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

Literature Review: Discussions of Participation in Existing Composition and Rhetoric Scholarship

Participation has been addressed in composition/rhetoric scholarship in a number of contexts, but only a handful of studies have examined the participation requirement per se or attempted to theorize student participation. Examples include composition as civic participation, which is focused on how composition courses should help students become participants in a democracy in the vein of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone and notions of civic participation that stem from the rhetorical tradition (Benson and Christian; Cushman; Ervin; Green; McComiskey). Robert Brooke and Derek Mueller address the underlife of classrooms and student resistance to participation, examining ways students participate in writing courses in unapproved ways. Others have focused on ways technology can change who participates in the classroom (Alexander; Bomberger; Carmichael and Alden; McKee; Peters and Swanson; Taylor).

Two projects in composition/rhetoric focus on the significance of participation for students who are shy (Reda) or have mental disabilities (Price). Mary Reda's Between Speaking and Silence: A Study of Quiet Students focuses on the issue of how teachers deal with students who don't participate orally in the writing classroom. In her study, Reda addresses many of the problems with participation requirements—that they maintain dominant power structures, that requiring students to speak devalues the learning processes of students who don't learn best by participating orally, and that the requirement makes the classroom less democratic. To get a better understanding of students perceived as silent, Reda interviewed five of her own students who self-identified as silent. This research is particularly insightful and demonstrates, among other things, that we aren't nearly as clear with our expectations as we believe we are.

As Reda explains in her study on student silence in the classroom, "These practices designed to foster equal participation are ultimately repressive and fundamentally undemocratic. For these students [who self-identify as silent], being 'put on the spot' is decidedly not the same as being part of a conversation, a discussion, a dialogue; coerced behaviors should not be represented to students as consensual" (102). Students who prefer silence in particular classes or particular contexts aren't the only ones for whom participation requirements are problematic; they can be problematic for any student. Margaret Price's Mad At School deals extensively with participation and directly addresses some of the key problems with prioritizing oral communication as the central component of participation, not just for shy students, but for students with mental and physical disabilities as well. Price offers an incisive critique of popular notions of participation and suggests that the requirement should be rethought using the disability studies concept of universal design. Writing instructors should be interrogating their expectations about student bodies and what a "normal" student is beyond simply adjusting for students who are visibly physically disabled. As Price persuasively argues, universal design of a composition course, including the participation requirement, necessitates a deep rethinking of the assumptions made about what class is and does. For instance, instructors don't typically ask students how participation should or could be gauged, nor do they ask students how they want to participate. Using a universally designed participation requirement, as Price suggests, would require such questions, and the answers given would affect the course design substantially.2

Both Reda and Price provide important insights about student participation and useful critiques of current participation models; however, it is not the intention of either to provide a focused investigation of participation as an assessed category in composition classrooms. One of the first published articles in rhetoric/composition to focus specifically on participation in first-year writing was Kerry Dirk's Spring 2010 article from Composition Studies, "'I Hope It's Just Attendance': What Does Participation Mean to Freshman Composition Students and Instructors?" Dirk claims, "no research on the meaning of participation within the composition classroom has been done, and no research has compared student and instructor definitions to see if discrepancies occur" (91); in addition, "no studies in composition have surveyed instructors about their use of this grading practice" (91). Dirk's is the first study in composition studies to survey teachers and students and observe how their definitions match up in terms of expectations about participation. She concludes that "instructors in this study seemed to desire primarily two things: engagement among the students and a way to encourage this engagement. Grading participation seems to be a tool used by many instructors to achieve this result, but student engagement achieved this way may come at the expense of the students" (102).

Dirk ultimately points to the complex and often unclear grading of participation in composition classrooms; however, she does not seek to tie these assessment practices, or participation itself, to the ideologies that undergird it. This is where my study intervenes: I interrogate unrealized and unstated power dynamics that come to bear on participation as an assessable component of the composition classroom. Moreover, while Dirk's study is limited to one institution, I want to cast a wider net in an effort to map participation in composition courses more broadly. By reporting the results of a national survey on student participation distributed digitally to college-level writing instructors in the United States, this piece exposes the very complicated and often contradictory landscape of participation, as revealed in the contributors' definitions of participation. It calls attention to the signposts or landmarks of participation, including listening and discussing, and therefore traces the cultural and power formations that sustain and structure participation (including teachers' rights, students' responsibilities, and institutional requirements). Focusing the lens of inquiry on what we are trying to teach students, and what we are really teaching students, exposes the moments at which the two systems are at odds. Mapping participation reveals challenges inherent to the participation requirement as it is currently defined and instituted by teachers of writing.

[Go to "Methods and Methodology"]

2. Outside of composition/rhetoric, the study of student participation has been taken up extensively in the field of education. See Cazden, Crump, Castellano DeBlase, Ewald, Fraser, Hamza and Nash, Hull, Hull et al., Schultz, Straub, and Wallace. Katherine Schultz's 2009 study of participation offers a particularly useful critique of teachers' often uncritical expectations about participation and teachers' privileging of verbal responses over other modes of participation. In addition, participation has also been addressed in studies of writing across the curriculum (Bean and Peterson) and ESL classrooms (Alverado). [return]