Participatory Hospitality and Writing Centers

Michele Eodice


Taking up Critel’s questions about community as a commonplace of participation, Eodice introduces the concept of participatory hospitality as a way of resisting individualism (a barrier to collaboration and community) and building interdependence (a desired goal of hospitable learning spaces). She points to the writing center as both a site and method that embodies participatory hospitality, suggesting that spaces, devices, and people must be hospitable in order for learners to shed insistent individualism and find value in interdependence. The writing center holds the potential of becoming a space in which mutual exchange occurs, where the host gains as much as the guest, and where participation occurs in multiple directions, across differences and languages. She argues that whether in the classroom or writing center, we as faculty and our students benefit most when we create hospitable spaces in which “relational power is honored and celebrated . . . [where] the ability to incorporate and reflect the contributions of others is a mark of strength” (Bennett 18).

Critel and Community

Let my starting point be what I learned from Genevieve Critel’s work. For a few years she thought deeply about how participation in writing classes operates as a material reality—or not—in historical, pedagogical, and rhetorical ways. Her study helps me understand how participation in the writing classroom is defined and valued and it complicates what participation means for student writers given the hegemonic construction of participation by instructors and institutions.

Critel’s project introduces us to the rhetoric of participation, which becomes a failed rhetoric when “participation” acts as a proxy for regulatory writing-classroom expectations. And like Critel, I am concerned with the (potentially) empty promise (or threat) of participation as a requirement in writing classes. The faculty artifacts Critel studied told her that a primary goal of those requiring participation is to build community. We privilege views of writing classrooms as communities, yet are dogged by the fraught ways we try to create those communities. Because of the commodification of participation, we are not even sure if students’ motivation to participate is linked to forming communities, and Critel admonishes us, “If students find community to be an essential part of their own learning experiences, then tying the acts of performing as a community to a portion of a grade seems at best unnecessary and at worst, insulting to students” (122).

Theresa Lillis (2001) problematizes efforts to build community via the formal requirement of participation by describing the macro and micro versions of participation, first broadly as a marker of access to a university and then as a condition of retention; for students in Lillis’s study, participating at all was subject to failure through “institutional rejection” (115): “As well as negotiating their desires around participation in higher education, student-writers also have to negotiate their desires around the kinds of activities in which they are expected to engage” (113). In the macro sense, students must first gain access (admission) and then, in a series of micro events, enter classrooms where they must figure out—over and over again—what to do in order to participate appropriately. Lillis would say that this constant renegotiation within the regulatory environment drills down to the level of text production and maintains “a tension between what [students] want to say and they feel they are allowed to say in their academic writing” (14).

Critel confirmed through her research that most writing teachers (past and present) expect students to participate; 78% of 148 instructors completing her national survey indicated they base a percentage of the course grade on participation (93). Yet teachers and students alike remain uncertain what that participation really needs to look like to be meaningful. There is the sense from her data that writing teachers count “attendance” and “professional behavior” as participation while claiming community-building as a goal of participation. Is there a schism between what “counts” and what is desired? From her data Critel identified the six primary ways participation was described by college writing teachers:

Each of the six carries different weight and ways of enacting for different writing teachers but says little about community. If the word participation is merely dropped into a syllabus and expected to describe something so potentially significant to students, it is no wonder students continue to game participation points. First, as Critel states, clinging to the belief that community is automatically formed through required participation is both a myth and an “outmoded justification” for the point system—a system more than one instructor has likely fudged to “justify” a grade or two. Second, on the student end, have we even considered how point chasing can ruin students for participating authentically elsewhere on campus or in life, where the payoff might not be visible or tangible or transcripted? Students might be schooled to think participation means, “I should speak up in class. About 2.3 times this semester should do it.”

An illustration of a participatory model

Fig. 1. An illustration of a participatory model.
Click to enlarge.

This kind of participation is perfunctory, not genuine, because it is prescribed, and students know that; most also intuit they are not truly invited to interact and engage in the ways they are most able. And here is something that really stinks: only students get evaluated on participation. In syllabi statements Critel gathered from college writing teachers across the United States, the language relative to participation constructed instructors as having rights and students as having responsibilities.

In the concept I introduce, participatory hospitality, I take up Critel’s critique and want to point to the writing center as both a site and method (Boquet) that embodies participatory hospitality. I believe participatory hospitality lets us work away from reinforcing insistent individualism (a barrier to collaboration and community) and toward building interdependence (a desired goal of hospitable learning spaces). Making way for interaction with accessible spaces, devices, and people can re-gift participation the value it deserves in our teaching.

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Hospitable Spaces