Participation as Reflective Practice: Digital Composing and Feminist Pedagogy

Participation as Reflective Practice: Digital Composing and Feminist Pedagogy

Jason Palmeri and Abby Dubisar

Key Reflective Practices

As feminist teachers and researchers, we are deeply committed to collaborative dialogue as a key practice of knowledge making; as a result, this chapter works to highlight the complexly embodied ways our dialogues with Gen Critel and with each other have influenced our evolving conceptions of what it means to study and teach participation in writing and rhetoric classrooms. Because we are ever mindful that classroom participation is deeply embodied and relational, we will not conclude this chapter with a sample "participation policy" readers could plop into a syllabus. Instead, we offer here six key reflective moves students, teachers, and administrators might make to collaboratively reimagine what participation means in their local contexts.

(1)  Engage students in reflecting about what forms of participation best help them learn.

Early in the term, teachers should engage students in reflectively composing about what forms of participation best help them learn (using a range of modalities). To start this conversation, teachers could offer students a list of participatory activities and then ask students to add their own suggested activities to it. After reviewing the list of types of participation with students, teachers could then ask them to compose a reflection in which they outline three activities they believe would strongly contribute to their learning as well as three activities they think might be less helpful, less comfortable, or less accessible for them and why. To get the most out of these reflections, teachers might consider conferencing with students (giving them the option of an in-person or online chat) to discuss ways the learning environment might be adapted to their needs and preferences. Furthermore, students would ideally revisit their initial reflections on participation at multiple points during the semester, considering how their preferred modes of participation might be evolving based on their experiences in the class.

After learning more from students about what kinds of participation best enable their success in class, teachers can then go about designing flexible informal composing assignments for each week that account for students' diverse learning needs. For example, instead of assigning the whole class to freewrite to invent ideas for an essay, teachers might give a more flexible in-class composing prompt such as this:

Complete one of the following invention activities for your essay or propose another:

  • Freewrite on paper for 10 minutes (then make a brief blog post highlighting the most important insight you reached).
  • Freewrite on your blog for 10 minutes brainstorming ideas. Then, read another person’s blog in class and comment about similarities and differences in your evolving arguments.
  • Draw a sketch that represents your idea for this essay (if you have a smartphone,  take a photo and post to the discussion board).
  • Make a visual outline of a possible essay in PowerPoint or Prezi and post to your blog.
  • Talk to a neighbor in class and collaboratively discuss possible ideas for your essay. Conclude the conversation by posting notes of the three most important insights you generated to your blog.

As Margaret Price argues, "Mixing up the mode and style of communication heightens the chance that a student will find at least one mode that works for her" (97). By creating informal composing activities that offer students choices about modalities of learning, we can increase the number of students who are able to find ways to participate meaningfully in our classes.

(2)  Ask students to document and reflectively self-assess their own participation.

Although designing flexible, in-class composing assignments that account for diverse learning needs can be helpful, we remain conscious that restricting our conception of participation to in-class composing ultimately risks unduly narrowing what participation means—limiting students' ability to reflectively explore and receive credit for all the diverse forms of participation that enable their learning both in and outside class. To enable students to have more agency in how their participation requirement is designed and evaluated, we suggest asking students to document their participation in class sessions via periodic digital participation journals completed in the last five minutes of class. In these journals, students are asked to document their most meaningful moment of participation in class (in response to a capacious definition of participation inclusive of speaking, listening, writing, enabling others to speak and so forth). Students are also free to use this space to ask questions or share concerns with the teacher (so it’s important to have students write these journals in a digital space that allows for privacy between teacher and student).

Jason has been using participation journals in class for the last two years and has found the practice useful; in particular, Jason has noted that students seem to be more engaged when they know they might have to document their participation, and he has also gained a much better understanding of the learning experiences and contributions of the quiet students who don’t talk often in whole-group discussion. In responding to journals, Jason also is able to engage with students who are a bit too vocal in discussion—praising their contributions but also suggesting that they work to document in future journals how they helped make space for others to speak. (Jason’s syllabus language about the participation journal is included in Appendix A as one possible possible model of student self-assessment of participation.)

Building on the participation journal and other informal composing assignments, teachers might ask students to put together a final participation portfolio in which they reflect about and present artifacts that represent their most meaningful participation in the class. In many cases, these artifacts might be culled from the required informal composing assignments, but they also could move beyond official activities to cover kinds of participation that often fly under the radar. For example, a student might present their memories of listening to a class discussion as a sample of participation, or they might include samples of how they annotated course texts, or they might recount stories of discussing class concepts with people in their lives outside the classroom space.

By inviting students to document what kinds of participation are most meaningful for them, we can begin to open up conversations about how our conventional notions of participation may need to be broadened to account for students who learn in diverse ways.

