In asking our students to participate in the classroom, we are often asking them to be vulnerable, even in the most mundane or impersonal of tasks. . . . First-year writing classrooms are surprisingly intimate spaces. . . .I am not sure I know the extent to which I expect students to be vulnerable or the extent to which I feel comfortable asking them to perform identity constructions outside their comfort zones for a portion of their final course grades.
Any teacher who has ever stood in front of a classroom has probably at some point come up against the “problems” of student participation: Class discussions that fail to take off; questions met with silence; conversations dominated by a few powerful voices (while the rest of the class watches sullenly); group activities or peer-review workshops met with limited engagement.
Participation is something about which there is quite a bit of casual discussion. Teachers complain to other teachers in hallways and offices about lack of student participation. We boast when a class discussion seems to go especially well. We discuss strategies for encouraging engagement—group work, activities, peer review, Platonic dialogues, and so forth. Much of what we know about student participation is practitioner knowledge, or what Stephen North described as “lore,” a form of knowledge “driven by the pragmatic logic of ‘what works’” (qtd. in Faigley 137). However, moving beyond discussions of what works and what doesn’t, when we zoom in on this idea of participation more closely, we can see that in our discussions of disengaged students and how to get them talking, we tend to elide the complexities of what instructors often perceive as a simple invitation to students to participate.
As Genevieve Critel notes in her dissertation, quoted above, it is very easy to underestimate this invitation, but there is nothing simple about it, especially from the student’s perspective. “[E]ven the most mundane or impersonal of tasks” can position students in vulnerable ways. Reflecting on her experiences as a student in first-year writing, Critel remembers the limitations of her own willingness to be vulnerable. In that first-year class, taken in 1999, Critel remembers writing essays “on maybe four to five subjects” and spending most of class time in peer review workshops (171). She remembers struggling to find “interesting” topics for her essays, while at the same time navigating personal issues she did not feel comfortable sharing with her classmates via a first-year writing assignment. She did not choose to write about “the real tragedy of [her] life,” her father’s sudden death when she was seventeen; other life experiences—her internship with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in San Francisco, for example—would necessitate her coming out as queer to her classmates and teachers, something she felt comfortable doing in other spaces at her large midwestern public university, but not something she felt comfortable doing in the “surprisingly intimate” space of her first-year writing class (171-72). In Critel’s experience, the degree to which she could participate in her first-year writing class was constrained by the degree to which she was willing to make herself vulnerable.
Perhaps Critel had these experiences in mind when, years later as a graduate student at The Ohio State University, she began her dissertation research on participation in the composition classroom.
The Rhetoric of Participation: Interrogating Commonplaces In and Beyond the Classroom is a project inspired by Critel’s research on participation. In her dissertation, Critel, who passed away just a few weeks after defending her dissertation in May 2012, examined the perceived functions of and discourses surrounding the notion of participation in the composition classroom—specifically, the uses of participation as an assessed category in college-level writing classes. Through examinations of participation in three sites—instantiations of participation in the flagship journal of writing studies, College Composition and Communication, between 1950 and 2010; a syllabus archive at a research-intensive university (RIU) from 1959 to 2000; and a survey distributed nationally to college-level writing instructors—Critel demonstrated the ubiquity of participation as a topic of discussion and as a graded item in college-level classrooms.
The exigency for Critel’s work was that the role of student participation is understudied, even though it's a nearly universal expectation in the college-level writing classroom as well as many other classrooms across the disciplines. This exigency still exists today, as composition teachers continue to assign 5%, 10%, or more of students’ grades to the nebulous category of “participation.” Little research in composition beyond Critel’s dissertation has interrogated the commonplace practice of participation as an assessed category.
Critel’s research suggests that certain ways of thinking about participation have become part of an accepted praxis in composition pedagogy and yet have remained, for the most part, uncritiqued and untheorized. Four “commonplaces” emerge from Critel’s research and serve as a key contribution to disciplinary conversations and practices about student participation in rhetoric and composition and beyond. Drawing on Aristotle, Critel defines the commonplace as a topoi, “a common site of invention in the conversation about student participation in the writing classroom,” and as an “idea that is prevalent but undertheorized” (123). The four commonplaces of participation Critel locates are community, assessment, embodiment, and technology. As she writes, “The ubiquity of community, assessment, embodiment and technology reveals them as topoi around which the pedagogies of participation gather and the relationship of these commonplaces to the notion of student participation in the writing classroom constitutes the key contribution of this research to the discipline of composition and rhetoric” (ii).
The Rhetoric of Participation exists as a way to honor Critel’s research by continuing the interrogation of participation she began. The twelve chapters in the collection build on each contributors’ particular research areas and expertise while extending and complicating the four commonplaces in Critel’s research in provocative ways we could not have foreseen when we began this project.
In this introduction, we offer discussions of each of the four commonplaces in Critel’s research, touching on adjacent influential scholarship in the process. The commonplaces serve as useful topoi to think with and from individually, and as the sections on each commonplace in this introduction demonstrate, they overlap in many ways also, creating rich theoretical contributions to the topic of participation. With the publication of this book, we hope it becomes clear that these commonplaces are generative beginnings in the eyes of Critel and the editors; they welcome further exploration and extension. Thus following these discussions of the commonplaces as articulated by Critel, we provide descriptions of each of the pieces in this collection, noting the ways each builds from and brings something new to the participation research she began.
