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: Identity

In her dissertation, Critel explains embodiment as a commonplace of participation: “Participation is understood in terms of bodies. Intellectual work is discussed in terms of physical metaphors. Student and teacher bodies are usually described in normative terms using ableist constructions” (195). Teachers tend to expect participation to be performed in a particular way, and this expected performance of participation relies heavily on assumptions about how bodies (and minds) work. This commonplace manifests further in survey data collected by Kelly Bradbury and Paul Muhlhauser (this collection); participation “looks, sounds, and feels” a certain way to most teachers. As evidenced by the proliferation of athletic, physical metaphors articulated by the teachers responding to Bradbury and Muhlhauser’s survey, expectations for participation are often physical, bodily, and lively.

While the students I interviewed did not explicitly discuss embodiment, I suggest that their discussions of how their multifaceted identities affect participation aligns with the commonplace of embodiment and challenges problematic ideologies informing participation.

Fig. 11. Video of Marche discussing identity.

Identity Video 1 (Marche) Transcript

  • Lauren Obermark - LO
  • Marche - MS

MS on Race, Gender, and Participation

MS: Not so much here, but when I was at, um, Mizzou it was primarily white [inaudible agreement] so like, you know, there was a air, like, you know, there was a lot of, um, racial slurs, a lot of things going on down at Mizzou when I was there.

LO: Okay.

MS: So like, you know, that kind of did play a part a little bit, because I had to find a way to stand out in a class that was primarily white, it’s about, like, five hundred to, three to five hundred of us in a classroom [inaudible agreement], and I’m African American, I’m a girl, how can I stand out in this class, and sometimes I would feel a little less of myself [inaudible agreement] in those settings, so [trails off]…

LO: Okay, did it motivate you, you said you kind of looked for a way to stand out, so did you feel, like, more motivated to participate, or did you feel a little bit like you needed to hold back, you felt more like you should hold back because you’re kind of…being out in the class?

MS: Um, [thinking] I think at that stage I really wasn’t trying, I wanted to stand out [inaudible agreement] I would try to find ways to stand out but, like, I think I probably just pulled back and, just like, became a fly on the wall [inaudible agreement].  And I don’t mean to say this, but I just hung out with, like, other African Americans who were in my class and we, kind of like, just stuck together.

LO: Yeah.

MS: Cause like, you know, we had, I remember having a chemistry class, and like, it was just the way that our TA would talk to us and they’re just, like he would talk to us like we didn’t know what we were doing, but with the other kids he was just [thinking] it was like, okay, whatever, so, kind of like, pull back a little bit. I didn’t participate as much.

Fig. 12. Video of Kris and Christian discussing identity.

Identity Video 2 (Kris and Christian) Transcript

  • Kris - KS
  • Lauren Obermark - LO
  • Christian - CF

Kris on Her Identity as a Returning Student and High Expectations for Participation

KS: My personality was probably the biggest factor I bring in [inaudible agreeing from LO] just my desire to, I want to interact.

LO: Right.

KS: I enjoy interacting with people, so I brought that to it, um, and maybe [thinking] maybe a little because I had been out of the loop for so long maybe I brought a bigger eagerness.

LO: Okay.

KS: To engage. I had this idea in my mind that, oh, I’m not going to be engaging with these old, fifty-year old mothers anymore, I’m gonna be engaging with twenty-year olds, so this is going to be exciting, they’re going to have so many ideas [laughing from LO], they’re gonna be young, and they’re gonna have all, you know, it’s gonna be fresh ideas.

LO: Right.

KS: And, um, so maybe I brought that unrealistic expectation to it.

Christian on Nontraditional Students and “More Effort” Toward Online Participation

CF: I think that kids nowadays are, you know, not to be bold but I’m old [laughing from LO] and or, or exactly like I wrote in my, uh, when I was talking about technology or [inaudible agreement from LO] that, that’s the normal for them, that’s totally acceptable [inaudible agreement from LO], that’s totally acceptable to pick up the computer [inaudible agreement] log in, put a cute name in there and be this, almost, that’s their virtual them, you know, that’s good. People that didn’t grow up with that I don’t think are as comfortable so it’s kind of funny that older [thinking] people that are older, or nontraditional students are [inaudible agreement] putting more of an effort into it, maybe, and then people that are super comfortable with the technology, for them they’re like [trailing off]…

LO: Just kind of get in and get out.

CF: Yeah, they see it as like a way to [trailing off]…

LO: Right.

CF: Sort of slide through because they’re comfortable, they can say their piece.


I usually stay pretty quiet and listen to others talk in class discussions. In all honesty, classmates often bring up topics that I had been pondering. Even if I know it's for a grade, I don't vocalize my opinions too terribly much. Even if my teacher asks, ‘So, Anastasia, what are your thoughts on blah,' I'll just shrug and claim that I don't have an opinion, which I obviously do. The reason being is that I don't really feel too terribly comfortable with talking in front of people, especially in an intellectual setting. I haven't had many good experiences in those settings, plus I'm a pretty shy person by nature.

— Anastasia, Interview Prewriting

Identity comes up throughout the videos in this chapter—the students identify as shy or “talkers,” for instance, and that heavily shapes how they participate. But this section highlights how other identity factors, and embodied ones at that, particularly age, race, and gender, are always part and parcel of participation practices. Marche’s commentary about being an African-American woman on a primarily white campus and how this left her in the difficult, contradictory position of needing to “stand out” while simultaneously being a “fly on the wall” strikes me as poignant and important to keep in mind. Student identity can, at times, make participation incredibly difficult and even dangerous. The participation playing field is never level, which is a factor that might seem obvious, but per this interview data (and Margaret Price’s Mad at School, oft cited in this collection, certainly suggests this, as well), the inequity inherent in participation remains frequently overlooked in classroom practices.

I love to bounce around thoughts and ideas with other people. The more diversity of thought and culture, the more I want to engage. Yet, I have found, in the past and in the advanced writing class, that most people are not very interested in engagement and meaningful conversation.

— Kris, Interview Prewriting

The field of rhetoric and composition has long been invested in investigating issues of identity in an effort to understand how to meet the needs of students. What I suggest here is simple, then: participation should be no exception to such continued, rigorous research about identity. Because participation is understood as “informal” or too “in the moment” to study, it can be easy to dismiss. But my interviews point to participation as a site where investigations into identity might be the most necessary of all.

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