A Curation of Student Voices on Participation in the Writing Classroom

A Curation of Student Voices on Participation in the Writing Classroom

Lauren Obermark


Context of the Study

As explained in the previous section, while I largely emphasize the generalizable trends and questions raised by my study, touching on grades, technology, community, and identity, I do want to highlight the important local surroundings that influenced whom I interviewed and how these students experienced participation.

I conducted this study at my own institution with students from composition classes I taught the previous semester (fall 2013). One of my courses was a first-year writing class (taught face-to-face/F2F), and the other was an advanced writing class (taught asynchronously online). The university itself is a midsize, urban, research-oriented, land grant institution located in the Midwest. The student population is diverse, particularly in terms of age, race, ethnicity, and academic experience. The diversity of students is a point of pride for the university. Inclusion, access, and retention of students are at the forefront of campus discussions. Most of the students enrolled as undergraduates have transferred to this four-year university from community colleges; many of the students enrolled are first-generation college students; and a fair number of students are returning to school after several years away. Some key demographics for fall 2013 include:

  • 77% of undergraduates are transfer students, largely from area community colleges.
  • The average age of undergraduates is 26.
  • 76% of students identify as Caucasian; 16% identify as African American; and 8% identify as Other.
  • 40% of students are first-generation college students.
  • 57% of undergraduates are women; 43% are men.

("UMSL Profile"; "Campus Mission, Vision, and Values")

Recruiting Interviewees

I began my project over winter break. I waited until the end of fall semester because it was important to me that classes were finished and grades fully submitted before I asked students to get involved. I realize my position as their teacher and interviewer still affected their responses, but it felt unethical to seek out their voices while I still acted formally as their professor.[3]

This research took place after I completed my first semester at my institution. Since I was new, I only had two classes of students from which to solicit participants. Rather than mass e-mail all my students, a strategy I feared was too impersonal, I opted to e-mail five students from each of my classes who (1) represented, as much as a small sample can, the demographics at my university and (2) stood out in my mind as potentially having different experiences with what it means to participate. In other words, I did not want just the “big talkers” but also students who were quieter or even resistant to oral forms of participation.

Conversational Interviews

When the students agreed to be interviewed, I first e-mailed them a brief prewriting prompt that could be included as part of the data set. [4][5] The goal here was to establish a starting place for the interviews and allow students to feel more comfortable when they came in to talk with me (fig. 1). Three of the four interviewees completed the prewriting.

Dear XXXX,

Because I am trying to collect a variety of data, if you have the time to do a little pre-writing (totally casual, no need to be highly edited or anything!) before the interview, that would be extremely helpful. (If you don’t have time to do this, then that’s absolutely fine, too.) My suggested prompt for pre-writing before you come to the interview is (quite simply):

  • Tell me your participation story for FYC/Advanced Writing (or any other writing/composition course you’ve taken). How did you participate?
  • Feel free to define participation as it makes sense to you; some common examples would include in-class discussion, online discussion boards, group work, drafting and revision, in-class writing exercises or activities, collaboration with instructor, collaboration with peers, peer review, etc.
  • I would like to collect this pre-writing to make use of it as part of my data set for the book chapter. If you’re comfortable with that, we’ll talk more about it when we meet. I’ll start off our interview by asking you this question, and then we can build from there!
Fig. 1. E-mail to student interviewees. This figure shares the text of an e-mail sent to recruit students.

A discussion of this initial writing served as the start to our interview, leading into what Cynthia L. Selfe and Gail E. Hawisher call “conversational interviews.” Selfe and Hawisher explain conversational interviews as a feminist methodology, undergirded by knowledge sharing and, fittingly for this project, a “participatory model of research” (36-37). Selfe and Hawisher advocate for unstructured interviews that function more like conversations, and that is the spirit in which I conducted my interviews.

We draw, in particular, on feminist understandings of interviewing as a process of not extracting information but sharing knowledge…. The relationships forged within these conversations, we believe, construct a participatory model of research that challenges more conventional understandings of investigations and power relations between the researchers and researched subjects…. As we know from personal experience, interviews informed by such feminist principles quickly escape the boundaries of a single session, a single model or location, or a single medium.” (Selfe and Hawisher 36-37)

I had a rough outline of eight topics I wanted to touch on (fig. 2), but since I used a conversational-interview approach I ultimately did not strictly adhere to a script and allowed for productive tangents. As I reviewed my recordings and paid careful attention to such tangents, one surprise to me was that I could hear the students and I acting as cotheorists of participation. We were asking one another questions, thinking about why we view participation as we do, and ultimately they pushed me every bit as much as I pushed them.[6] I now view this cotheorization as one important potential result of the conversational interviewing method.[7]

