A Curation of Student Voices on Participation in the Writing Classroom

A Curation of Student Voices on Participation in the Writing Classroom

Lauren Obermark

Critel’s Commonplace: Community

Community was another commonplace across all of Critel’s sites of analysis. She notes a few reasons community comes up so frequently among teachers of writing:

Participation should be required because it creates and sustains community and community is a value for the composition classroom for three major reasons: (1) Community is beneficial in the classroom because it helps accomplish the work of the classroom; (2) Community in the classroom prepares students to participate in scholarly community; (3) Community in the classroom prepares students to participate in democratic community.” (194)

As a teacher who includes a syllabus statement about the “importance of classroom community,” I strongly identify with this particular commonplace. But Critel points out—and she certainly made me rethink my own goals—that overemphasis on community can sometimes dangerously elide difference or hold colonialist goals when used only in the service of academic discourse.

Community came up in all my interviews, but it came up through a variety of related codes, and it matters to these students (or, in one case, does not matter) for many different reasons.

Fig. 10. Video of interviewees discussing community.

Community Video Transcript

  • Kris - KS
  • Lauren Obermark - LO
  • Marche - MS
  • Christian - CF
  • Anastasia - AS

MS on Not Really Needing a Classroom Community to Participate

LO: The idea of like a classroom community and like knowing the students in the class and feeling comfortable in the class, does that affect how you would participate in a writing class, if you kind of feel like it’s a, you know, a little more close community or you’re just comfortable around the people does that affect your participation or do you feel pretty comfortable participating in any environment?

MS: I feel, I would feel comfortable participating in any environment [LO and MS laughing]. I feel comfortable, like, engaging in any type of environment, whether if I know the people or not.

Christian on Missing the “Group” When Taking a Writing Class Online

CF: What I really think is missing what, from the, from the online class to an in-class class is, you don’t have, like, that group, you know, you know you, with the peer review you have like a couple people that look at it but [inaudible agreement] but this one, like, people are just shouting out things, you know, that I didn’t notice [inaudible agreement] or ideas, you know, or someone from across the room was like “you should say” or “you should look at.”

LO: Yeah.

Anastasia on Feeling “Comfortable” in the Classroom Community

LO: If you want to, sort of, be an active member of a classroom community, do you find that motivational at all in terms of participation then, or?

AS: Well, that was like a weird thing about your class, I’d never felt, like, really comfortable, like, talking in a big group [inaudible agreement] and I did, in the class that you had. I guess it’s cause, I don’t know, I just felt comfortable with the people around me and it wasn’t, you know, very intimidating, everybody was understanding if you had a hard time getting your thoughts out or something [inaudible agreement].

LO: In that sense, like, I was thinking about participation as informing community but you’re also, you’re thinking, too, about [thinking] that you felt like it was a community and then that made you participate more.

AS: Yeah. Cause, like, my other class it was kind of a much colder atmosphere to it.

Kris on a Need for “Connection” among Students to Enable Participation

KS: Some of that connection has to just be organic and develop out of a personal connection between people [inaudible agreement].

LO: Right.

KS: So, I’m not sure it can be forced. So, I’m almost wondering, and I’m kind of just thinking out loud.

LO: Yeah.

KS: If, um, what really needs to be enabled is a more personal connection initially between the students

LO: Okay.

KS: To lead to, you know, maybe better participation later on, but you can’t force that.

LO: Yeah, you just [inaudible, trails off]…

KS: You can enable it maybe and set up the groundwork and the soil for it but I don’t think you can make it happen.


What stands out in the video above is how community as a concept is defined and pushed back on by students. While Critel’s research shows teachers and scholars understanding community in a few precise ways (classroom community, academic community, and democratic community), students understand community differently and articulate other values. For instance, throughout my interview footage and notes, I notice that many other c words circulate around the students’ discussions of community. Anastasia emphasizes that a strong classroom community in her FYC class made her feel “comfortable” enough to participate even in the full-class discussions. Kris similarly suggests that community must precede participation for many students; they need an initial “connection,” preferably an organic one, and this can lead to great “conversation,” which she sees as the ideal form of participation. While Christian never explicitly refers to community, the example he gives of a whole-class critique of one of his papers in a past composition course is an example of a classroom community at work, and he valued that experience and laments the loss in an online class.

First, I guess I need to explain my understanding of "participate." The word implies to me a congruence of action and/or thought of more than one person. They are doing and thinking something together. It's not actions or thoughts in isolation, but a group engaging in the same activity. A shared experience. And it's not passive, but involves some form of action, even if it's just working out thoughts and ideas together.