Getting to Know Critel’s Commonplaces
The first commonplace revealed through Critel’s research is the commonplace of community. This is unsurprising given the widespread discussions of community in composition research (e.g. Bullock, Foster, Harris, Roberts-Miller). Composition teachers like to think of their classes as communities. Confirming this common practice through her archival research, Critel notices that syllabi often “emphasize that the class is already a community or that the instructor hopes community will develop in the class” (126).
Critel argues that composition instructors typically “use participation in service of their pedagogy,” and often, composition pedagogies invoke some notion of community (126). In examining how instructors write about and think about participation in their classrooms, Critel notices, “some follow Bartholomae in arguing that the writing classroom should introduce students to scholarly discourses[,] others prioritize the importance of writing as a social act” (126). Each of these pedagogic visions assumes a type of class community, and teachers invite (and require) students to participate in their classrooms in ways that support that vision.
Sometimes the emphasis on community is conceived as functional—promoting an effective composition classroom. Students’ participation in this community is believed to “help accomplish the work of the classroom” (Critel 124). For example, one of the syllabi Critel analyzes in her dissertation states, “If we are to become an effective community of writers, all of us share the responsibility of coming to class not only prepared, but willing to participate in discussions and to share what we've written” (qtd. in Critel 130). In other words, if not all students participate, an “effective community of writers” will not take shape, and the class will not function effectively.
At other times, teachers have loftier visions for their students’ participation: as preparation for participation in academic or even democratic communities. Critel found that many instructors conceive of the classroom as “an academic community” or “a community of scholars,” and instructors often communicated this vision to their students in their participation requirements on the syllabus (131). More than just the function of the classroom, student participation becomes an unspoken course outcome, part of a transferrable “skill set” students can use in future academic endeavors.
In the CCC archive Critel examines, composition scholars take these ideas of participation and community a step further by arguing that participation in the community of the classroom prepares students to participate in a democratic community. As Critel observes, composition "scholars [draw] together the various lines of pedagogy popularized in the previous decades—from Friere to Elbow—to make a case for civic participation” (133). This idea of first-year writing as preparation for civic participation was particularly popular in the 1990s (see Chordas; Cushman; Fishman and McCarthy; Lynch et al.; Mitchell). However, Critel notes that the idea reaches back to the early twentieth century with the pedagogical theories of John Dewey, and, we would add, perhaps even further back, if we consider the democratic principles that serve as the foundation of the classical rhetorics of Quintilian and Isocrates, among others. Not surprisingly, the goal of civic participation endures today. Most recently, in their interdisciplinary “Mt. Oread Manifesto on Rhetorical Education 2013,” William Keith and Roxanne Mountford (in collaboration with Rhetoric Society of America seminar participants) uphold participation in the civic sphere as one of the central premises for rhetorical education, and they argue that teacher-scholars in both communication and English departments should work together to achieve this end goal.
Such goals of civic preparation are idealistic and laudable, but they can also be problematic. As Critel writes, instructors who envision a kind of civic preparation
. . . are hoping for a type of transfer—that of a skill set relevant in a composition classroom to a contribution in democratic society. Seeing this goal as an issue of transfer highlights the types of tasks and attitudes valued in the classroom and those valued outside of it. What counts as citizen participation? Voting? Attending city council meetings? Writing letters to the editor? Visiting legislators? In what ways does the composition class train students for these tasks? (134)
Although preparing students to be civic participants is certainly an admirable goal—and one that has with it a long history in the rhetorical tradition—Critel cautions instructors to be mindful. Instructors should consider questions of what counts as civic participation and what skill sets for civic participation can be taught in first-year writing. Implicitly, Critel raises questions of whether these skills should be taught. Citing Sherry Arnstein, she points to concerns that “participation without redistribution of power is empty process” (124). Likewise, critiquing the notion of community as preparation for academic contexts, Critel writes, “Indoctrinating students into academic discourse,” or any discourse, including perhaps, democratic discourse, “can be a colonizing act that devalues [students’] knowledge and denies them access to their own language” (124).
In raising these concerns about community, Critel echoes a number of scholars with similar critiques (see Enoch; Fishman; Gere; Harris; Roberts-Miller). However, the critiques do not seem to detract from the ubiquity and tenacity of this commonplace. Critel concludes:
As the most common argument for student participation in the writing classroom, the notion of creating community has a variety of functions, is created in a variety of ways, is envisioned with a variety of goals in mind, and has been problematized in a variety of ways. And yet, even with these various justifications and judgments, participation remains so closely tied to community that they are nearly interchangeable for many teachers. Teachers like this idea of community. (135)
As Critel demonstrates in her research, the notion of community is inextricably linked to participation, often problematically so. By invoking the abstract but supposedly positive goal of community, teachers call on students to perform according to a teacher’s pedagogy, indoctrinate students in academic discourse to the detriment of students’ own languages and backgrounds, and make the questionable assumption that participation in the classroom is a skill transferable to civic participation. These problematics become amplified when considering that students’ participation is often graded, which leads to the second of Critel’s commonplaces: assessment.
While community is often an abstract but presumably positive term, Critel’s second commonplace offers further insight into why such abstraction might be worth rethinking and concretizing in the service of both students and teachers. The second commonplace Critel uncovers through her research is assessment: the practice of assessing participation and the assumption that participation needs to be assessed. In her national survey of writing instructors, Critel found that 95% of survey respondents assigned participation as an assessed category on their syllabus (Critel, this collection). However, despite the popular practice of assessing participation, she noticed critical conversations about this practice in our discipline were rare.
