoid. The instructor's responsibility, on the other hand, is to observe and assess that participation. Participation is therefore a social arrangement between instructor and student, and it is a social arrangement complicated by asymmetrical power relations.

I thus arrange my discussion section to first touch on student actions (of which there are many); then on the primary instructor responsibility of assessment; and finally on two issues that instructors might reflect on as they consider the social nature of participation in their own classroom. Throughout this section, I integrate critical consideration and questions about the intersections between participation and power in the composition classroom.

Student Action: Written Contributions

A number of the power dynamics at work are a result of the element of assessment itself. On the one hand, participation requirements place the instructor in the position of actor who observes, surveys, and disciplines, and the consequence is that the instructors generate evaluations based on these actions. On the other hand, teachers want to give students credit for the work they do in and for class. For example, one of the six common elements in teachers' definitions of participation is written contributions in or outside class. Providing a space to give credit for in-class writing, such as invention activities, allows the instructor to place some value on the writing process since many instructors likely grade papers and projects on the product. It's not surprising, then, to see participation as an assessed element develop alongside the rise of the process movement.

Student Action: Listening

Similarly, making listening a more standardized aspect of participation requirements shows a move toward respect for different learning styles and an awareness of making the writing classroom a more accessible space.10 Statements of participation that include listening acknowledge both that not all students feel equally comfortable speaking in class and that other students have to create a listening space to allow one student to speak. One participant wrote:

I think of participation as student-centered engagement. That could take place at different levels, from listening or explicitly contributing to class discussion. To some extent it is centered on a commitment to respond as part of a community. Whether the response is verbal or non-verbal, their accountability is to themselves and their peers. Participation, both in and inside [sic] of the class, I think, is grounded in an awareness that a response to community dynamics is central to communication.

One gesture made in the above statement and repeated elsewhere is that listening is part of building community in the writing classroom.11

Student Action: Attendance

Attendance is another student action designated by instructors that seems to reveal attempts to give students credit for their efforts while acknowledging different learning styles and comfort levels. Although at first it was easy for me to dismiss giving credit for attendance as unnecessary, or at least not part of participation, the abundance of survey respondents who include attendance in their definitions of participation encourages rethinking of those snap judgments. Attendance can represent a significant effort for some students and shouldn't be discounted.

Of course, most instructors seemed to include attendance as a precursor for other types of participation, and it is difficult to ascertain whether survey respondents view attendance as anything more than an action that must precede one's contributions to class discussion, work in small groups, in-class writing, and so forth. However, there is some evidence that some teachers are aware of the effort attendance might take for some students. For example, one respondent wrote, "I assess participation on several areas within the classroom—discussion participation, small group work, peer response, paying attention during lecture or while others talk, attendance, and online discussion contributions. I assess these multiple contributions to account for different student styles (not all students are comfortable speaking, for example)." I think it's possible to interpret this respondent's parenthetical as implying that attendance helps give credit to students who aren't as comfortable speaking up in class. This particular respondent aims to create a classroom space where all students feel comfortable talking to the instructor about how they learn.

However, as Margaret Price reminds us, attendance may not necessarily need to be a precursor to other participatory acts, nor may attendance be any more accessible than other acts for some students. Price writes:

Studies of classroom attendance generally agree that presence is correlated with higher grades. From that finding, researchers often move automatically to the conclusion that students therefore "should" attend classes since that factor is one they can "control"…When this research is examined from a DS [disability studies] viewpoint, however, disturbing omissions arise: some studies ignore the fact that disabled students face barriers to attendance; others make vague gestures such as including "special needs" as a background factor, but fail to consider disability in any detail. (65)

Although requiring students to attend class makes sense to most instructors—and certainly on an individual level instructors are free to do so and sometimes required to do so at their institutions—giving students credit for attending isn't as unproblematic as instructors may think (and certainly as a I had assumed).

Instructor Responsibility: Assessment

I have touched on assessment in relation to all of these emerging themes, but it is worth exploration as its own commonplace as well. This is especially true considering that one major finding from this research is that 95% of instructors assess participation in some way. The encouraged and prohibited actions described in instructors' definitions of participation and outlined in syllabi statements do not always align easily with assessment; the assessment of participation is definitively problematic. One of the key findings of Dirk's survey of twenty composition instructors and 344 composition students was the "nebulous grading practices of [participation requirements]" (88). My survey of teachers of writing further supports Dirk's finding on a national scale.

For instance, oral contributions in class are fundamental to most instructors' composition pedagogies yet notoriously difficult to assess. However difficult they may be to assess, 86 out of 116 respondents indicate oral contributions are still one of the most consistent measures used when requiring class participation and a few respondents describe oral contribution as the singular form of classroom participation. In their survey responses, instructors indicate a variety of metrics for assessing oral participation, ranging from general to specific, from simple to quite complex. Instructors ask students to contribute once a week, to contribute every day, to make sure the instructor remembers what their voices sound like. Other instructors acknowledged how difficult it is to facilitate classroom dialogue, let alone assess it simultaneously.

