One New Thing: Rethinking Participation-as-Conversation
Written by Jessica Comola, Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences
It’s 8am in my Spring 2018 Intro to Creative Writing class: eleven students down their coffees, trying to wake up quickly enough to absorb the information in this new course syllabus. On the first page, they are met with the participation requirement: in addition to in-class participation, they’ll each be expected to make one entry weekly in our “ENGL 1000: Glossary of Terms,” a GoogleDoc accessed through Canvas. I explain this co-created, asynchronous document is intended to broaden what participation can look like in a discussion-based, seated class, providing opportunities for engagement beyond traditional, verbal contributions. Some students looked relieved, others a bit skeptical, but in those first few weeks they complete the work, adding 1) a term, 2) a definition in their own words, and 3) their initials in parentheses so I can keep track of who has done what.
This class is typical: one freshman English major, the rest mostly seniors from the natural, social, and applied sciences needing to squeeze in an elective before graduation. They share reservations about “creativity”—questioning what it means and whether or not they “have it.” Creative writing classes are often viewed, for better or worse, as spaces of unfettered self-expression; as we discuss course goals, I clarify (and complicate) what this can mean: reading/writing as a reflexive practice aimed at greater self-awareness and rhetorical attunement, shared critique as a site for personal observation, articulation, and collaborative thinking, and creativity as critical work, where we’re asked to engage all the complex relationships between a text’s content, form, and function(s).
My own creative work, and my pedagogical practices, come out of a critical disability studies background; I view my classroom as an extension of this work, where in-class participation, a given in my field, can be a site for rethinking unintentional ableist practices. Some students are comfortable initiating spoken contributions: raising their hands, jumping into existing conversations, articulating ideas on the spot. For these students, the expectations of a conventional workshop classroom pose no challenges when it comes to the participation average. For others, assessments of participation, presence, and expression based in real-time, verbal contribution prove prohibitive. My goal is to create viable alternatives for these individuals, while encouraging students of all kinds towards multiple avenues of engagement.
In Week 5, I check in on how the Glossary is shaping up in a brief, written survey: I use their responses as a launchpad to discuss relationships between this document and our larger course goals. Students share that they are pulling most of their terms from my opening lectures (~10 mins) and our group discussions of readings for that day (~50 mins). The Glossary is helping them capture the vocabulary of the course, pushing them to articulate concepts in their own words and serving as a communal note-taking space. They connect this work back to our goals of critical/analytical thinking and collaborative work. But they also share that it feels competitive; they’re so focused on contributing a new term that they’re losing track of the nuances of our discussion. We have a frank talk about what changes could be made and decide to further expand what a contribution might look like. Not only can they share a term and its definition, they might also add an example from our materials or an external link to a “further reading” example online. We discuss broadening the scope of the terms beyond those specific to creative writing; because there are so many non-majors, and because an intro course can serve as a taste of the broader field, we expand our terminology toward greater conceptual work—not only can they contribute words like “metaphor” or “memoir” that come directly out of creative writing, they can also add terms like “associative thinking,” or “rhetorical analysis” that they have not been asked to define explicitly in their own majors.
As we move through the quarter, the GoogleDoc grows to nearly 200 terms and the individual entries expand beyond one-sentence definitions. Students ask if they can contribute examples of terms from each other’s creative work and their own writing, they suggest a Word-of-the-Week that I add to the Glossary with my own definitions/examples as a model, they ask to return to older entries and build on them with a new and deepened understanding of terms as we apply them in different contexts, and I point out they’ve been using it as a place to ask each other questions as well. For my part, I use it to track levels of student engagement that push beyond conventional in-person approaches, and it gives me much greater insight into which concepts and materials students might need to spend more time with. I use the document to reflect on my own teaching methods, returning to concepts with underdeveloped or somewhat precarious definitions, and challenging students to make connections between terms, especially those they may still be in the process of fully digesting.
In Week 10, I check back in with them more formally about the functions of this document: they feel that it has opened new avenues for self-reflection outside of the classroom and for more complex conversations with each other. While it still feels at times like they’re vying for original entries, the expanded options for contribution within the document have redirected it more toward a site for collaborative conversation rather than individual competition. In future classes, they suggest I spend more time framing the Glossary from the start so that students can understand it not as a site for busywork or a way to rack up quick participation points, but rather as a space for ongoing engagement with the vocabulary of a field that’s much more conceptually complex than many of them assumed.