Unpacking the history of this commonplace, Critel finds that conversations about the assessment of participation often occur within the context of grade inflation. Both the CCC archive and the syllabus archive at RIU reveal concerns about grade inflation, particularly during the mid-twentieth century. From the beginnings of both archives (1950 and 1959, respectively) through the 1970s, as Critel explains, “Grading participation is linked to grade inflation because students are no longer earning grades based on how well they write, but also on how much effort they make” (140). Critel traces this tension through the syllabus archive, noticing that in the 1970s, debates over grade inflation and assessment in general seemed to become heated; the issue of grades sometimes made headlines in the school’s newspaper (140). In 1973, the handbook distributed to teachers of composition at RIU stipulated that student participation could not be counted toward students’ grades. The handbook states:
Some instructors wish to base student grades on more than the papers. But grades that are not based chiefly on the papers are not appropriate in a writing course. The benefits of class attendance, classroom discussion, and the instructor’s advice and insights in class should show in the papers. A student who contributes well in class should also write papers better in content and expression than a student who has not tried to formulate his ideas for an audience. To give a student a good grade merely because he has attended or contributed or worked hard is unjust to the student, who needs to know how well he's writing. (qtd. in Critel 75)
As Critel notes, this language constituted a significant revision to the handbook from previous years and was perhaps made in response to concerns over grade inflation. In later years, this policy would be relaxed. For instance, in 1976, recommendations by an Ad Hoc Grading Committee again emphasize that grades should be based primarily on the quality of student writing; however, the consideration of participation could be used to make “adjustments in borderline situations only” (qtd. in Critel 141).
As Critel describes, this concern about grade inflation in relation to participation continued throughout the 1970s and continues today to some extent. However, despite concerns over grade inflation, the assessment of participation had become standard practice by the 1980s. Critel attributes this in part to the process movement:
. . . a key argument supporting the claim that grading participation is not grade inflation is tied to the process movement and the interest in giving students credit for the process of writing and not just the product. In other words, many process-based tasks can be considered under the umbrella of participation. (153)
The assessment of participation gives students credit for the “many process-based tasks” that go into the composition of a piece of writing, including discussion, peer review, drafting, and revision. At the same time this gives students credit for work being done, it also quietly teaches students to see value in these process-based tasks. It’s not just the final product that should be valued; it’s not just the final product that is graded.
Assessing participation also encourages students to participate. As Critel discovered, the reason most often given for the assessment of participation is that it induces students to participate when they would prefer not to. As Richard Raymond describes of one of his classes in a 1988 CCC article:
Though some students talked more freely than others, eventually nearly all loosened up enough to take part in the daily debate of issues, especially after I reminded them that class participation would determine 10% of their course grade. Normally, then, my role was that of discussion moderator, not lecturer, the latter a position I felt unqualified to take. (qtd. in Critel 142-43).
Such descriptions of the participation requirement Critel describes as the “contemporary notion of student participation,” which is consistent with the practices of many if not most composition teachers today (142). According to the contemporary notion of student participation, oral contributions to class discussion are the dominant medium of participation, the instructor’s role is as the “moderator,” and most important, the assessment of participation encourages students to speak up in class when, ordinarily, they wouldn’t (142-43). In some sense, the assessment of participation is a bit of a bribe, or to use a softer metaphor, a motivating carrot to dangle in front of students.
Although both the practice of assessing participation and the understanding of the value of this assessment (to encourage students to participate) are shared by many instructors, the methods for assessing participation vary widely. In her survey data, Critel noticed wide variance for instructors’ methods of assessing participation, including “points, rubrics, checks, and ‘holistic,’ ‘cumulative,’ ‘qualitative and quantitative,’ ‘formal and informal,’ and ‘subjective’ grading” (147). Many of Critel’s survey respondents admitted to the subjective nature of this assessment. One respondent describes how they grade participation as “a gut call”; another respondent describes their approach as “impressionistic” (152). Another jokes, “I just give As to the students I like. ;) Seriously, it's a subjective grade based on their attendance, dedication, and actions. It's meant more to inspire involvement than anything” (qtd. in Critel 152). Critel, responding to the last of these answers, writes, “I would venture to say that most students have felt that their grades in a particular class were based on whether or not the teacher liked them. Beyond the joke, though, this instructor highlights the messiness of articulating to students what the instructor values and why” (152).
The respondent’s joke also points to the idea that students are unsure of how and why they are given the grade they are given. In her 2010 article “‘I Hope It’s Just Attendance’: What Does Participation Mean to Freshmen Composition Students and Instructors?” Kerry Dirk reports on a survey of both students and teachers at her institution about their understandings of participation. Dirk's findings reveal a “wide discrepancy” in the value each group places on participation in the composition classroom as well as the perceived expectations for participation by teachers and students (88-89). Inspired by Dirk’s study and hoping to build upon her research with her nationwide survey of instructors, Critel is particularly concerned about the lack of transparency about participation requirements and expectations endemic among composition classes.
Such concerns are further complicated when considering that, as Critel discovers through her analysis of the commonplace of community, participation requirements are often done in service of a teacher’s pedagogy. In other words, students are being graded according to their enactment and facilitation of the teacher’s pedagogical goals. Thus, when the pedagogic goal is community (as it often is), “Grading students on the success of the class as a community or on their contributions to community amounts to grading on the basis of their performances of the instructors’ vision of what community means: likely based on normative but unstated values for most instructors at most institutions” (138). As Critel goes on to explain, these “normative but understated values” can be “comforting to students whose identity constructions and experiences align with those of the academy,” but for others, they can be “alienating” (138). For students whose backgrounds do not align with the culture of the academy, it can even be difficult to know how to perform participation in a desirable way.
