Participation as Reflective Practice: Digital Composing and Feminist Pedagogy

Participation as Reflective Practice: Digital Composing and Feminist Pedagogy

Jason Palmeri and Abby Dubisar

Feminist Interventions

Although we think shifting to evaluating in-class informal composing is a workable solution to many of the problems of assessing oral participation, we acknowledge that this model too has limitations. In the approach we have thus far proposed, the teacher is still problematically positioned as the authority who defines what participation is and how it should be demonstrated. Just as the traditional focus on oral participation risks marginalizing students who learn in other ways, our move to emphasizing informal composing in class still unfairly privileges some students' forms of learning over others. In a world in which technology access continues to be unequally distributed (Banks; Oswal; Selfe and Hawisher; Yergeau et al.), we must be very wary of inadvertently reinforcing the notion that the pedagogical use of any one tool or any one kind of composing will lead to equitable participation. Even though we think digital composing can at times be a helpful strategy for including more student voices in classroom dialogue, we also remain conscious that sexist, racist, ableist, and heteronormative power dynamics are often replicated in digital environments both within the classroom and on the wider Web (Blair et al.; de Montes et al.; McKee; Nakamura; Yergeau et al.).

Participation as Embodied

Whether online or offline, the reflective practice of participation must always be grounded in the complex and multivalent interactions of differently positioned bodies. As Critel argues, "Participation, even though it's an embodied act situated in time and space, is not often discussed in those terms" (162). Challenging conventional articulations of participation that attempt to set up a supposedly neutral and universal standard, Critel draws upon Margaret Price's work to argue notably that  "the embodiment of participation is complicated by difference—race, gender, nationality, dis/ability, class…all play a role in the representation of student and teacher bodies in the classroom" (168). Rather than setting up participation as a seemingly neutral goal for students to achieve, we build on Critel's work to suggest that teachers should engage students in collaboratively reflecting about and researching how classroom-participation patterns are influenced by embodied differences and structural power dynamics.

Recognizing and challenging the persistent influence of sexist power structures in shaping classroom participation patterns (Hall; Julé; Sadker and Sadker; Schulz), we seek to outline effective and substantial ways to put our feminist identities into practice in our classrooms. Although we have already covered ways to reimagine participation as digital informal composing, we now outline specific ways to engage students in the study of the gendered politics of participation with readings, activities, and assignments. Using Abby's gender-focused classes as examples of a feminist participatory pedagogy (specifically a gender and communication course as well as a special topics technical communication course that focused on feminist theory), we seek to show how instructors can engage students in crafting and reflecting upon a gendered curriculum about participation. The suggestions here not only apply to upper-division rhetoric and writing courses but also to introductory composition classes that engage issues of gender, education, and/or power.

Engaging Readings about Gendered Participation

Finding Space for Learning in a Chilly Climate

One direct way instructors can initiate conversations about participation with their students is to look at the research that has been done to collaboratively analyze the findings of academics who study participation. In 1982, for example, the Association of American Colleges' Project on the Status and Education of Women published "The Classroom Climate: A Chilly One for Women?" (Hall). Prompted by the low participation of women in traditionally masculine fields, this twenty-two-page report offers findings on empirical studies, surveys, and other data. Its explicit mission is to "help faculty, students, and administrators become more aware of the subtle—and not-so-subtle—ways in which women and men students are often treated differently, and to indicate specific actions they can take to create a learning climate that best fosters the intellectual growth of all students" (Hall 3-4). The report identifies as one of its exigencies gendered implications of classroom participation. It justifies how a "chilly" climate for women affects all students and outlines negative outcomes for women and men separately. For women, the report claims:

A chilly classroom climate puts women students at a significant educational disadvantage. Overtly disparaging remarks about women…can have a critical and lasting effect. When they occur frequently…such behaviors can have a profound negative impact on women's academic and career development by: discouraging classroom participation…Instead of sharpening their intellectual abilities, women may begin to believe and act as though…their participation in class discussion is not expected, and their contributions are not important. (Hall 3)