- Kris, Interview Prewriting

For these students, creating a community is not the end goal, as I often frame it on my syllabus and in discussions. Instead, community must be a starting place; the very feeling of community, a feeling that can be encouraged (but not forced) by teachers, makes participatory learning, via classroom discussion and activities, possible. As you can hear me discover in my interview with Anastasia, while I always conceived of community as informing participation (we need to be a community so we all feel safe participating), she and Kris emphasize that community must precede participation. In other words, once a community forms, participation in various forms occurs more readily.

The caveat, of course, as articulated by Kris and also embedded in Christian's example of a whole-class critique of his essay, is that community cannot necessarily be created or orchestrated. These students suggest it must largely be in their hands, not the hands of their instructor. To adopt Kris's apt metaphor, while the "soil" of community can be prepared, it needs to "grow organically."

I enjoy interacting with others, and participation seems to be key in that regard.

— Christian, Interview Prewriting

I include Marche’s commentary because it is striking in its difference, demonstrating the multifaceted nature of the definition and understanding of community. When I asked her if community mattered, she laughed it off, stating she felt “comfortable” participating and engaging in any environment; she did not need to know the other people at all. While my interviews with Kris, Christian, and Anastasia made me rethink how community and participation are linked, Marche's interview pushed me further. I began to consider that I might work with an outdated (or at least biased) assumption that community is somehow an inherently valuable concept to all students. What does community, in the classroom and outside of it, really offer some of my students? Some, like Marche, reject it all together. Others might view it cynically or express concern that their voices will never be valued as part of a larger community, be it in an academic or public sphere. Marche's comments in the next section on "Identity," in which she explains a time when she felt less than comfortable participating because of her race and gender, shows that intersections between idealistic notions of community and identity cannot be overlooked.

After all, can the community within the walls of my composition classroom make any promises for the world beyond those walls? Perhaps I am concerned with creating a supportive, ethical community, but certainly there is no guarantee of such community in the professional, public, or civic spheres. Critel's research and my conversations with students encourage me to develop a more critical view of community, questioning it even while valuing it.

In both my research and teaching, I still remain hopeful that writing teachers can work to change and improve communities. As a step toward accomplishing this, I explicitly frame every class I teach (and much of my research) in terms of rhetorical education and frequently discuss with students how writing and language are connected to civic engagement, citizenship, community, and civic participation. As I pursue this research on student participation in the writing classroom, I am increasingly interested in how participation in writing classrooms may—or may not—shape the participation that occurs in the public sphere.

There is a committed interest in rhetorical education across the field, articulated clearly in the recent “Manifesto on Rhetorical Education” published in Rhetoric Society Quarterly. The “Manifesto” is chiefly interested in bridging the one hundred year-old divide between rhetoricians in communication and English departments. The authors of the “Manifesto” state, “Rhetoricians should cross departmental and disciplinary lines and collaborate to design and implement an integrated curriculum in rhetorical education to replace separate introductory courses in communication (public speaking or presentation) and first-year written composition in order to develop citizen participants, not simply future employees or more literate students” (3; my emphasis). I am drawn to the idea of first understanding writing courses as spaces to encourage participatory citizenship, and while the “Manifesto” largely focuses on more formal assignments, like essays and presentations, I suggest that participation—in written and oral forms—serves as another promising venue to consider how the field can make rhetorical education more central in all the courses we teach, and the commonplace of community is an ideal place to start this centralization.

At the same time, an emphasis on community and citizenship as connected to classroom participation can allow teachers and students to become more critical of these concepts. If the authors of the "Manifesto" are optimistic, Amy Wan's article "In the Name of Citizenship: The Writing Classroom and the Promise of Citizenship" offers the other side of the coin. Wan reminds writing teachers to "pause and reconsider what is behind the rote invocation of citizenship" (46). Wan questions the emphasis on citizenship as a primary goal of composition courses, especially as it is espoused by professional organizations like NCTE. Wan states, "We should acknowledge the limitations of what citizenship can do for students, as well as the limitations put on students by the idea of citizenship. And we should create a space where our own citizen-making through the teaching of literacy is a more deliberate activity, one that enlivens the concept of citizenship by connecting classroom practices to other instances of citizenship production" (46). Wan's warning resonates with the interview data I collected from students who similarly complicate my thinking about how we participate, who is allowed to participate, and why we opt to participate (or not). Participation as it is connected to community and ultimately citizenship is meaningful and worthy of attention, but teachers and students must constantly trouble these notions as presumed ideals.

[Go to "Identity"]