Critel calls for more ethical practices in grading participation. Specifically, she argues that instructors should “clearly outline the specific activities that count as participation to students, either on the syllabus or on a separate assignment sheet” (190). Such a statement of requirements and expectations would be a necessary first step in creating a transparent and fair method of assessing participation. Second, Critel argues, instructors must provide to their students “detailed information about exactly how information about participation will be collected by the instructor and how that information will be used in the determination of a grade” (190). Finally, Critel asserts that “students deserve to receive interim [participation] grades during the term” (190). Interim participation grades, she explains, are similar to providing feedback on drafts. “[I]f the goal of a writing course is to learn, and feedback is integral to learning, then the instructor feedback is essential to the success of the course on all aspects of students’ grades,” including participation.
Both the commonplace of community and the commonplace of assessment lead Critel to consider the ways in which participation encourages and rewards normative classroom behaviors that are not always articulated to students. When examining the commonplace of assessment, Critel is naturally led to practical pedagogical advice for making expectations and grading priorities transparent to students. Her examination of assessment, however, also raises the question of what constitutes “normative behaviors” and which student populations such expectations privilege. These questions lead Critel to the next commonplace of embodiment.
In her examination of the commonplace of embodiment, Critel raises concerns about the ways in which normative classroom culture shapes participation expectations and grades in sometimes alienating ways (138). Noting that participation is most often defined as oral contributions to class, Critel “use[s] the notion of embodiment to get at the ways participation is enacted in physical spaces and is embodied” (160). When examined through the lens of embodiment, participation can be seen as “a performance by students’ embodied voices for credit” (160). As Critel points out, teachers rarely explicitly discuss participation in terms of embodiment, even though teachers most often view oral contributions to class as the principal or only manifestation of participation (162). The commonplace has become so deeply rooted that perhaps instructors do not even see it. However, like so many of the commonplaces of participation, deeper scrutiny raises many concerns. Most concerning is what Critel noticed is common about this commonplace of embodiment: “the ways in which embodied descriptions of participation exclude students” (162).
As Critel discusses in her analysis of assessment, expectations of participation often rest upon ”normative but unstated values,” which may be familiar to and accessible for some students, but for students whose identity constructions do not align with the academy (which is inherently white, masculine, ableist, middle class, and heteronormative), these expectations may be unknown, inaccessible, or alienating (138). Critel argues, “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). She goes on to write that although rhetoric and composition scholars are often keen to critique the ways in which composition instruction reinscribes cultural hierarchies, this same critical inquiry has not been directed toward participation:
. . . although there have been new developments in interrogating the cultural values reinscribed by an inherently conservatizing force—the academy—within the discipline, teachers have not fully interrogated how some of the everyday practices reinforce the systems scholars critique and seek to change with the scholarship. In other words, members of the rhetoric and composition scholarly community talk about formal student writing as well as other everyday classroom practices, and their intersections with issues of difference; however, the participation requirement has yet to be fully interrogated. The function of participation in the teaching of writing is taken for granted, daily, by students, teachers and administrators within institutions of higher education across the U.S. (10)
Viewed through the lens of embodiment, participation seems an important missing piece to rhetoric and composition’s conversations about difference. As “a performance of embodied voices for credit,” the participation requirement is often built upon certain assumptions about “who” those bodies are, what those bodies can and cannot do, and where those bodies come from.
An assumption common among the participation statements Critel studied is the assumption that good participation is that which is seen and heard. For example, the participation statement in a syllabus from 1995 reads:
Don't huddle in a corner—participate instead. I know, it's not fair to make shy people participate, but who said life is fair? Sorry, I don't mean to be unsympathetic, but college is supposed to prepare you for the "real world," and the "real world" requires that you participate. So write, listen, read, and talk—make your presence known in one way or another. But don't be obnoxious. In academic lingo, class participation means "contributing to the communal atmosphere of the class." (167)
The “unsympathetic” teacher here seems to be trying to enact some sort of “tough love,” which on some level may be admirable. Critel notes and gives credit to the honesty and transparency of this statement. “For the teacher writing this syllabus description,” she writes, “participation is fundamentally about making one’s presence known in approved ways, and in that sense the statement above might be seen as one of the more honest requirements in the [syllabus] archive” (167). However, the statement, like most participation statements, clearly devalues quiet contributions to the class; it assumes a student who does not speak up during a class discussion—a student who may identify themselves as “quiet” or “shy”—cannot make a meaningful contribution to that discussion. As Critel notes, much work in rhetoric and composition now recognizes the value of silence and listening as rhetoric (Brueggemann; Glenn; Glenn and Ratcliffe; Ratcliffe; Waite). Critel draws especially on Mary Reda’s book, Between Speaking and Silence: A Study of Quiet Students, in which Reda argues that participation requirements tend to devalue the work and learning processes of quiet students in order to critique the common privileging of oral over silent forms of class participation.
Along with attention to feminist rhetorical criticism about silence, quiet, and listening, Critel also merges disability studies perspectives into her interrogation of embodiment. The ableist bias inherent in the valuing of speaking over silence is hard to ignore when considering the mental disabilities that may be read as shyness or quietness, as well as the physical disabilities that may prevent a student from making their presence known in the ways approved by a teacher. Critel found many ableist descriptions of participation in her survey data: “‘being alert and showing effort’; ‘offering intelligent input’; ‘actively engaging with in-class activities’; ‘engagement in any and all aspects of the class’; ‘visible oral/written engagement with course material’; and ‘full participation in team activities’” (168). Building on disability studies scholarship such as Margaret Price’s Mad at School, Critel calls into question the notion of class participation as neutral, and she points to the difficult negotiations of identity and performance students must make when they engage in these discussions. For students with disabilities, these performances may be more difficult or impossible; they might have limited access to the “script” of the classroom.
