Context: First-Year Writing at Western Washington University
History of Participation in the First-Year Writing Program
When Genevieve came for her on-campus interview in January of 2012, I proudly proclaimed to her that we had never awarded a percentage of students’ grades to participation in the first- year writing program. In fact, my program materials for TAs included a long explanation about why we did not evaluate participation. At that time, I conceived of participation only in terms of the nebulous category of “class” or oral participation. However, I realized that since 1995, we have always had programmatic policies for attendance and missing, late, and incomplete work that did impact students’ final grades. (Individual instructors could decide if they wanted to make the absence policies stronger or include repercussions for punctuality, use of cell phones, and missed conferences). I put these policies in place for several reasons, the most important being to protect vulnerable MA-level instructors who wanted the authority a programwide policy gave them. But I also believed FYW students needed to be in class because of the way we built and sequenced the course each year. If students were absent, they missed out on the information, discussion, and practice they needed to be able to do the assignments. If they turned in their work late, the learning benefit for doing that assignment in the first place was diminished.
But Genevieve’s more expansive conception of what counts as participation based on her survey data  has slowly been making me rethink my long-standing assumptions. As Jason Palmeri and Abby Dubisar demonstrate so well in their essay in this collection, one of the reasons Genevieve’s research is important is that it invites us to examine and reflect on our own practices. Since I had created a new course reader with a focus on participation and participatory cultures for the program, it seemed important that we finally take up Genevieve’s key questions:
What if we asked students to tell us how they will participate? What if we ask them what they need from us…? Perhaps these questions seem outlandish to some readers; however there’s no way we can know how much these changes could benefit students unless we try. (196-197)
As Elizabeth Brewer notes in her contribution to this collection, these questions may seem “outlandish” at first because “giving students power in deciding participation requirements might be a radical move for compositionists.” In our case, the only thing that seemed radical or somewhat outlandish about this approach was that I was asking inexperienced TAs to give away a power to students that they had not yet acquired or constructed themselves. Over half the 101 faculty had not yet stepped inside a classroom.
Instructors in the First-Year Writing Program
Aside from the WPA (tenured or tenure-track faculty) and the assistant WPA (non-tenure-track faculty), all sections of the first year writing course are taught by MA-level graduate students who have come to study literature or creative writing. Half the staff turns over every year. Almost all TAs enter the program with little specialist knowledge of composition and rhetoric, and most have no prior teaching experience. A few TAs bring experience as undergraduate writing center assistants or teacher aides, and one or two have taught high school or spent a year teaching abroad. In recent years, a growing number of applicants have just graduated from college themselves. And some of these TAs, because of having completed community college courses while in high school, may be only a couple of years older than the students they will be teaching. Finally, unlike many schools where graduate students are required to complete eighteen hours of graduate-level course work before stepping into the classroom, new TAs begin teaching their first quarter of graduate school.
Both new and returning TAs arrive on campus ten days before fall quarter commences for “Comp Camp,” an intensive, week-long orientation. Everyone receives a thick, three-ring binder of materials that includes a one hundred-page annotated course syllabus and detailed lesson plans that new TAs (and some returning TAs) will use in their first quarter of teaching. While returning instructors play a role in ushering new instructors into this community of practice, some of the information will be new to them as well since we change our texts and parts of our curriculum every year.
At Comp Camp, TAs are introduced to information about teaching, the aims and purposes of the course, the year’s curriculum, and the assignments and evaluation practices. Because all first-year writing courses meet in a computer lab once a week, new TAs also must learn to work with the technology as well as Canvas, our course-management system. TAs try their hand at some of the same assignments they will be asking their students to do—all before designing their own version of the syllabus to give to their students. New instructors take a seminar in composition theory and pedagogy during their first quarter. In addition, all TAs meet formally throughout the year for weekly staff meetings and day-long, end-of-quarter paper and portfolio readings.
Framework and Approach of the First-Year Writing Program
James Paul Gee’s concepts of “content,” “generator(s),” and “portal(s),” based on his work with video games as affinity spaces, have been useful for helping me think more broadly about participation in terms of first-year writing courses. As Gee notes, we can look at content both in terms of what it is and how it is organized. We can also look at it in terms “of how people interact with that content or with each other over that content.” While the organization of the content initially “emerges from the work of designers [me],” the interactional organization of this space “emerges from people’s actions and interactions with it and with each other [instructors and students].” In other words, I designed the course content for English 101 to acclimatize TAs to teaching the course. The content is intended to “shape” them, but they are also expected to shape (and reshape) the content through their participation and interaction with the work of the course, with each other, and with their students. It’s a reflexive process.
The annotated syllabus and course materials I construct each fall offer one portal into the content of the first-year writing course. It is not the only portal, but it is an important one as TAs learn to negotiate the classroom space. However, as Gee notes, a good portal will always become a strong generator. Thus, the portal I design is also intended to help TAs become savvy “compositional” generators, teachers who adjust and change the content to better serve their students’ needs and their own pedagogical predilections. In addition to the relationship between the intellectual and interactive work in the first year writing course, we can also think of the first-year writing course as one portal into the intellectual participatory spaces of university work.
For the 2014-15 course, I created a customized textbook of essays called Participating in Cultures of Writing and Reading. In the preface, I introduced Henry Jenkins’s notion of participatory culture. I then constructed a first-year course with a loose focus on conversation as a method of participation and knowledge making in communities, both inside and outside the university. Instructors and students were invited to examine methods of intellectual, rhetorical, and social participation, not only in the academy but also in fan-fiction sites and interactive online affinity spaces as well as in other discourse communities and community literacy spaces where different kinds of conversation are taking place. Lynn Lewis’s “Don’t Tase Me, Bro: Emergent Participatory Economies across Web Spaces” and Ryan Omizo’s “Participation and the Problem of Measurement,” both in this collection, draw on similar methods and commitments. While many of our course readings encouraged students to consider the ways participation is defined and circulated beyond the university, Lewis and Omizo, focusing on viral memes and Science Buzz online discussion forums, respectively, ask scholars to do the same and to apply what they learn to their composition research and pedagogy, as well.
This framework for the course brought the question of student participation (or interaction) in the classroom to the fore. In the fall of 2014, teachers in all twenty-nine sections of Western’s only required writing course (twenty-eight of them taught by MA-level graduate students, fifteen who were teaching for the first time) worked with their students to create a participation policy for their class. In a sense, these policies were intended to work as informal “user agreements.” Unlike the binding user agreements of the three MOOCs Michael Harker, Mary Hocks, and Matthew Paul Sansbury discuss in their contribution to this collection, these agreements expressed a collective vision for how to proceed and carry out the work of the class. They became touchstones for students’ reflective writing assignments and they figured into our formative and summative evaluations.
 English 101 Absence and Late-Work Policies Prior to 2014-15:
- If a student misses more than 5 classes (for any reason), they will not have satisfied the requirements to earn the necessary C- to fulfill the A COM general university requirement.
- Work is due by the date stipulated. If students submit the work within 24 hours of the due date, they can still get half credit, although they will lose important learning benefits.
 Common elements in instructor’s definitions of participation from Genevieve Critel’s surveys
- Preparation for class
- Oral contributions to class
- Professional behavior
- Written activities/contributions in and out of class