Although the report's discussion of gendered inequalities in participation is useful, it also includes some problematic advice for women such as suggesting they adopt certain speaking styles when participating in group discussion, including advice to advance their argumentation skills. This gendered suggestion directed only to women promotes an ideology that women students themselves must change in order to accommodate the traditional notions of embodied participation as agonistic oral performance. This argument is amplified by trendy authorities on gender such as Sheryl Sandberg, whose "lean-in" philosophy puts the onus on women to assert themselves more in masculine dominated corporate contexts (without considering ways in which corporate cultures might be changed to welcome more diverse forms of participation).

Bringing critiques of Sandberg's book into class helps further the discussion of how institutional sexism influences the social construction of participation. For example, writing for thefeministwire, bell hooks adeptly critiques the implications of Sandberg, who claims, on the one hand, to address all women, when on the other hand, her proposals are only possible for privileged white women. hooks notes:

If Sandberg had acknowledged that she was primarily addressing privileged white women like herself (a small group working at the top of the corporate hierarchy), then she could not have portrayed herself as sharing a message, indeed a life lesson, for all women. Her basic insistence that gender equality should be important to all women and men is an insight that all folks involved in feminist movement agree is a central agenda. And yes, who can dispute the facts Sandberg offers as evidence; despite the many gains in female freedom, implicit gender bias remains the norm throughout our society. Patriarchy supports and affirms that bias. But Sandberg offers readers no understanding of what men must do to unlearn sexist thinking. At no point in Lean In does she let readers know what would motivate patriarchal white males in a corporate environment to change their belief system or the structures that support gender inequality.

Building on hooks's and others' critiques of the "bootstraps" advice supplied by Sandberg, Abby helps students return to the 1982 report with a more critical eye. For example, the students come to see that the report's suggestion that women transform themselves into appropriate participating bodies blames women for sexism and too simplistically positions all women as having the power and ability to overcome the limitations of traditional participation requirements. Discussing readings such as these with students, then, helps open a conversation about how and why institutional sexism limits student participation and privileges some students over others. By engaging with historic and contemporary arguments about gender and participation, students and teachers together can articulate how institutional practices and pedagogies, as well as personal strategies, must change in order to make participation requirements accessible. (See Appendix A for detailed ideas for teaching the “chilly climate report.")

Engaging and Questioning Feminist Technologies for Participation

In addition to working with the 1982 "chilly climate" report, as detailed in Appendix A, Abby also brings more recent research on gender and participation into her classes. For example, in a technical communication special-topics course focused on feminist theory, Abby taught Mara H. Wasburn and Susan G. Miller's 2006 chapter "Still a Chilly Climate for Women Students in Technology: A Case Study" from Women, Gender, and Technology. The researchers study a student organization at Purdue, called Women in Technology, founded by the administration of the School of Technology and modeled on a women's engineering student organization. Table 3.4 (69) of the chapter reports survey answers about where students located their satisfaction with various classroom practices and faculty interactions. In the survey, only 31% of respondents reported feeling comfortable asking questions in class. The research data shows that many women students feel outnumbered and even intimidated in class (69). Wasburn and Miller show how their findings reinforce the existing literature on women and technology, revealing that "a significant number of women still feel isolated in their classes….At the same time, 70 percent of the women students feel confident in their technological abilities and that technology is an appropriate career for a woman" (69). This study reveals, then, how and why some students may feel very uncomfortable in a classroom and may have their own levels of discomfort validated.

Wasburn and Miller's finding that many more women feel comfortable with the material than they do in a classroom is telling. Students, in Abby's experience, actively discuss why classrooms are uncomfortable places once they have a context like this reading to begin with and develop their observations through. Furthermore, the surveys Wasburn and Miller provide could easily be recreated by students as pilot studies in their own majors, helping them understand what gender and classroom performance means for their classmates.