Such concerns are exacerbated by the fact that, even when students have access to “the script,” they may not want to enact it. Students often resist desired forms of embodied participation. However, such resistance does not necessarily mean the students are “off-task” or disengaged. In his study of “the underlife” of the composition classroom, Robert Brooke argues that students often engage in “underlife” behaviors that enrich their learning in surprising and creative ways. Critel draws on Brooke’s work to emphasize the difficult negotiations of performance of self students make in their enactment—or not—of desired participatory actions. Recalling a specific experience with “underlife” in her classroom, Critel writes:
The type of situation Brooke discusses occurred in my own classroom on a day I was being observed winter quarter 2011. I had a group of three students who sat in the back row and often talked while I was talking or turned music on quietly (it was a sizable classroom). As luck would have it, my adviser chose a seat next to this group on the day of my classroom observation. What she observed was an engaged group of students, approaching our class work in creative and innovative ways. This was, of course, the opposite of what I observed. I was humbled when I discussed the class with her and again when I read her letter evaluating me. (118)
From this anecdote, Critel posits, “I think most students . . . are much more concerned about their performance to peers than they are about their performances to their instructors. And so, in asking students to share their work with peers, through class discussion, peer review, and other activities, and grading those activities, we put a high price on their strategic performances of self to their peers” (173). Critel’s reflection highlights the embodied nature of many common composition-classroom activities. Most teachers overlook the risky performances of self these embodied activities demand.
The inherent risk, of course, does not mean these activities should be abandoned, but Critel calls on teachers to be mindful. One of the ways she found teachers have already begun to think along these lines is in their use of technology to facilitate participation. As Critel reveals in her analysis of embodiment, students’ performances of self for peers and for their instructors involves a careful negotiation, and in her analysis of the commonplace of technology, she examines the assumption that computer technologies can mitigate the risks of these performances.
Critel was a digital media scholar, so it not surprising that her interest in embodiment overlaps with a discussion of technology as the fourth commonplace of participation. The increasing incorporation of technology into the classroom in the twenty-first century and the increasing use of technology outside the classroom have expanded our understandings of composition and literacy. In fact, one could argue that technology has facilitated a more participatory understanding of composition, which is an argument Sarah J. Arroyo makes in Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Electracy. Despite Critel’s embrace of technology in her own teaching and scholarly work, she critically explores this commonplace, especially the assertion that technology can “equalize participation” because participation is “disembodied” in online spaces (186). Critel complicates this assertion and questions other moments of “technology hope and criticism” in the field of composition (195).
In her research on participation in the classroom, Critel argues that the commonplace of technology “functions in cycles of technology hope and criticism” (195). Technology hope, as applied to participation, is the belief that “technology will mitigate the reluctance of some students to enact certain participatory acts in the classroom” (183); critics of technology argue the opposite, that technology hinders student participation. As Critel discovered in her research, this commonplace is much older than most assume—the hopes for and criticism of technology in the classroom predate the introduction of computers by several decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, television was often, but not always, criticized for being a medium that discouraged participation. On the other hand, “opaque projectors, tape recorders, overhead projectors, movies, and multiple integrated response devices (MIRD)” received much attention in the CCC archive as potential media for improving participation, although technology was not viewed as “an end in itself and the only way of improving participation” (Critel 176). Critel cites a 1957 report on a CCCC session on participation, in which technology is invoked as a useful aid:
The opaque projector and tape recordings are two mechanical techniques felt to offer valuable assistance in conducting class discussions. Projection of a good, a fair, and a poor composition on a screen seen simultaneously by all students affords opportunity for more specific commentary on the part of the class otherwise limited to only hearing the themes. Playbacks of student panel sessions or of something such as a tape-recording of local speech, cultivated and uncultivated, were also cited as valuable means of stimulating discussion aimed at clarification and revision of composition. Diction and logic become strikingly obvious via such techniques. (qtd. in Critel 176)
As Critel notes of the description above, technology helps change the space of the classroom and the activities available, but it does not change the mode of student participation (176-77). The students are still expected to participate primarily through oral discussion. The embodied experience of participation remains.
However, students are given opportunities to participate in different ways when the mode of participation shifts from oral to digitally mediated participation. This remediation of participation has offered instructors hope for shifting the balance of power in the classroom and encouraging underrepresented students to participate. “By and large,” writes Critel, “[computers and composition scholarship] has heralded computer technology for its potential to equalize participation among different groups” (183-84). Scholars in computers and composition who examine the marginalized voices in the class “hope online spaces such as email, chat rooms, and discussion boards will provide an equalizing space in the composition classroom” (184). Students who would be reluctant to participate in a traditional oral discussion may be more willing to participate in an online space. As Anne Bomberger writes,
[The] types of students who are firmly comfortable with the written word will often enter into electronic discussion boards even though they are hesitant to do so in class discussions. Even for those students who are not more comfortable in the realm of the written word, the tendency of the medium to disinhibit behaviors brings students into the classroom dialogue who would otherwise remain silent. (qtd. in Critel 184)
Pointing to Bomberger along with a number of other scholars (Faigley; Gerrard; Palmquest et al.), Critel demonstrates the prevalence of technology hope tied to the commonplace of technology.
