Participation as Reflective Practice: Digital Composing and Feminist Pedagogy

Participation as Reflective Practice: Digital Composing and Feminist Pedagogy

Jason Palmeri and Abby Dubisar

Relational Knowledges

Although we situate our project as in some sense an extension of Gen Critel’s dissertation, we see it also as arising from our many conversations with her. Gen didn’t just influence us with her written words; she transformed us through the embodied act of dialogue over multiple years. As feminists, we are committed to a vision of knowledge making as situated and relational (Haraway). As a result, we begin this text not with a conventional literature review, but rather with the story of our relationships with Gen and how those relationships have influenced our evolving conceptions of participatory pedagogy.

Affective Participation: Fear, Shame, Silence (Jason)

Until I got to know Gen and started chatting with her about her research on participation, I must admit I had never really thought very deeply about the role of participation in my pedagogy. As I look back at syllabi from my first years of teaching, I see a teacher whose pedagogy is slowly evolving from a cultural studies model that privileged alphabetic reading to a process-based, multimodal approach that places the students’ own composing across modalities at the center of the composition class. My evolving course descriptions and major assignment prompts all strongly reflected the shift in my pedagogical thinking, and yet my “participation-grade” statement remained stubbornly resistant to change—copied over in the boilerplate policies from one semester to the next with little reflection.

Here it is:

Participation: 10%
In this course, you will learn as much from your peers as you will from me. Thus, participation is crucial for your own success as well as for the success of the class as a whole. You will be expected to participate in discussions, small group activities, and individual conferences. Try to make at least one comment in discussion every day.

I’m pretty sure this language was either remixed or borrowed wholesale from another teacher—though I can’t remember the source anymore. The statement emphasizes oral participation especially because I had a separate grade for informal discussion-board writing (mostly completed out of class).

Although I can’t remember from where I drew the language for my participation statement, I can remember the powerful feeling of fear that motivated me to include it and the nagging feeling of shame that accompanied my failed attempts to implement it as an assessable outcome. Like many new composition instructors, I began my teaching career with a wide constellation of anxieties. What if the students wouldn’t talk in discussion? What if they wouldn’t follow my instructions for in-class group work? What if I couldn’t successfully replicate the exciting seminar-style discussions that I had enjoyed so much as an undergraduate at a liberal arts college?

When I and other new teachers expressed our fears about student engagement to other more experienced instructors, we often heard the same refrain: that’s what the participation grade is for. If a student won’t talk in small or whole group, remind them that participation counts and presto/whammo, the level of engagement will pick up. And so I dutifully added a participation grade to my syllabus, I occasionally reminded students of the participation grade in silent moments, and they mostly talked actively in small- and whole-group discussions.

Although the participation grade did calm my fears while teaching in the classroom, it also began to produce a deep feeling of shame when it came time to calculate grades at the end of finals week. Staring alone at night at the blank spot for participation in my digital gradebook, I came to realize I had no valid way to determine fair and accurate grades for the 10% participation requirement. I’d been advised to keep a daily record of students’ participation in discussion, but I never could get into that habit (and I didn’t trust my memory). Furthermore, I was never sure what to do with the quiet yet seemingly engaged students—the ones who participated actively and smartly on the discussion board but never or hardly ever talked in the whole group. As a teacher deeply committed to making my class accessible to students who learn in diverse ways, I could never actually follow my policy and give less than an A to a student who maybe just didn’t find talking in discussion to be all that helpful for their learning.

And so, dear reader, here is what happened time and time again: I’d spend an hour or so debating what to do about participation and then I’d just record As for all the students who had attended regularly and done all the written work irrespective of how much they had spoken aloud during class time. And, after all the As were recorded, my shame and fear would threaten to overtake me. If anyone ever found out I just handed out As without a rationale for participation, I was certain I’d finally be revealed as the fraud I knew deep down that I was. In an attempt to push the shame away, I decided to just ignore the participation grade as much as I could. I kept the participation statement unaltered on my syllabi, but I tried my best not to think of it, not to talk of it, not to expose my shameful failure to solve what felt me to me at the time like an intractable problem.

