Reflection: Initial Thoughts and Musings about Our Participation Experiment
We have a lot of work to do!
Lauren Obermark reminds us of the importance of including student voices in these discussions. In her contribution to this collection, we hear the retrospective accounts from four students after they have taken either a face-to-face, first-year writing course or an online advanced composition course with her. Students talk about their participation preferences after they had taken one of Obermark’s courses. In contrast, we asked first-year students about their preferences at the start of their first-year writing course (and, for most students, the start of their first quarter of college before they had a sense of what college courses were like). We attempted to solicit student voices in a number of ways throughout the quarter: students and teacher collaboratively constructed a class-participation policy at the beginning of the course; students reflected on their learning and participation anonymously at midterm; students discussed their intellectual participation as part of their "Retrospective/Prospective" essays for their portfolios at the end of the term; and finally, students contributed to the official course-evaluation questions at the end of the quarter.
I think our informal experiment could have benefitted from another layer. Like Obermark, I think it would have been useful to have English 101 students “cotheorize” with us about their experience after the course was over. How would these first-year students think about participation after they had a chance to experience a few more university courses?
In listening to Obermark’s four students, I was also struck by the ways in which age, (life) experience, and, perhaps, social class play out in discussions of participation. Listening to her students and thinking about the contrasting reflections from the two students I cited earlier, I find myself returning again and again to what has become one of Genevieve’s most important findings for me: participation “is imbued with normative value systems” (Critel, this collection).
This finding has influenced other contributors to this collection. For example, Matt Cox, in “Queering Participation: Whispers, Echoes, Rants, and Memories,” discusses the way queer students often “hold back” in classes, and he shares memories of his own experiences and Genevieve’s as young students in writing classes themselves, reluctant to share too much and be outed. Cox also reminds us that in our efforts to democratize the classroom space, circles can feel just as oppressive as rows by making some students feel exposed and even more vulnerable and reluctant to share their stories. In other words, circles also come with their own normative set of assumptions.
Over twenty years ago, Lynn Bloom revealed how first-year writing courses “are saturated with middle-class values” (658). Although her focus is on students’ writing, and she doesn’t exactly list participation as a normative, middle-class value in her list of Franklin-esque virtues, I suspect we can extend many of these virtues (“decorum," “propriety,” “moderation,” “order,” and “temperance” and certainly “punctuality”) to classroom etiquette and behavior. So, while we may have attempted to enlist students in the construction of participation pacts, I am reminded that a majority of TAs and students at our institution come to this situation already embodied with middle-class values, and these values dictate what kinds of agreements are probable or, indeed, possible. None of the agreements TAs and students constructed contained anything that might constrain so-called middle-class sensibilities. The most “radical” statement I could find in these policies stipulated that students who were more than five minutes “tardy” would be subject to applause by the class. At best, these policies offered students a choice of middle-class options, as in this class-formulated list of “diverse” ways of participating. Should we—can we—uncouple participation from normative value systems? And, if we can, where might that uncoupling get us, and what would it mean for our understanding of teaching and learning?
 The fact that students used the word tardy, and not late also speaks to the normative values that are already a part of the students’ worldviews. [Return]