In part, Critel seems to share this hope, writing, “The observations that technology can increase participation are exciting and I think any of us can attest that technology, in the right lesson plan, can enrich traditional classroom participation” (185). However, Critel also tempers her own technology hope with some pragmatic cautions.
First, she debunks the assumption that technology “equalize[s] participation, precisely because online participation is disembodied” (186). This, Critel argues, is inaccurate: “…after all, we still have bodies, even when we’re composing and communicating via technology” (186). Technology may change participation, but it cannot make participation a disembodied experience. For Critel, participation is always embodied—whether that embodied experience is mediated via face-to-face interactions in the classroom or online communication. Moreover, although Critel is optimistic about the possibilities technology may bring to students’ interactions with and participation in the composition class, she believes the simple addition of technology to the environment does not automatically improve participation.
Critel’s second caution is pedagogical: “Pedagogy should shift with technology, not because technology necessarily improves participation but because it inevitably changes the ways students can access participation and the work of the course “ (195). As Critel discovered through her nationwide survey, most instructors recognize that participation changes in computer-mediated courses, but they do not often adjust their expectations accordingly. A majority (72%) of respondents said they “don’t modify participation expectations for computer-mediated courses” (186). Critel’s research underlines the problem of this oversight. Technology affects the classroom in ways that are “positive, neutral, and negative,” and teachers must adjust participation requirements in response to these changes.
Rather than simply assume the addition of technology improves participation, she invites instructors to think critically about the ways technology changes the classroom.
With all the commonplaces—community, assessment, embodiment, and technology—Critel’s analyses prompt important questions about participation in the composition classroom. What are the assumptions underlying the invocation (and exaltation) of community? How might instructors make the assessment of participation fairer and more transparent? What kinds of bodies does participation normalize and privilege? In what ways does technology change, for better or worse, students’ participation? Critel’s commonplaces are important starting points for thinking critically about pedagogical practices and productive topoi for further theorization. By uncovering these commonplaces, Critel exposes the profound need for further attention to and scrutiny of participation in the composition classroom.
Chapter Descriptions: Building on the Commonplaces
Demonstrating a diversity of approaches and directions, the chapters in The Rhetoric of Participation extend and complicate Critel’s commonplaces in exciting and compelling ways. We have organized these chapters based on Critel’s commonplaces of community, assessment, embodiment, and technology; however, most chapters draw on multiple commonplaces as well as contribute their own. Together, these chapters offer readers a rich and varied examination of the rhetoric of participation, in all its complexity.
The first three chapters take up the commonplace of community, extending Critel’s research to examine student perspectives of community and to look at notions of participation and community in writing program administration and writing centers. In "A Curation of Student Voices on Participation in the Writing Classroom," Lauren Obermark answers questions that conclude Critel's "Mapping Student Participation" chapter: "What if we asked students to tell us how they will participate? What if we asked them what they need from us?" As a response, Obermark conducted four, in-depth, conversational interviews with students from first-year and advanced writing courses, interviews that began with the very questions Critel suggests.
This chapter demonstrates how student voices both confirm and complicate Critel’s discoveries. Obermark directly addresses each of Critel’s four original commonplaces in this chapter—assessment, technology, community, and embodiment. The students interviewed were drawn to the very same commonplaces of participation Critel discovered in her dissertation research, though often using different terminology, and they extend the commonplaces in their own surprising directions, sometimes conflicting with what instructors take for granted. For instance, when discussing the assessment of participation, each of the students emphasized that the grade mattered little to them and did not influence their desire to participate. These perspectives and others are presented as part of a curation of video and audio interviews, organized to highlight themes that emerge from the data.
While Obermark considers the role of student voices at an individual level, "Roles and Relationships: Possibilities for Student Participation in Writing Program Administration " extends Critel's concerns about student participation into the realm of writing program administration. Through a review of twenty years of scholarship in the journal WPA: Writing Program Administration, Kathryn Comer works to answer the question “How do/can writing programs invite students to participate in program development?” Her study reveals a number of ways WPAs solicit student participation in the work of program administration. Comer makes sense of the myriad actions WPAs invite of students (from providing feedback on course evaluations to “presenting work at campus/community events”) by presenting a schema of roles and relationships.
Extending Critel’s commonplace of community, Comer’s schema of six primary student roles (critic, reviewer, representative, consultant, ambassador, and associate) and three primary student-program relationships (involvement, membership, and partnership) provides administrators and teachers an understanding of students vis a vis the larger community of a writing program. Comer takes a critical look at the potential for further student participation in the writing program community, noting both the inherent rewards and the risks of any invitation of student participation in writing program administration.
The final chapter in this section, "Participatory Hospitality and Writing Centers," takes up the writing center as a site of participation. Michele Eodice extends Critel’s commonplace of community, examining ways writers and writing "take their places" in nonclassroom settings. Eodice builds on theories of academic hospitality (Phipps and Barnett) to examine a kind of participatory hospitality that contributes to student development (self-authorship, for example). Her research centers on writing centers, writing groups, and other informal scenes of writing, such as coffee shops and online collaboration. Phipps and Barnett call academic hospitality "both a metaphor and a performative principle for action and a way of conceptualizing academic life" (252). Eodice builds on John Bennett's notion of "insistent individualism" as the primary barrier to making the necessary connections that not only nurture relationships within academic communities but optimize learning environments. Considering Bennett's arguments and Kenneth Bruffee's idea of interdependence as a core value of teaching and student development, Eodice argues for new ways to think about the role of community in and beyond the classroom and to invite student participation.