  • How would you LIKE to participate in a writing course? What is the ideal?
  • How can instructors best enable/help you participate in this desired way?
  • What participation requirement existed in this course (and state the course name)?
  • How did this requirement or the expectations for your participation in this course compare with other writing courses you’ve taken in the past? Or other courses you’ve taken in general.
  • Please describe the way you participated in this course (e.g. talking in class, working with group members, drafting work aside from the final assignment, etc.).
  • What is your view of participation in writing courses? Should it be required or not?
  • Do you participate more when it’s a graded component? What determines whether you’ll participate beyond the required writing assignments in a writing course? (e.g. talking in class, etc.)
  • How does your identity/who you are as a student affect your desire/ability to participate?
Fig. 2. Outline of interview questions/topics. This figure shows an outline of the questions and topics that shaped the interview.

I recorded the interviews in audio or video according to the preference of the student. During the interviews, I took notes by hand to help me work my way through the data post interview. I tried to make the recording as nonintrusive as possible, using my laptop as the recording device and darkening the screen so students would avoid distraction by their own images. Each interview lasted thirty to forty-five minutes, and usually it seemed as if the recording device was forgotten within the first few minutes. The recordings of the full interviews fall into conversational patterns and rhythms, complete with small talk, personal stories, and students sometimes openly (and with good reason) complaining about how participation worked in my class.

Readers will notice I have, as much as possible, edited the videos to maintain my side of the conversation alongside the students’ commentary. Though messy at times, I aim to demonstrate the crucial conversational dynamic and cotheorization. Other times I edit out my end of the conversation for the sake of time and to keep the focus on the students’ insights. To further honor conversation as method and extend the practice, I shared drafts of this chapter with the students for their approval, feedback, and further conversation if they so desired.

Why Interviews?   

With these interviews, as with so much interview-based research, the point is not breadth but depth. Four interviews with students from one institution are not representative, and a comprehensive study is not my goal. But student voices are a key piece of data missing from the burgeoning scholarly conversation around participation in rhetoric and composition. I begin to fill that gap and bring rich, individualized perspectives to the forefront. [8] Kerry Dirk’s “‘I Hope It’s Just Attendance’: What Does Participation Mean to Freshman Composition Students and Instructors,” a study Critel draws heavily upon, collected student voices, but Dirk uses a discursive survey rather than interviews, enabling her to collect data from a much larger group of participants. My work attempts first and foremost to let students speak for themselves and allow scholars and teachers to hear their experiences, concerns, and suggestions. Indeed, my conversations with these students indicate that, when it comes to participation, students bring years of expertise from a variety of contexts.

Beyond the recordings, I have included analytic text to better explain how I see the central themes operating and what they mean. But, as the curator, I have worked to design this chapter so readers will focus most on the video/audio and the words of the students. I return to Critel’s questions from my epigraph here, as so many authors from the collection do: “What if we asked students to tell us how they will participate? What if we asked them what they need from us?” I asked the students featured here those exact questions—along with some others—and what I share in the remainder of the chapter are their insightful responses.

[Go to "Meet the Students"]

[3] The fifth student who volunteered to be interviewed found she was unable to talk with the recording device present. Though she was eager to share her experiences and willing to write about them—and she was a frequent, outgoing in-class participator—she simply could not get comfortable with being recorded. This served as a good reminder for me as a researcher; my role and the technology I needed to study the data did indeed change the dynamics. [Return]

[4] This interview research was approved as exempt by my University’s Institutional Review Board. These students also opted to share their narratives with their names attached (rather than anonymously). [Return]

[5] Excerpts from the students' prewriting activities are highlighted as pull quotes throughout the chapter. [Return]

[6] It is worth noting that, due to these interviews, I made changes to how participation worked in the spring semester for my online advanced writing class. In particular, I worked to approximate aspects of a face-to-face conversations that the students interviewed seemed to truly miss and desire (a surprise to me!) in an online writing class. [Return]

[7] In Kris’s interview, for example, there is a jarring moment when I offer peer review as an example of something that might be participatory in a writing class, and she looks at me and says: “Can we go there? Can we talk about peer review? I hated peer review…why wasn’t the teacher responding to my work? She has a doctorate in English!” Though this clip is not included in the chapter as it did not align with dominant trends in the interviews, I do think it illustrates the conversational and often student-led nature of these interviews. She pushed me to think about how I could do a stronger job of making it clear to students in online classes why I was asking them to participate in peer review; this happens casually and organically in my F2F classes, but I was so caught up in how to make peer review work online that I was forgetting to be transparent about why peer review can be a valuable practice in the first place. [Return]

[8] Mary M. Reda’s thoughtful Between Speaking and Silence: A Study of Quiet Students makes heavy use of student accounts, but her book is ultimately positioned as an exploration of silence rather than participation. So while she influences my work and thinking, our goals are different. [Return]