Other common elements of participation pose similar problems of assessment. For the most part, preparation for class is not directly assessable but is indirectly assessable through students' performance on quizzes, tests, reading responses, or in small- or large-group discussions. In other words, teachers ascertain that students are prepared for class through other actions that are both assessable and also often included in participation. The only element of coming prepared for class instructors can directly address is bringing materials to class; it seems implied in those responses that instructors give credit to students based on whether or not they have the appropriate materials.

Most respondents do not detail how they assess preparation. The two survey responses about class preparation that make the direct connection to assessment reveal a startling variation in expectations: "Coming to class prepared gets students a C" and "A is obviously always prepared with reading and ready to talk in every class period." The juxtaposition of these two answers demonstrates the differences in participation expectations students attempt to interpret and enact. For one professor's class, being prepared earns a student a C, when in another class it may be worth an A as long as students are "ready to talk." The student is responsible for correctly interpreting these statements, which may look similar or dissimilar when they are enacted in the classroom.12

Critical Reflection: The Problem With Performing Participation

Preparation—as well as all the actions and prohibitions delineated by instructors' definitions of participation and syllabi statements—is part of a larger system of participation whereby teachers expect signals from students that they have bought into the ideological frame of the class—and as the above examples of preparation indicate, these expectations can vary greatly from teacher to teacher and class to class. Often such expectations are only implicitly or indirectly communicated to students. Preparation is commonly assumed in college; by completing homework, quizzes, and other elements of the class the teacher has decided are important, students signal they buy into the teacher's design of the course. Similar problematics arise when we interrogate the professional behavior described in some survey responses. The link between neat papers and professional behaviors demonstrates certain values of the academy: neatness, grammatically correct prose, and other unstated expectations through the ever-present "etc." Some students may be more or less familiar with such academic and professional ideological frameworks. Not all students have similar or equal positions in the classroom, which can include students from marginalized socioeconomic statuses, races, nationalities, linguistic backgrounds, classes, sexual orientations, gender identifications, and so forth. When instructors fail to communicate explicitly their expectations for student participation, they may unwittingly further disadvantage the students who are already at a disadvantage. The performance of participation is even further complicated when we consider that students are performing for fellow classmates as well. There is an inherent risk for students in giving signals to the teacher that they have bought into the framework of the class because they're simultaneously giving signals to the other students. Students, performing for other students, may not want to appear they are buying into the system too wholly. Being prepared for class and performing the role of a prepared student are not one and the same.

Critical Reflection: Participation and Classroom Underlife

As Robert Brooke's work demonstrates, the writing classroom has an underlife: "behaviors which undercut the roles expected of participants in a situation—the ways an employee, for example, shows she is not just an employee, but has a more complex personality outside that role" (229). One particular type of student underlife activity Brooke found in his observation of writing classes was that "students tend to find creative uses for classroom activities and materials" (232). Often this type of behavior appears to be an unprofessional behavior, when in fact students are taking class concepts and creatively connecting them to their own lived experience. Thus, the instructor can never be sure they know what classroom activity is inappropriate or irrelevant. This type of creative underlife occurred in my own classroom on a day I was being observed during winter quarter 2011. A group of three students sat in the back row and often talked while I was talking or turned music on quietly (it was a sizable classroom). As luck would have it, my adviser chose a seat next to this group on the day of my classroom observation. What she observed was an engaged group of students approaching our class work in creative and innovative ways. This was, of course, the opposite of what I had observed. I was humbled when I discussed the class with her and again when I read her letter evaluating me. It's not possible for an instructor to always know when students are off-task but appear on and vice versa. It is, however, possible to cultivate a classroom culture that diffuses the responsibility for determining appropriate and inappropriate action amongst all the students.

[Go to "Conclusion"]

10. Scholarship on listening, particularly Krista Ratcliffe's work on rhetorical listening, has drawn more attention to the importance of listening as a learning practice in and outside the writing classroom, and it appears that attention is seeping into participation expectations. [return]

11. Critel discusses the commonplace of community in participation requirements at length in the fourth chapter of her dissertation. As she argues there (and as is hinted at in the findings discussed in this essay), "Teachers continue to articulate a genuine interest in creating community and often link participation to the function it serves in creating community, even though assessing community creation seems fundamentally contradictory" (119). [return]

12. In Dirk's study, many student respondents revealed a lack of understanding about what constitutes participation and how it is assessed. As the title of Dirk's article suggests, many students ". . . Hope it's Just Attendance," when teachers often have much higher expectations. [return]