In the second section, contributors examine the commonplace of assessment, particularly the difficulty of assessment. This section opens with a chapter adapted from Critel’s dissertation. "Mapping Student Participation in the College-Level Writing Classroom" draws from a national survey Critel conducted that focused on how writing instructors across the United States define and assess student participation in their syllabi and their classes.
Critel first points out the prevalence of assessing participation; 95% of surveyed instructors did so. Then, aligning with Kerry Dirk’s local case study, she questions nebulous grading practices, noticing that instructors often cite difficult-to-assess concepts, like “paying attention” or “class discussion,” as the key components of participation. Further, she emphasizes that the assessment practices for participation are rarely communicated thoroughly through syllabi statements, and she draws in the commonplace of embodiment to discuss how this lack of communication marginalizes students who might be less familiar with the norms of academic behavior and discourse. As Critel explains, “Not all students have similar or equal positions in the classroom, which can include students from different socioeconomic statuses, races, nationalities, linguistic backgrounds, classes, sexual orientations, gender identifications, and so forth. When instructors fail to communicate explicitly their expectations for student participation, they may unwittingly further disadvantage the students who are already at a disadvantage.”
Critel recommends that instructors include students in defining participation, what it means, and why it matters. In her words, oft cited by contributors to this collection, “What if we asked students to tell us how they will participate? What if we asked them what they need from us?”
In "Goldiloxxing Intellectual Participation: Getting It ‘Just Right,’" Kelly Bradbury and Paul Muhlhauser use a method similar to Critel’s to identify a new commonplace: intellectualism. Based on a survey of college-level writing faculty, Bradbury and Muhlhauser analyze instructors' feedback about what intellectual participation looks, sounds, and feels like in their classrooms; how they assess student intellectual participation; and how they use intellectual participation to assess their own teaching practices. Their findings raise important questions, particularly regarding how instructors assist students in understanding and taking part in the rhetoric of intellectual participation and how they do or can cultivate genuine intellectual participation among students. Responding to popular conversations that call into question the rigor of college academic work and the critical depth of thought practiced by students of the digital age, Bradbury and Muhlhauser note that “intellectual participation” is rarely explicitly defined, but rather characterized by the “Goldilocks effect”—that is, instructors, working from vague notions of what such participation looks like, sounds, like, and feels like, seek to encourage “just right” performances of intellectual participation by students.
Expanding understandings of the assessment of participation, Ryan Omizo turns to computational rhetorics in "Participation and the Problem of Measurement." Omizo reveals new ways of identifying how and where participation occurs and can be measured in the classroom. Using methodologies of big-data analysis to highlight inconsistencies with which student participation is assessed, Omizo points to Critel’s argument that faculty often assess participation ambiguously and intuitively rather than with evidence-based metrics, which can result in participation as a proxy for attendance or as stick-to-discipline behavior. He interrogates such commonplace understandings of participation by offering five provocations: (1) participation can be tracked as an indicator of how people are using discourse within a community; (2) participation can, and perhaps should, be approached as a global measure and not confined to an individual's performance; (3) participation can be viewed at the level of rhetorical moves; (4) these rhetorical moves can be measured with both qualitative and quantitative metrics; and (5) participation (and other rhetorical properties) can be analyzed computationally.
In this section, chapters examine the participation experiences of marginalized students and offers pedagogies sensitive to issues of difference. " Queering Student Participation: Whispers, Echoes, Rants, and Memory" by Matthew Cox focuses on LGBT/queer students who, as Critel astutely points out from her own experiences, often find their experiences difficult or dangerous to bring into the writing classroom. Cox includes several case studies investigating the effects of students “coming out” in writing assignments and the relationship of this act with the commonplaces of embodiment and community in classroom settings. He asks, what does LGBT/queer participation look like in writing classrooms? Using queer theory and the practice of “queering” (in the theoretical and practiced sense of disrupting and troubling), he analyzes LGBT/queer graduate and undergraduate student projects in a variety of writing courses. These stories are woven in with Cox’s own experiences as a gay writing instructor. Drawing on current ideas in queer theory about success and failure, he also asks what is at risk for students when they do or do not "come out" in classroom spaces and in their writing.
Similar to Cox’s attention to queer students, Tony Cimasko and Dong-shin Shin focus on a specialized, growing, and often marginalized population to emphasize the uniquely embodied experience of multilingual and international students in the classroom. "International Student Participation in a Mainstream Composition Course: Opportunities and Challenges" focuses on multilingual writers and the ways participation expectations can inadvertently exclude students outside of a narrow norm. Specifically, Cimasko and Shin examine what participation looks like for a cohort of multilingual students within a “mainstream” United States writing course. The authors point out that when international students enter classrooms in the United States, it is often assumed that these students are similar to their natively English-speaking/writing peers in their cultural and English-language knowledge. Such views keep writing classrooms from adapting, leaving many English-language learners constrained in their ability to participate. Cimasko and Shin use text analysis, text-based interviews, and observations, with a particular focus on the instructor and one international student. They make a three-part argument: rhetoric of classroom participation is dominated by an expectation that students can contribute new ideas and perspectives but only within the framework of United States norms, instructors are key to enabling this participation even in very decentralized classrooms, and active encouragement and effort are necessary for understanding and fostering fuller participation. Through their focus on international and multilingual students, Cimasko and Shin not only highlight the embodied nature of participation but also further complicate how the commonplaces of embodiment and assessment are linked in students’ classroom experiences.
