Participation as Reflective Practice: Digital Composing and Feminist Pedagogy

Participation as Reflective Practice: Digital Composing and Feminist Pedagogy

Jason Palmeri and Abby Dubisar

Digital Composing

In both her historical analysis of CCC articles on participation and in her substantial survey of composition instructors, Gen Critel found that our field's notions of participation have long been influenced by technological shifts—that there is a long tradition of compositionists considering ways in which a new technology might be a boon or a bane for student engagement in writing classes. Yet, Gen also found in her contemporary survey of composition instructors that relatively few teachers (28.4%) modified their classroom policies on participation to account for changes in the technological environments in which they were teaching (181). At the time we both took Gen's survey, we were among that large group of teachers who hadn't yet considered how our articulation of the participation requirement would necessarily need to be adapted to digital teaching environments. By reflecting on the survey and talking with Gen, however, we both began to explore new models for how participation might be defined and assessed in the digital classroom. In particular, we advocate here that one productive approach can be to increase the amount of informal digital composing students do in class and then refigure an informal composing grade as an alternative to the nebulous task of evaluating participation.

Laptops as "Distraction" for Oral Participation

As we outline our argument for how participation might be reimagined and indeed renamed in the digital classroom, we focus particularly on our collective experience at Miami University of the challenges and cultural shifts that happened when we moved from a writing program with no classes in computer environments to a program where 100% of sections are taught in laptop or hardwired classrooms (Adsanatham et al.). Abby was involved in this shift when she was a PhD student at Miami, while Jason has been and continues to be engaged in digital pedagogy at Miami as a faculty member and writing program administrator. Although the move to laptop-required composition sections was the exigency that provoked much of our own work to reimagine participation as informal composing, we recognize that many of the pedagogical practices we advocate here have a long history in the field. Still, we think it significant that informal writing or composing has often been positioned as separate from participation, and we argue that the contemporary proliferation of mobile technologies provides a good kairotic opportunity for us to trouble that binary.


When we both were involved in the shift to laptop writing classrooms at Miami University, we frequently encountered numerous teachers who expressed reservations about how student computer use could be harmful for the kinds of participation they expected in the writing class. Although teachers in our digital writing program were discovering many exciting ways laptops could be used to support online research, collaborative writing, and multimodal composing, many also worried that the laptops were distracting students from participating in discussion and listening to minilectures (as students seemed to be using the laptops to peruse Web sites unrelated to class). To address the perceived problem of "digital distraction" in the laptop classroom, some teachers resorted to asking students to close laptops or to turn away from computers during lectures and whole-class discussions, but this solution started to prove untenable in classes where much of the reading was online and numerous students preferred to take notes digitally. When restrictive "close-the-laptop" directives proved less workable, we noticed many teachers (including ourselves) turning to the participation grade as way to curtail digital distraction: students caught "off task" on their laptops would have their participation grade lowered. Once again, we see the participation grade emerging as a kind of threat when teachers have anxiety about their authority being challenged (in this case by technological shifts).


Although using the participation grade as a way to police digital distraction did seem to provoke some positive short-term results, many of us soon found that this participation-grade-as-threat model was ultimately counterproductive to our broader pedagogical goals. First of all, we increasingly came to realize that much of what initially appeared as distraction might actually be seen as productive "underlife" (Brooke; Mueller); sometimes students really were googling a key course term or connecting on Facebook with a friend from home about their research on a local civic issue. Of course, at other times, students were simply using the laptops for non-class-related socializing, but ultimately it was too hard for teachers to tell the difference.


Over time, we came to see the student distracted by Facebook not as a problem to be policed but as a sign that our pedagogical activity of the moment was not proving engaging or relevant enough. After all, students have been "checking out" during lecture and discussion throughout the history of education; the laptop just makes this "checking out" more visible. Instead of seeing laptops as a distraction to verbal student participation, we have instead come to focus our collective attention on how we can more meaningfully integrate mobile technologies into class in ways that complement and document the forms of participation that have traditionally been prominent in our writing classes.

Laptops as Tools for Enhancing and Documenting Participation

As Gen Critel's research found and as our own personal narratives attest, auditory participation is incredibly hard to assess. How can we truly understand what a student has learned from speaking in or listening to a whole-class discussion? How can we account for students who are shy about talking in whole group but engage in other ways? As we wrestled with these questions in our conversations with Gen, she often suggested that we should think about our learning outcomes when we consider how to assess participation. If we want to see what students are learning from activities in a composition class, we ought to look first at their composing. As we reflected on the question of how participation related to our own goals as composition teachers, we came to see that upping the amount of informal composing in class could be a great way to ensure all students were participating actively.

Furthermore, by engaging students in digitally recording the insights they gained through spoken conversations, we could enable them to take a more active role in assessing their own oral participation (rather than leaving such assessment to the necessarily partial observations of one harried teacher). Ultimately, we came to see that laptops were especially useful tools for integrating, sharing, and assessing students' informal composing—though we note that the approach we advocate here could be adapted to the paper-based classroom too. Seeking to outline how digital informal composing can be used to document and augment spoken forms of participation, we detail numerous practical ways to integrate digital, informal composing alongside the conventional class activities of lecture, whole-group discussion, and small-group work.


