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: Technology

I move next to technology, another dominant theme that came up at multiple points in each and every interview, for both my online and F2F students. I developed various codes, such as discussion board, online learning, and video, all of which ultimately ended up grouped under the broader theme of technology.

Critel summarizes her technology commonplace as follows: “Technology functions in cycles of technology hope and criticism in terms of the classroom. New technologies are speculated to improve participation, but teachers don’t often change their required participation statements” (195). Critel is wary of this commonplace, noting that computers and composition scholars are critical of panacean assertions that technology can “improve” any kind of learning in and of itself. Instead, meaningful technology use must be part of a larger pedagogical shift. My interviews illustrate that, much like the instructors who took Critel’s survey, students are interested in technology and hopeful about what it might offer them, but their criticisms are also strong—they echo Critel’s warnings perhaps more strongly than many instructors do. These concerns are deeply emphasized in the interviews of students who were more involved with technology-based participation since they took their composition course online.

Fig. 8. Video of Kris and Christian discussing technology.

Technology Video 1 (Kris and Christian) Transcript [11]

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

Kris on the Challenges of Participation in an Online Class

LO: What you wrote before we did this interview, um, you had this sort of collaborative, together based [KS interjects].

KS: Yeah.

LO: [LO continues] Um, sense of participation. Um, how would something like [thinking] so how, we think of that kind of, like, when you’re in, when you’re in like a face-to-face class [inaudible agreeing from KS] for like, a face-to-face writing class, you can kind of imagine what that would look like. In our class, what are, were things that you kind of saw as like these sort of collaborative forms of participation?

KS: Well, I guess the main one was the weekly discussions on the discussion forum.

LO: Yeah.

KS: That was obviously meant to be participatory

LO:  Yeah [laughing in agreement].

KS: [Laughing] The artifact presentations [inaudible agreeing from LO] felt more participatory than a lot of the other elements.

LO: Okay.

KS: And I think it’s because we were connecting with each other on a, on a richer level [inaudible agreement from LO] than in the actual discussion forum.

LO: Do you think, and do you think, that was, like, because of the, the kind of the video element with those presentations [inaudible response from KS], of actually like, a person behind the participation?

KS: I think it was a combination of that, I think was a real important element, was we could see the person and so, so there was a personal connection [inaudible agreement from LO].  But I also think, because there was not an outline we had to follow for the response.

LO: Yeah.

KS: We didn’t have to do “this” or do “that” or cover “this” or cover “that”.  There wasn’t a minimum number of words, I don’t think there was.

LO: No.

KS: It was just “respond to this.”

LO: Yeah.

KS: And so it was a little more open ended [inaudible agreement from LO], and I think that also contributed to it.  And the, the original poster who would post the video.

LO: Right.

KS: Seemed to be real attentive to want to see what people were gonna write, and they would come back.

LO: Coming back…

KS: And respond.  And, and, and I liked that, cause I felt like there was a conversation happening, cause I like conversation [thinking], and I felt like in the forum, many times, um, most of the time, people never came back.

LO: Exactly.

KS: So I would put up a response and it might have questions, it might, I would call somebody out by name, “so and so, what did you mean by this?”

LO: Yeah.

KS: You know, they never came back.  I don’t even think they ever saw it.

Christian on Noticing Similar Challenges with Online Participation

CF: It’s only a one time thing, it’s like, it’s like a one sided conversation you know.

LO: Right.

CF: Cause I know that most of those people aren’t going back and reading that and saying “Oh, well that, that makes sense, what they said” and you know, I’m almost positive no one does that, you know, or, the majority of people.  There’s probably, you know, the girl who turned in everything first she probably went back and did that [inaudible agreeing from LO] no one else.

CF: You know maybe video responses.

LO: Yeah.

CF: Like I almost responded to some of those discussion boards with a video.

LO: Right.

CF: But I thought, people are gonna think that, this guy is, just like, trying so hard to...

LO: Yeah [laughing from LO and CF].

CF: You know, but I thought, well…

LO: Well like in some ways that may be…

CF: I mean it was, I just didn’t, I didn’t do it because, I don’t know, I don’t know, because nobody else did.

LO: Right. What do you think would, what do you think would be like, what made you think like “I would rather do response as a video”, like, in those moments when you thought that?

CF: Um, [thinking] I guess because I felt like the same thing, like nobody’s really reading what I’m saying.

LO: Okay.

CF: But if I put a video maybe somebody’d be like, more willing to just like click on it while they were [simulates typing with fingers] doing something else, you know…

Fig. 9. Video of Anastasia and Marche discussing technology.

Technology Video 2 (Anastasia and Marche) Transcript

  • Anastasia - AS
  • Lauren Obermark - LO
  • Marche - MS

Anastasia on Online Discussion Boards as “Ideal” and “Active” Especially for Quiet Students

LO: In a writing course like that what do you, how would you like to participate, like, what would be the ideal, if you knew participation was like a part of the course, you knew you had to participate.  How would a course be, like, more ideal in terms of allowing you to participate in a way that felt, like, good to you and not just, you know, kind of valuing one kind of, well you seem to, like indicate that generally this verbal, this sort of loud, talking verbal participation has been valued, um, so what would a course look like that was a little bit more ideal for the kind of participation that you see yourself shining out of it more.

AS: Well, I like how you had us do the discussion boards where we went, on to, like, forums where everybody wrote, like, whatever they had on their mind [inaudible agreeing from LO] in, like, a little paragraph or two. I really liked that.