And, then I got to know Gen Critel…and I started to find a way to engage participation beyond the dialectic of fear and shame. I started to see that reflective dialogue about participation could become a site of joy in my life—that I could work collaboratively to begin to align my articulation of participation with the kinds of pedagogical innovations and social justice commitments that sustain my love for this field. There wasn’t one epiphany when everything changed; there were instead many small moments in conversations with Gen where I could begin to feel cracks starting to appear in the affective complex of fear and shame that had blocked me from engaging with participation in a reflective way. It’s not surprising that I can’t locate one big epiphany. If you knew Gen, you know grand proclamations were not her style. Instead, Gen was profoundly devoted to Cindy Selfe’s notion of “small potent gestures”—it was for her not only a favorite expression but a profoundly loving and empathetic way of being in the world.

Over the year Gen and I were neighbors in Cincinnati (regularly sharing drinks on her front porch), what I remember most is her asking me questions and generously engaging with my answers. Gen asked me to consider these questions: What do I really value as a teacher and did my articulation of participation to students really reflect that? How did I assess participation and was I comfortable with that? How might teaching in a laptop classroom and administering a digital writing program change what participation meant to me? How did my articulation of participation relate to my commitments to disability studies and universal design? These questions were so profound…questions that desperately needed to be engaged both by the field and by me. Of course, Gen had already started to articulate incredibly smart answers to these questions. But, she never preached at me. Instead, she just asked me thoughtful questions, listened to my answers patiently and empathetically, and gently nudged me to new ways of thinking.

Not surprisingly, Gen was the first person to whom I disclosed my secret shame about handing out all As for participation without being able to explain why. And, Gen didn’t judge. Indeed, she assured me her research was finding that my own experiences reflected a common anxiety many teachers have about assessing participation. What I saw as a shameful moment to be hidden, Gen reframed for me as a generative opening for critical reflection and change.

The Critel Effect: Evolving/Abolishing Participation (Abby)

Looking back at my archive of syllabi, I see my participation policies as evidence of what I thought a composition class meeting should look like as well as an attempt to communicate the type of teacher I thought I was. Thus, statements on my syllabi attempted to cover my ambivalence and confusion about best practices for my classroom and also offered boilerplate language I hoped would back me up if a grade debate occurred. As much as I hate to admit it, my participation grading allowed me wiggle room and flexibility while I pretended my grading policies were confidently firm and evidence based. My participation grading gave me an out to boost a student's grade or punish them (yet only ever so slightly since I do not remember assigning a participation grade below B). While arising out of fear that students would contest their grades and realize how subjective writing assessment can be, my participation grade became a tool to manipulate the final calculations. Without Gen's research and our conversations, I would never be able to write about this extremely problematic practice, which her findings show is somewhat endemic in composition pedagogy. When I look at where I have come from, I shudder at the ways I imagined participation ten years ago but feel incredibly grateful to Gen for helping me resee my participation assessment and its ethical and generative implications for my teaching.

For the first syllabus I ever wrote for a first-year composition class, my participation policy stated:

Participation.  10% Active participation makes the class more interesting and thought-provoking for all of us.  This includes being ready to say something and listen to others every day in class.  Moreover, it also involves being prepared for each class by doing all the reading.

The following quarter I taught basic writing, having taken a graduate seminar on the histories and theories of "remedial" and basic writing courses. I crafted a slightly longer participation policy for this class and doubled the weight of the grade:

Class participation (20% of final grade) means more than just attendance.  As an active participant in class, you are expected to come to class every day with something insightful to say in regard to the reading assignment for the day.  Additionally, you are expected to respond to classmates' drafts, actively involve yourself in class discussions, and demonstrate your reading, thinking, and writing skills on a regular basis.


Notably, I decided to move from asking students to "say something" to "say something insightful." No pressure! Further, while I imagined peer-response activities like conversation and written response, my focus remained on oral performances that would give me evidence students were learning and thinking. While my first policy emphasized listening, I edited that out for the second one. Both policies reveal my desire for the students enrolled in my class to become a cohesive community of support.

As I started to hear about Gen's budding dissertation project, I was eager to watch the project develop and take form. I was enthusiastic from the start, helping Gen recruit participants and asking her for updates on the unfolding findings. I was a new assistant professor at the time, navigating the terrain of a small undergraduate institution very different from my graduate institutions and suddenly talking to faculty across the curriculum and in the administration about what composition courses could and should accomplish.

