Two months ago, I participated in a roundtable on inclusive teaching at an academic conference. There, I laid out a series of three pedagogical challenges I had encountered in my own teaching career that had left me feeling confused, angry, energized, or some combination therein. Certainly, all three experiences drew me to my current consulting work and serve as vivid reminders that there are rarely “easy answers” to what vex us (and our students!) in the classroom.
In the next three posts, I’d like to analyze each of the interactions and, this time around, offer a handful of solutions that I hope others may find useful in their own work – in the classroom and in the world. The first challenge concerns pedagogical norms and approaches, and how I was taught to teach. It engages with a series of questions bell hooks lays out when discussing uneven student participation in the classroom – “Who speaks? Who listens? And why?” (Teaching to Transgress, 40).
At the start of my first teaching assignment, a senior male faculty member offered us, his teaching assistants, some advice. Highlighting the importance of getting all students to talk in the classroom, he specifically noted that Asian women rarely spoke in class and would require needling to “participate in the discussion.” The comment was brief, matter-of-fact, and the conversation moved on.
The advice struck me as peculiar at the time because of what I saw as the rather obvious racist and sexist stereotype at the center of an otherwise common classroom challenge. Many of us are aware that there are a variety of ways to encourage active student participation and engagement – from pre-writes and freewrites to small group work around a set of discussion questions, and so forth. And perhaps many of us also know that these classroom strategies have a particularly positive impact on students from underrepresented backgrounds who labor under debilitating stereotypes not so unlike the one this faculty member voiced.
Instead of focusing on what was said, however, I would instead prefer to dwell on what was not said– namely, the academic norm according to which student “participation” in discussion-heavy classes consists of nothing more than talking and being heard. What values are encoded in a vision of student participation that places emphasis on a one-way presentation of one’s thoughts for nothing more than the performance of competence for the professor and peers? Does that truly constitute an act of participation or is it instead a display of privilege and power? And who is likely to feel entitled to that mode of self-presentation and self-performance in the classroom if not the students who already benefit from a fair bit of privilege and power outside the classroom?
When I consider the educator’s role in all this, I am reminded of an argument that my feminist reading group and I encountered two years ago in Jessa Crespin’s Why I Am Not a Feminist. Throughout the book, Crespin often returns to the idea of how women – yes, women – have become complicit in patriarchal systems. Why? “In order to gain entry,” she explains, “you will have to exhibit the characteristics of the patriarchs who built [the system]. In order to advance, you will have to mimic their behavior, take on their values.” And those values, she claims, are “power, love of power, and the display of power” (63). In order to join their culture, in other words, we must adopt their culture, and by then our ability to critique will have been compromised.
What does this have to do with classroom participation? While I am often an advocate for rendering visible the hidden curriculum, I admit that the strategy has its limits. Rather than simply making classroom norms transparent, there are times when we must instead interrogate them and, when found wanting, transform them. Informed by intersectional feminist pedagogy, that experiment in transformation could begin by attempting to answer one simple question: Are there models of classroom participation that encourage, value, and even require that students engage in active listening with one another?
Allow me to sketch out the contours of one such model.
At the start of the semester, we could include language in the syllabus outlining our expectation that, in this class, participation entails active listening, critical dialogue, and community-building.
Next, we could ask students to generate a list of strategies they could employ in the classroom to display this sort of participation – for instance, referring to their peers by name, not interrupting, showing curiosity about others’ ideas by asking follow-up questions, demonstrating active engagement with peers’ ideas by offering feedback, etc.
We could help students generate a list of actual phrases that would help them demonstrate and sharpen critical listening skills during the discussion section itself – for example, “Building off of what X said, I would add____”; or “While I agree with what X said, I disagree about ____”; or “It sounds like Peer X and Peer Y agree on ____, and I think it’s important to also consider ____”; and so on.
We could help students practice these skills by having them read their peers’ writing either before class or in small groups at the start of class, and ask them to open the discussion by commenting critically and appreciatively on one another’s ideas, framing all feedback with recourse to the phrases developed in advance.
By displaying genuine engagement with their peers’ ideas, students would learn to practice dialogue, rather than perform monologue and in the process learn how to appreciate not only their own contributions, but those of others. Most importantly, this vision of the classroom would disrupt our deeply-ingrained tendency as faculty to require that students mimic the flawed behaviors of those who built a broken system. Instead, it might encourage us all to start building a better one.