Digital Participation in Minilecture

In order to make sure brief lectures are meaningful for students, we suggest establishing the routine that nearly every minilecture is followed by an individual or small group activity in which students must compose and share an informal text that applies the concept conveyed during the lecture. For example, if a teacher gives a short lecture on writing engaging introductions, students then individually complete an activity in which they write five different opening sentences to their essay, post that writing to an online discussion board, and then reflect with peers about which of their opening sentences is most rhetorically effective and why. If a teacher gives a minilecture about ethos, students then follow it up in small groups by making a digital presentation in which they find digital examples of effective and ineffective ethical appeals to share with the class.

The point here is that students will be more engaged in lecture if they know they will have to apply the concept right away and not in some distant future; furthermore, by following a lecture with directed informal composing, the teacher can better assess how well students listened to and understood the lecture by quickly reviewing the texts they produced in response to it.

Digital Participation in Whole-Class Discussion

While it's very practical to follow up a lecture with an informal composing assignment designed to apply the concept that was taught, it's harder to preplan informal composing activities to follow open-ended whole-class discussions in which the students often take the conversation in exciting new directions the teacher could not have predicted. In our experience as students and teachers, whole-class discussion can be one of the most powerful moments of collaborative dialogue and invention in a class. We can each remember times when a whole-class discussion of rhetoric profoundly changed our thinking—even our whole worldview. Despite our advocacy of increasing more individual and small-group composing during class, we also are committed to keeping a place for the whole class discussion in our pedagogies.

Rather than seeing whole-class discussion and digital composing as in opposition to one another, we suggest that digital technologies can be a productive tool that can help us better document and build upon the contributions students make in discussion-based classes. For example, as a way to enhance listening and also keep a record of the insights generated in discussion, teachers can assign rotating groups of students to collectively take notes on a class discussion in a Google document. At the end of class or for homework, all students could then review the Google document and add further comments they wished to say. In yet another way to involve students in documenting conversations, teachers can establish a routine in which students end each class discussion by posting to a digital space one thing they learned from a peer and one new idea they generated from the conversation (whether they spoke it aloud or not). It's also possible to have students audio record and then reflectively edit class conversations (Palmeri 70-71), though this process can be too time consuming to adopt on a regular basis. In our experience, when students use digital technologies to compose and share the insights they gain from whole-class discussions, they are more likely to see these discussions as having value.


Digital Participation in Small-Group Work

When we began teaching composition, we both settled into a very familiar routine in which we assigned a small-group activity and then students reported back to the class when they finished it. Although much useful learning happened during this routine, we also both encountered the persistent problem of students who would disengage from their small groups, as well as students who became bored when other groups were reporting back their findings. Over time, we began to shift to a model in which small-group activities always resulted in the production of a brief text. In some cases, we might ask the group to document their conversation in a Google document or digital presentation (or to complete a particular writing task collaboratively). In other cases, we might ask each individual in the group to post their own reflection on the conversation to their own blog (or other digital writing space). When students know they have to produce text as a result of groupwork, they tend to take it more seriously. And, while we still ask some groups to orally report back findings to the whole class, we don't feel we need to have every group report every time since their collaborative learning process has already been documented. Instead we can more organically move from the small-group discussion to whole-group discussion by just building upon the most engaging insights the groups discovered.

Assessing Informal Composing (in Lieu of Participation)

Instead of having separate grades for informal composing (out of class) and participation (in class), we instead suggest that teachers might just have one graded category for informal-composing homework and classwork to be evaluated on a credit/no credit basis—usually with a certain number of standard points awarded or deducted for each act of informal composing completed (or not).  When we've advocated this approach, we've often been asked the following important questions:

(1) How can you find time to read and comment on all that writing / composing?

Although we work hard to skim through all the informal composing students do since it's a great way to assess what they are learning and adapt our instruction accordingly, we definitely don't comment on it all. Early on, we'll try to comment on every person's informal composing just to establish that it is important and we value it. As the semester continues, we then pick out selected strong examples of informal composing to highlight for the whole class while also individually reaching out to those students whose informal composing reveals that they are struggling in meeting course goals. Often, when it comes to informal composing completed in class, we can just give everyone present credit for the work simply by observing what they are composing during class in real time. Although we contend that evaluating informal composing in and out of class needn't be that time consuming, we also must note that we both have reasonable class sizes and teaching loads (and thus the model we propose may not be as workable in all contexts).


(2) What about students who are not comfortable with on-the-spot composing?

We work early on to talk with students about the value of informal composing and about the need for us all to be supportive of each other's different approaches to composing on the fly. We acknowledge at the outset that students all compose at different rates and note that we are willing to accept any "good-faith effort" on an in-class composing task. We also invite students to talk to us individually if they have concerns about composing in class, and we work with them to adapt our activities to their learning needs. Furthermore, we always allow students to choose to finish any in-class composing activity for homework (due by next class) if they find themselves "drawing a blank" in class or needing more time for quiet reflection.

(3) Couldn't students still do all this informal composing outside of class? Why should they bother to show up?

All of our informal composing in class is ultimately still grounded in spoken collaboration. First of all, we regularly have students write collaboratively—a process that involves much talk. And, even when students are writing alone, they then share that work and talk about it with partners or small groups. Furthermore, when students are composing alone or in groups, the teacher is always circulating and conducting miniconferences to give guidance and address student concerns.  A laptop-based, face-to-face class ultimately uses digital technology as a way to augment and document (but not replace) oral, embodied interactions. Of course, when the composition class moves to a fully online format, our notion of what participation means must necessarily shift in even more radical ways, but that's a topic for another essay.

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