In "Involving and Evolving: Student Feedback and Flexibility in Classroom Participation,” Elizabeth Brewer joins this thread by offering interdisciplinary perspectives and valuable resources instructors can adapt for use in their own teaching. Brewer takes as her starting point a concept Critel articulates in the conclusion of her dissertation: a universally designed participation requirement. According to Critel, a more transparent and fair implementation of participation would be informed by a disability studies perspective on accessibility and by student involvement in the development of participation requirements and expectations. Brewer, drawing from scholarly conversations in both disability studies and educational development published after Critel’s dissertation, extends and complicates the notion of a universally designed participation requirement. Brewer problematizes the concept of universal design in education, acknowledging its laudable goal of accessibility while “get[ting] real” about its practical implementation. She ultimately resituates Critel’s so-called universally designed participation requirement within three cross-disciplinary topoi that position students as experts on their own learning: "nothing about us without us" (from the disability rights movement), “students as evaluators,” and “kairotic spaces.” Brewer’s exploration of these three topoi lends readers both theoretical pedagogical perspectives as well as important practical suggestions for implementation in the classroom.
In the final section, authors contribute to and extend the commonplace of technology by considering digital sites of student participation and by offering new pedagogies of participation facilitated by digital technology. This section begins with a chapter that connects to Brewer's and furthers discussions of accessible, responsible, and transparent participation pedagogy. In "Participation as Reflective Practice: Digital Composing and Feminist Pedagogy," Jason Palmeri and Abby Dubisar challenge the traditional conception of classroom participation as oral contributions to discussion evaluated solely by the teacher, articulating a vision of participation as a complex, reflective practice mediated by digital technologies and informed by feminist pedagogies. They offer a participatory pedagogy, grounded in feminist theory, that includes multiple options for student interaction and learning with their peers and instructors, demonstrating how teachers can employ digital composing activities to work with students to collaboratively develop more engaging, equitable, and flexible models for defining, enacting, and assessing classroom participation
Continuing the discussion of the use of digital technologies to participate in the composition classroom, Michael Harker, Mary Hocks, and Matthew Sansbury analyze the rhetoric of participation of three major MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) providers (EdX, Coursera, and UDacity). In "The Success of This Course Depends upon Your Participation: Technology, Topoi, and Infrastructure in the Era of MOOCs," the authors focus on syllabi from MOOCs and user-agreement statements of each provider, as well as on recent reports on the effectiveness of MOOCs. They assert that the rhetoric of participation in these environments reveals contradictory, inconsistent, and, at times, problematic attitudes about the fundamental nature and value of participation in online learning environments. Inspired by Critel's project to complicate commonsensical understandings of participation, they question specifically the tendency to generalize broadly about participation, its effects, and the students who make participation in MOOCs possible. Applying all four of Critel’s commonplaces to this new arena of education, Harker, Hocks, and Sansbury point to the enduring questions Critel raises through her analyses, while also demonstrating the continued need to engage critically with new technologies and modes of participation.
Lynn C. Lewis’s chapter "'Don't Tase me Bro': Emergent Participatory Economies across Web Spaces” reaches the furthest beyond the academy and argues that scholars must look to the Web to fully theorize participation and citizenship. Early on in her chapter, Lewis explains, “Critel’s participation topoi of technology, embodiment, and community are not static nor are they particular to a single context.” From there, she expands Critel’s commonplaces by analyzing recent and well-known instances of protest that became viral Internet memes. Lewis is inspired by Critel’s work on participation rhetorics in the classroom as offering insight to enrich an analysis of participation rhetorics on the Web, with a particular interest in memes as cultural objects that depend upon participation to function.
Lewis’s analysis of Internet memes merges the commonplaces of embodiment and technology. Lewis argues for “meme embodiment,” explaining that though viral memes can seem ephemeral and anonymous because of their velocity and temporality, a focus on their embodiment directs attention to memes not only featuring bodies as rhetorical content but also to the ways in which they are created, circulated, and revised by a community of composers and audience members. Thus Lewis concludes her chapter suggesting myriad ways the complex participation rhetorics of Web spaces demand the field constantly revisit and revise the commonplace of community. This commonplace is constantly complicated by the formation, collaborative composing, and value systems of virtual communities as they circulate content, memes and otherwise.
Finally, the afterword, “With and Because of Genevieve,” by Donna Qualley, is a fitting bookend to the collection. Qualley would have been Critel’s faculty mentor at Western Washington University, and although she did not have the opportunity to work with Critel, Qualley discusses the ways in which Critel’s questions about participation have influenced her own approaches to training the instructors in her writing program and tangible ways instructors can involve students in discussions and policies on participation.
Perhaps the central lesson from Critel’s research is that participation, as a performed act, an assessed category, and an ongoing expectation in academic and public spheres, is complicated, undertheorized, and often messy. In the spirit of what Critel advocates in her dissertation, The Rhetoric of Participation: Interrogating Commonplaces In and Beyond the Classroom embraces the inherent complexity of participation as its guiding framework. This book delves into student participation in the writing classroom, but it also goes far beyond those scenes, making necessary connections to spaces beyond it.
As this introduction elucidates, the contributions to this collection do not always map onto Critel’s four commonplaces in direct ways. It is this indirect mapping or building of new, unexpected paths between and beyond Critel’s commonplaces that gives this collection its diverse breadth, making it an especially relevant contribution to the field. In other words, this book became much more than the editors could have imagined precisely because the commonplaces are challenged, broadened, and applied anew. We began with the commonplaces as starting points, and authors then built on and extended them in fascinating directions, taking their own research questions into consideration in the process. Like all good topoi, the commonplaces have become sites in which to dwell, generate, and invent. Readers of this collection are encouraged to do the same.
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