As Gen's research evolved, so did my career, and I moved to a new job at a research institution and started working with graduate students, offering me a new context to apply Gen's work. At the time I felt somewhat overwhelmed by Gen's findings and the way they were leading me to rethink my policies, so my best option seemed to be to abandon the assessing of participation altogether. At the time, I was not confident that participation could even be defined, let alone assessed. I told Gen how I was applying her initial findings, and she asked to hear more. In December of 2011, while I planned my first graduate seminar, a special-topics course in activist rhetorics, I wrote to Gen:

Here's what I'm including in my grad class syllabus…I don't think I'll put such a message in my undergrad syllabus, but since the grad students are teachers I want to talk about it with them.

A note on "participation." Due to some recent findings of a friend of mine, Genevieve Critel, who is writing her dissertation about the history of and implications of requiring student participation in composition courses, I am taking an abolitionist stance on the requirement. That said, I'm assuming that since you are graduate students you are here to engage in a lively and committed manner with the material. I am a practitioner of Universal Design and we will discuss in class strategies for making our conversations inclusive as well as dynamic.

While I have backed off from the abolitionist approach I claimed in 2011, I saw Gen's unfolding research as a way to intervene in my own graduate students' thinking about teaching and wanted to engage them about participation requirements in connection with activist rhetorics and pedagogies, inspired not only by Gen but also by the ways activists exemplify what it means to participate, disrupt, and resist, all concepts central to the pedagogical goal of assessing participation.

A few months later I traveled back to Ohio and sat in Gen's Cincinnati apartment she shared with her partner, Lisa Blankenship, sipping tea and talking about our projects. I asked Gen what the origin of the term participation was, a notion she had not yet considered in her research. After consulting the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online, she reported to Lisa and me that its root resided in notions of sharing. To participate is to share. Remembering this moment and our ensuing conversation continues to inform my own practice of participation and its collaborative and reflective possibilities for engaging students in what it means to be a student, a student "body," a classroom performer, and more. In my own work and conversations, I started calling this phenomenon "The Critel Effect" because Gen's research made possible a way for me to question how I was requiring participation and to do so in a public way. Once I had Gen's research as a conversation starter and heuristic, I had a framework for crafting more progressive understandings of what the requirement really means in writing classes and beyond.

In January of 2012 I wrote to Gen, asking her to address my graduate students' queries about universal design and its relationship to participation. I wrote asking for her dissertation abstract and describing, "My grad students were talking about Universal Design today and that led to a conversation about participation privileging certain literacies/abilities/comforts…and you can imagine the rest of the story from there and how your work became part of the conversation." Gen responded:

Here are some observations from some version of my chapter on embodiment: Statements of required class participation are indicators of performances nested in an ideological system of belief about equity or a public sphere which is presumably equitable, about giving every student an equal opportunity to participate in his or her own education.  The following elements tend to have value:  turn-taking, sustained eye contact, extemporaneous speaking, and the appearance of listening and engagement. As Mary 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 students. Margaret Price's 2011 monograph, 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.

With Gen's expertise in hand, then, I was positioned to not only talk about the limiting notions of participation with my students but to provide them other resources that now inform my own thinking about the requirement and its attempts to discipline bodies and minds.  Now the rich resource that formalizes Gen's research findings, "Investigating the Rhetoric of Student Participation: Uncovering and Historicizing Commonplaces in Composition Studies," collects the intellectual endeavor of attending to participation and all its values and complexities. Gen's research continues to resonate with me since my pedagogical practices fit into the culture of participation requirements she uncovered and problematized.

Carrying on the Dialogue (Abby and Jason)

The rest of this Web text represents our collective attempt to keep engaged in our dialogue with Gen—our attempt to keep wrestling with the important questions she asked us. We start by articulating our choice to abolish the participation requirement in favor of assessing informal composing both in and out of class. Then we move to consider our more recent attempts to bring discussion and assessment of participation back into our classroom in more reflective ways by (1) engaging students in researching the politics of participation in school and beyond and (2) by providing students opportunities to reflectively self-assess what forms of participation best help them learn. 

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