LO: Did you like that because it’s writing based, do you think, or allows you to kind of…

AS: Yeah, it gives you time to think about what you’re going to say, which I like, like you said “I can’t think on my feet,” but, and then you also have the chance to respond to what other people say…you’re replying to what they said in their little paragraph [thinking] which I think is a form of, like, active participation you know, you’re thinking about what that person’s said and you’re either refuting it or agreeing with it, you know, whatever comes to mind.

Marche on Blogs, Engagement, and Creativity

MS: People probably engage more if it feels like a blog or something like that.

LO: Okay.

MS: Or like, if it’s online or anything like that it makes it more interesting cause, on the matters of a blog you get to, like, fix it up and do it the way you want it to be.

LO: Okay, interesting, so something like a blog in particular would be more interesting versus, like, a discussion board through Blackboard might be, might kind of raise participation because you develop your own site.

MS: Yeah, like you know you get to make your own blog and so like this is all you [inaudible agreement from LO] all how you feel, you get to design and everything so you’re like, this brings out the creative side of you.  Some people in our class was a little less verbal in class versus  how they were online, so like, you know, for those people who don’t talk as much in class, you get to see another side of them through their blog…


In the first video, Kris and Christian express frustration about participation in an asynchronous online class because it sometimes feels as if you are participating alone. In their experience with online classes, other students do not always revisit discussion posts or engage beyond the required amount of posting. Participation in an online class lets them down in some ways (what Critel might identify as a cycle of “technology criticism”), particularly because they have yet to see it approximate the conversation or engagement a F2F class could. Yet they emphasize that they see potential in further use of videos in online writing classes to increase interaction and participation among students. I found their emphasis on increased videos from students interesting because, as a new online teacher, I tried to keep the course as “low tech” as possible. For weekly participation, I focused solely on discussion posts in alphabetic text. I feared I would overwhelm students with technology demands or make the class less accessible if I asked for videos. Drawing extensively from Scott Warnock’s Teaching Writing Online: How and Why, my established mantra was This is a writing course. Students should mainly be writing. While this mantra made my first experience teaching an online course successful in some ways, my conversations with Kris and Christian made me wonder whether I had underestimated the needs and abilities of my online students. Video and audio options for low-stakes weekly assignments designed largely to maintain student participation across the semester might prove valuable in ways I had not imagined. Such posts would allow students to see/hear one another and thus know their classmates beyond the written word, which Kris and Christian suggest would increase student interest and participation. [12]

I would like to see online classes have live online video interfaces that promote fluid conversations, or something similar. That is what I am missing that I would get in a traditional classroom. Ideas that form out of one person’s question, built upon by another’s comment and then summarized and paraphrased by another, and then you see all these bobbing heads affirming that the group just worked through a solution.

– Christian, Interview Prewriting

Despite the initial frustration with technology expressed by Kris and Christian, optimism lingers in their comments about the possibilities of video and audio discussion posts. This optimism continues in commentary from Anastsia and Marche. In the second video, these students from a F2F class express less criticism of online forms of participation. In fact, they see great potential for online participation and suggest it serves as (1) a way to reshape the understanding of participation as strictly an oral contribution; (2) an outlet for creativity in participation; and (3) an avenue for students to “show different sides” of themselves to their instructor and peers. These students rely more on the discourse of “technology hope,” which can certainly be criticized. At the same time, their comments establish an exciting line of inquiry about how participation in the writing classroom can be more universally and inclusively designed. Since Anastasia and Marche's course was F2F, it led to a different experience with online participation than what Kris and Christian expressed. (Though, interestingly, what Anastasia and Marche describe is similar to what Kris and Christian optimistically see as the more involved future of online participation with increased use of audio and video.) Anastasia and Marche saw online participation, even though it was strictly in written text, as a helpful supplement to what went on during class time.

Finally, as I engaged in conversations with these students, I found myself fascinated by the ways in which technology, as it is almost inherently part of composition pedagogy in the twenty-first century, can fundamentally redefine what “counts” as participation. While I am cognizant of Critel’s warning about relying too heavily on “technology hope,” I find myself, much like Anastasia, drawn to the ways in which technology can ask teachers to (re)see writing in and of itself as a form of participation. Digital technologies—particularly low-threshold technologies like discussion boards and blogs that these students mention again and again—could potentially dethrone on-the-spot oral contributions as the reigning ruler of the participation kingdom. Other forms of participation can become increasingly centralized and valued, an important move toward accessibility for students (and teachers) who might struggle with what feels like a constant pressure to talk (Price).

It is not surprising to see technology manifest as a commonplace among students, just as it did among the teachers and scholars comprising Critel’s research sites. For students, whether they identify as “traditional” or “nontraditional,” and whether or not they are taking writing courses F2F, online, or a combination, technology influences and affects how they participate. These interviews largely indicate that having conversations with students about how they prefer to participate and offering multiple channels for participation can serve as steps in a positive direction. At the same time, like these students, teachers should continue to view the possibilities offered by technology both optimistically and with caution.

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[11] Helpful context: In Kris Sorsby’s interview clip, she references the “discussion forum” and “artifact presentations.” The discussion forum took place weekly and involved writing an original post and two responses to peers; the prompts for these discussions were detailed but encouraged students to only “use them as needed.” The artifact presentations took place once a semester for each student and involved a video “show and tell” of an “artifact” related to literacy or writing, and all other students were required to respond to the artifact presentations each week, but the response post was completely open ended/had no requirements or prompt. [Return]

[12] There are still major accessibility issues to consider with relying on video and/or audio, though some of these could be mediated if the videos were captioned or a written script was submitted with the posts. [Return]