By offering students flexible options for defining and assessing their participation in class, we are seeking to outline an approach to participation inspired by theories of universal design (Dolmage; Dunn; Hamraie; Price; Yergeau et al.). For us, as for Margaret Price, universal design is a collaborative, recursive process and not just a simple matter of providing material in multiple formats: "The 'Universal' part of the moniker expresses an aim rather than an accomplished fact: Universal Design sets as its ideal a learning environment that is accessible to all learning styles, abilities, and personalities, but acknowledges that such efforts must always remain partial and engage in a process of continual revision" (Price 87). As we seek to reconceive of classroom participation requirements in flexible, accessible ways that account for students' diverse needs, we must necessarily engage students in collaboratively reflecting about what forms of participation best enable their learning. As Gen Critel so powerfully asserted in her dissertation, teachers traditionally "don't ask students how participation should or should not be gauged, nor do we ask them how they want to participate. We should have to if we had a universal design participation requirement" (191). We couldn't agree more.

(3)   Explore ways students and teachers can adapt their own forms of participation to enable access for all the diverse individuals in class.

When we ask students to compose reflectively about the kinds of participation that best enable their learning, we should also ask them to articulate what others in class (both instructor and peers) can do to help them feel more comfortable participating. For example, students might talk about what kinds of feedback they would find most helpful when sharing written work with peers, or what modalities they prefer for instructions for in-class composing tasks, or which digital text formats are accessible and/or inaccessible to them, or how much silence/wait time they might need to feel comfortable speaking up in a whole-class discussion. Not only could this reflective composing give instructors ideas for how to best organize activities to welcome the participation of all students, but it could open up a whole-class conversation about how peers in class can adapt their own communication styles in order to better support the participation of others. In their participation journals or in their final participation portfolio, then, students might write not only of how the their participation enhanced their own learning but also about how they worked to invite, welcome, and learn from the participation of others—noting especially ways they adapted their own communication style to better support the participation needs of peers.

(4) Expand definitions of participation to reward interdependency.

As both Critel and the OED remind us, the basic root of the verb to participate is to share. If we seek to cocreate equitable models of participation with students who learn in diverse ways, we must necessarily move past the model of participation as an individual assessment of individual action. Challenging the ways in which some proponents of universal-design pedagogy still tend to center the teacher as the primary agent in providing access, Kristina Knoll usefully offers a relational feminist disability studies approach to participation that emphasizes ways in which all members of the classroom community can contribute to creating an accessible environment. Resisting the common tendency to focus the participation grade solely on an individual student's actions in support of their own learning, Knoll advocates defining and evaluating participation as a reflective practice of fostering "interdependency" in the classroom. In Knoll's interdependent participation model, students can earn part of their participation grade by writing reflections about how they have been

practicing interdependency with their peers and by articulating how they made our learning environment more accessible by assisting another individual or individuals. Some students have read material aloud for another, recorded it onto tape, provided notes to someone who was out sick, or rearranged the classroom every day to make it accessible for people with mobility disabilities. I was impressed with the dialogue between students when they were mutually trying to figure out how to address a learning need that has not been addressed before. (129)

In other words, to participate is not simply to share one's own ideas; to participate equitably is to work to enable the participation of others.

(5) Engage teachers in collaborative dialogue and research about participation.

As writing program administrators, it's important that we resist treating participation as simply one of a long list of policies on a sample (or standard) syllabus. Teachers (like students) inhabit diverse embodied positionalities, and we are unlikely to arrive at one model of participation all teachers in a program would feel comfortable enacting or abolishing. Instead of mandating one approach to participation, we instead suggest that WPAs make the definition and evaluation of participation an open and ongoing question for collaborative research in TA and faculty development programs.

For example, in a year-long teaching practicum taught by Jason at Miami University, small groups of TAs worked in inquiry groups to research a meaningful question about pedagogy and then develop materials to be shared with the wider teacher community in our collaboratively produced teacher's guide. Numerous groups chose to research the vast interdisciplinary literature on participation (Rocca), to try out different approaches to participation in their classes, and then to share some of the benefits and limitations of these approaches in materials for our teacher's guide. By next year, Jason's university will no longer have one sample policy on participation in the teacher's guide but rather a diverse collection of reflections by teachers who define and evaluate participation differently depending on their goals.

While this kind of decentered model for developing a participatory pedagogy can at times lead to some contradictory (and even problematic) advice being shared, it can also powerfully open up an occasion for dialogue in which teachers must pause and think critically about the sedimented notions of participation they have inherited from their own schooling. And, when we engage in dialogue about participation in a context in which we are also talking about issues of power and embodied difference, we have a much better chance of developing and enacting localized approaches to participation that can make our classrooms more accessible for both teachers and students alike.

(6) Keep on questioning (resisting easy answers).

We've outlined here some possible approaches for rethinking what participation means in writing and rhetoric classrooms, but we remain very conscious that the articulation of participation is deeply contextual and complexly multivalent. We most certainly have not arrived at a definitive answer about how participation should be defined and evaluated, but we nevertheless believe our ongoing dialogue with Gen's work has helped us develop some generative and useful questions to ask about what it means to participate. As a result, we see it as fitting to conclude this Web text with Gen's ever thoughtful, questioning voice: "What if we asked students to tell us how they will participate? What if we asked them to say what they need from us, as Margaret Price recommends? Perhaps these questions seem outlandish to some readers; however, there's no way to know how much these changes could benefit students unless we try" (Critel 196-97).

[Go to Appendices]