Academic journal article Composition Studies

"I Hope It's Just Attendance": What Does Participation Mean to Freshman Composition Students and Instructors?

Academic journal article Composition Studies

"I Hope It's Just Attendance": What Does Participation Mean to Freshman Composition Students and Instructors?

Article excerpt

Participation, a commonly graded component of composition classrooms, is rarely the focus of current research studies. While some discussions have addressed grading practices or ways to increase participation, student and instructor voices have yet to be included in studies of classroom participation in composition courses. Yet these voices are necessary to discover how students and instructors define participation, as well as to determine their beliefs about, and justifications for, grading this activity. There is reason to suppose that students and instructors often have disparate ideas about what constitutes composition classroom participation. When asked why he or she grades participation, one instructor explained:

Participation is extremely important. The students are not passive vessels in which I pour information. I tell them that they are the best teachers they will ever have. But, to teach themselves they need to question, discuss, share their ideas and insights with others. They learn from each other. Without participation we might as well plop them down in front of a computer or television and have them watch. They learn by doing, by writing.

It would be difficult to disagree with this instructor's justification for choosing to include participation as a requirement for the course. Yet the responses from the students in the study that follows suggest that they place less value on this part of the course. One student wrote, "As long as you don't fall asleep, you will be alright." As this response reveals, there seems to be a wide discrepancy between instructor and student beliefs about what qualifies as participation in the classroom. The findings that I report in the remainder of this article reveal not only troubling definitions of participation but also nebulous grading practices of this classroom component.

Review of Literature

The composition classroom is often thought to be a prime location for fostering critical thinking skills and creating active learners. Since process pedagogy's rise in the 1970s, many composition classes continue to utilize activities that developed out of this movement, such as workshops, revision strategies, free writing, class discussion, and group work (Tobin). Many of us would agree with Peter Elbow's belief that "writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn't have started out thinking" (Writing 15) or with Donald Murray's assertion that "we certainly should allow time within the curriculum for pre writing, and we should work with our students to help them understand the process of rehearsal, to allow them the experience of rehearsing what they will write in their minds, on the paper, and with collaborators" (380-81). Scholars such as Kenneth Bruffee and John Trimbur have also argued convincingly that the exchange of ideas within the classroom is essential to student learning. While Bruffee argues that "writing always has its roots deep in the acquired ability to carry on the social symbolic exchange we call conversation" (641-42) and understands the goal of collaborative learning to be consensus among students, Trimbur claims that he is "less interested in students achieving consensus (although of course this happens at times) as in their using consensus as a critical instrument to open gaps in the conversation through which differences may emerge" (614). Consensus or not, classroom discussion, along with these other in- class activities, has become an integral part of the writing classroom.

It would be beyond the scope of this paper to trace the development of these activities in the contemporary classroom. More recently, however, John Bean's Engaging Ideas has provided instructors with detailed writing activities for all disciplines. He explains that the premise of his book is "that integrating writing and other critical thinking activities into a course increases students' learning while teaching them thinking skills for posing questions, proposing hypotheses, gathering and analyzing data, and making arguments" (1). …

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