Process: Collaboratively Constructing a Participation Agreement
Getting MA-Level Instructors on Board
At the fall 2014 Comp Camp, I announced a plan for having each instructor collaborate with their students to create a participation agreement. Originally, I envisaged that instructors would be introducing students to a range of participation elements and questions and building a policy with their students from scratch, one that would include everything from attendance and punctuality to late and missing work to professional behavior and etiquette to class discussion and technology use. However, when I was immediately confronted with twenty-eight faces that registered everything from game curiosity to somber skepticism to downright fear, I realized I needed to slow down.
While these TAs liked the idea of asking students about their preferred ways of participating in class, they were uneasy about not having any firm boundaries for programmatic policies for absences and late work. After a long and fruitful discussion, I finally invoked one of Parker Palmer’s “paradoxes” for describing a learning space as being both bounded and open. Palmer explains that “[t]he space should be bounded and open…Space without boundaries is not space, it is a chaotic void, and in such a place no learning is likely to occur. But for space to be a space, it must be open as well as bounded—open to many paths down which discovery may take us to the surprises that always come with real learning. If boundaries remind us that our journey has a destination, openness reminds us that there are many ways to reach that end” (74-75). We used this duality of a bounded and open space as a framework for TAs to determine both the amount of structure they needed and the level of openness they could tolerate. We then agreed to the following:
- The default English 101 attendance policy would remain as it had been: in order to earn the required C- for general education credit, students could miss no more than 5 classes.
- TAs who wanted to open the discussion of mandatory attendance with students could do so. Their classes would be called “experimental sections.”
- We all agreed upon basic evaluation and work policies: in order to be eligible to earn an A on their final portfolios (which would effectively determine their grade in the course), students had to earn an average of “progressing” on the two essays submitted prior to the portfolio, complete all critical practice assignments, and generally adhere to the participation agreement the class constructed.
- Within these bounds, each TA could determine what was on and off the table for deliberation and negotiation with students. (For example, some TAs chose not to open the discussion of punctuality and cell-phone use with students). 
- Everyone would engage students in discussion and writing about preferred ways of in-class participation.
Creating a Participation Agreement with Students
I provided TAs with information they could use in constructing questions for informal writing and discussion about participation with their students. This information included (1) a list of visible and invisible forms of participation; (2) some reasons why writing teachers emphasize the importance of attending class and turning work in on time; (3) thoughts about meeting the interests, motivations, needs, and abilities of a diverse group of people; (4) and a bank of sample questions that TAs might draw from in order to learn about their individual students.
In one sense, these questions enacted a kind of participatory hospitality that Michele Eodice discusses in her essay on writing center work in this collection. Whenever teachers begin their course by asking each student, “What do I need to know about you as a learner,” they make an important gesture toward academic hospitality, thereby setting up the conditions for learning. Over twenty years ago, Lisa Delpit reminded us about the role that those in power have for initiating dialogue: “[While] both sides do need to be able to listen . . . I contend that it is those with the most power, those in the majority, who must take the greater responsibility for initiating this process” (47). Although new TAs may not initially feel like they have the most power in the classroom, their students see them in the power position. Inviting students to tell their teachers how they best learn is one way of “initiating the process of dialogue.”
On the first day of class, TAs introduced the course focus on participating and “joining the conversation” in different cultures of writing and reading. They constructed questions from the materials I had provided for their students to think and/or write about for the next class. On the second day of class, students worked in small and large groups, discussing the kind of participatory spaces they would like to establish for the class within the bounds TAs had set for themselves. TAs then took students’ written responses and the ideas generated in class and constructed a participation agreement, presenting each student with a copy the following class.
A Potpourri of Approaches
TAs’ participation policies ranged from one-half page to four pages in length. Some were highly specific while others listed general principles and intentions. Some policies spelled out expectations for students and expectations for instructors. Some were written in the binding language of a formal contract that students signed, while others were couched in the tentative language of intention (“Here’s what we have decided for the moment”). More than half began with some kind of “preamble.”
Some policies began by placing the participation agreement within the context of other program requirements that would determine whether students were eligible to earn an A in the course:
In order to be eligible for an A in this course, we agree to abide by the following agreement:
- Complete all critical inquiry practice and essay work as stipulated (i.e., do the work on time and turn it in).
- Adhere to our class designated participation and presence agreement.
- Earn a Progressing on both critical inquiry essays [prior to the portfolio].
- (Not miss more than 5 classes, for those TAs adhering to the default program policy).
So, while students were not “graded” in terms of points or percentages for participation, abiding by the participation agreement did become one of the ways participation was reflected in students’ course grades. With the exception of the absence policy, failing to meet any of the bulleted items on the above list meant that the highest grade a student could earn for the course was an A- (obviously not a huge penalty to pay for noncompliance).
Some Initial Challenges
Of course, a few TAs took longer to grasp the intent of our experiment. For instance, two first-year instructors stipulated that students’ participation would be evaluated on “how you have improved the learning experience of your peers.” In their agreements, they each spell out ways students can enhance the learning experience of their colleagues, but it is not clear exactly how these instructors will determine whether students did indeed “improve” the learning of other people in the class.
Another first-year instructor got tripped up on the absence part of his participation policy. His class decided students should be allowed three unexcused absences. Every additional absence after three would result in a penalty, which the instructor translated to a 5% reduction of the course grade. Even though the instructor had provided students with information about our descriptive grading system, he was initially unable to grasp non-mathematical ways of determining consequences. However, he did amend his initial policy to simply state that students would not be eligible for an A.
One second-year instructor who had not really come to terms with the changes in this year’s curriculum, evaluation, and participation policies initially created a policy that was antithetical to the entire course by assigning percentages for everything: participation 10%, homework 20%, and portfolio 70%. After we spoke, she immediately revisited the policy with her students and created a new one that included the “eligibility-for-an-A” criteria I noted earlier. Her revised participation statement read: “You must honor and follow our shared ideas on what participation looks like.” I mention these cases not to critique these first- and second-year TAs but rather to indicate how radical these participation and evaluation policies are. They require TAs to shift substantially from deeply ingrained and default ways of thinking about participation and evaluation.
Because students and teachers constructed participation policies together, they were able to make participation a more visible feature of the course in several ways.
 Actually all six of Palmer’s “paradoxes” provide a useful framework for discussing participation with teachers and students. In addition to being bounded and open, a learning space should be “hospitable and charged,” “should invite the voice of the individual and the group,” “should honor the little stories of the individual and the ‘big’ stories of the disciplines and traditions,” “should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community,” and “welcome both silence and speech” (74-77). [Return]
 Using a nontraditional form of evaluation made it easier for TAs to naturally weave in discussions of participation and engagement when talking with students about their work in the course. [Return]
 We did not include statements of harassment, or academic honesty, or accommodation in these agreements because the university requires all teachers to include separate statements on their syllabi. [Return]