Because technological design fields continue to be male dominated, we must remember that the technologies we use for classroom participation are not politically neutral tools. Instead of uncritically promoting a new participatory technology to students, we suggest that teachers should work with students to critically interrogate how many technologies imagine a certain kind of participant or user and that often that user is gendered and raced as a white male (Selfe and Selfe). To that end, Abby has assigned readings to senior English majors in her tech comm and feminist theory course that both establish histories of gendered technology and move to a progressive future. In her article "Toward a Feminist Rhetoric of Technology," for example, Amy Koerber asks feminist scholars to "adopt a more expansive definition of technology than that which informs current rhetoric of technology research," one that "include[s] technologies traditionally affiliated with women's concerns" (60, 63). In response, students in Abby's class wrote formal proposals to the feminist tech comm community asserting that an artifact previously overlooked be considered as a potential feminist technology. When we encourage students to develop a more capacious understanding of technology that includes a wide range of digital and nondigital tools beyond those favored by white men, we can begin to develop more flexible and inclusive models of classroom participation. Instead of beginning with the laptop or tablet as the default interactive device, we might instead ask students what kinds of technologies and interactions might best help them learn and compose within our classes.

Researching and Writing about Gendered Participation

In addition to discussing readings relevant to participation, teachers can also engage students in research and writing about the gendered politics of embodied classroom interaction. An activity Abby assigns every semester in her gender and communication class positions students as investigators who gather data about what is happening with classroom participation and gender on her campus. Although students are asking similar questions to the original investigators of the 1982 "chilly climate" study, they also craft responses to the assignment that draw upon their own experiences.

Students are given the following directions and they post their results on an online discussion board:

Write your observations about gender participation and interaction from two other classes. Do not use any real persons' names in your writing.

Pay attention to patterns of interaction in two of your classes other than this one.  As you do so, notice whether there are gender inequities such as these:

  • How often do male members of each class contribute comments?
  • How often do female members of each class contribute comments?
  • Does the instructor respond equally (encouragement, elaboration, interest, etc.) to comments from females and males?
  • Do you notice any differences in the length of comments made by male and female students?

Students find plenty of examples of feminine-identified students performing tentativeness by starting comments with such phrases as "I'm not sure this is correct, but…" or adding "tag questions" to their comments, such as "right?" or "don't you think?" at the end of a statement. Abby's students use the vocabulary from communication research they have studied so far in the term to show how masculine speech habits and feminine speech habits abound.

Regarding interactions specifically, some students report observing the classic gender imbalance whereby male students speak more often than women. Yet other students report problematic moments of instructors prodding masculine-identified students to speak up more in class, framing a gendered notion that the women in class feel more obligated to participate whereas men do not. In completing this research assignment, students also often comment on how traditional participation requirements make them nervous and describe the pressure experienced when earning a participation grade means talking in front of the group and engaging in large-group discussion. Students often invoke frameworks of choice when writing about participation, such as one student's observation that students' level of engagement represents how much they choose to participate, drawing on her own level of comfort in certain classes and discomfort in others. The student describes her own practice of flexibly tailoring her participation strategies to classes and topics, a fluid approach she imagines other students using as well. In future classes, Abby intends to extend this investigation from communication in traditional classroom environments to asking students to analyze gendered communication practices in online educational spaces.

When we engage students as coresearchers in investigating gendered participation patterns, we can recognize educational participation is a rich discussion topic that should not be hidden or silenced but rather talked about with faculty and students alike. We invite others to position students as researchers of classroom participation and to collaborate with students to craft participation policies and best practices that account for gender and other categories of embodied difference. Much more research needs to be done to more fully understand the power dynamics at play in our classrooms and how our policies and practices reward some normative bodies who perform easily recognizable participatory acts over others. Undoubtedly, embodiment is important to participation, and we suggest that collaboratively researching the politics of participation with our students can be one way to move towards more equitable and inclusive visions of participatory pedagogy.

[Go to "Key Reflective Practices"]