Communalizing Participation

Critical Pedagogy in Interesting Times

As a graduate student at an institution with a strong women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program, I had the opportunity and privilege to take a seminar in feminist pedagogy, and even now, years later, the process of transformation initiated by that experience continues. One of many memorable formulations, our teacher shared a sequential framework for resistance: “1) Critique. 2) Vision. 3) Strategy.”

This blog post is the first in a monthly series intended to help empower the critical academic precariat with classroom self-defense strategies that protect our livelihoods as well as the critiques that we and our students need in order to keep fighting in the struggle for a better world. The motivating question is: how can instructors secure the student evaluations that today’s academic industry requires of us without compromising that struggle?

There are many reasons that large numbers of college students give their instructors unfairly poor ratings: racism, sexism, homophobia, anxiety over the future, a sense of entitlement to good grades without having to earn them, and white or male fragility, just to name a few.

Meanwhile, many instructors find that the easiest path to favorable ratings is through lowering their standards. In fact, many experience no choice but to limit their expectations as a self-preservation strategy. For example, they might jettison attendance and participation requirements, pander to socially regressive but widespread values such as male privilege or gender normativity, avoid challenging students to discuss social issues, or cultivate a reputation as easy graders (I was once told by a popular professor at a major R1 institution that he won his teaching award by “teaching the largest lectures possible and giving everyone A’s”).

For those of us committed to robust critical pedagogies as struggles for social justice, neither scenario is acceptable. Poor ratings can undermine a teaching career, yet emptying the classroom of critical substance reinforces social inequalities, rendering the entire precarious, low-paying enterprise pointless. We don’t teach college to get rich; we do it because it matters, profoundly. Anyone capable of teaching well at the university level could have successfully pursued a more lucrative career.

Recently, I set out to improve my ratings on my own critical terms. I spent weeks contemplating various methods and then applied them in my “Science Fiction and Social Change” class (syllabus attached). A bit of context: our program is an interdisciplinary humanities program strongly influenced by social sciences. It includes a small but lively undergraduate component, but the overwhelming majority of students in every class that I’ve taught there have been profit-oriented STEM and business majors. Understandably, most of my students enrolled for the sole purpose of fulfilling general education requirements, and they chose my particular section based on scheduling constraints, nothing more. Only rarely have they displayed any preparation or inclination to study humanities, let alone the politicized field of cultural studies. However, I have found ways to address their professional goals in a way that converges with and incentivizes social justice themes. For example, since a focal point of my pedagogy is on women, LGBTQ, and people of color (POC) in science and technology, my classroom has frequently become a site of struggle and empowerment for students from historically marginalized groups studying engineering, finance, etc. However, on numerous occasions a vocal minority of white, heterosexist, or otherwise privileged and misguided students have sought to undermine my teaching or damage my reputation. Over time, I have discovered a number of tactics for redirecting these dynamics in a positive and progressive direction. The practices I used in this class led to an impressive improvement in my ratings and, most importantly, protected the learning environment so that all of my students, from conservative to radical, could explore and grow, starting from where they were.

This month, I will explain the method I used for economizing participation and thereby ensuring an equitable basis for discussion, a policy that almost every student welcomed.


Participation Socialism

Quite simply, I conceptualized participation in economic terms, placed a high value on it in terms of grade weight, and distributed resources evenly among my students. My approach appealed to students based on values we shared, like fairness and equality, even though most, if not all, of them espoused a liberal democratic perspective rather than a communitarian one like mine. Nevertheless, I could tell from the comments I collected using informal mid-semester evaluations, and from an anonymous survey available online throughout the semester, that I had been wise to take a few precautions.

First, in order to protect myself and sympathetic students against potentially harsh reactions, I did not present my participation policy as a form of communalization or socialism. In fact, until some weeks had passed, giving my students and I a chance to build respectful relationships, I avoided economic vocabulary altogether. This decision was shaped by a high school experience in which my openly Marxist teacher (yes, really, in a conservative suburb of Denver!) of AP European History asked us to work in small groups and envision an equitable society. My group came up with all sorts of great ideas, such as free college education for everyone and expansion of social welfare programs. Eventually, however—not sure what took him so long—one member of our group exclaimed, “Wait a second! That’s socialism!” With that, the conversation was over, thanks to decades of virulent anti-communist rhetoric and the near total absence of Marxist study in the U.S. Teaching in a college classroom years later, I knew that, out of ignorance and therefore through no fault of their own, at least some and possibly many of my students would stop listening if I immediately identified as a leftist. So, in order to cultivate continued communication, I waited until my students had gained respect and trust for me before broaching the subject of political economy or capitalism. When I eventually did mention to them that, in addition to my decolonial feminism, I am anti-capitalist, they were neither surprised nor offended, and I used humor to keep the atmosphere casual and friendly. Also, I repeatedly reminded the students that their grades would never be based on agreement with my views but rather on the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of their discussion and substantiation. And finally, both to gain their good will and to provide a bit of experience with participatory democracy, I gave the students a voice in the development of some aspects of the participation policy.

I had decided in advance that I would incentivize discussion, the basis of the course, and therefore participation counted for 15% of the final grade, and attendance for 20%. The format of our economy of participation was straightforward. I divided a conservative estimate of the average minutes of discussion available per week (based on what was left over after lecturing and viewing) by the number of students in the class. This yielded the amount of time (ideally) that each student’s voice should be heard—neither more nor less, and emphasizing this was crucial in encouraging shy students while preventing their more confident classmates from using up all of the available discussion time. I estimated, based on classroom observation, that each instance of participation would last on average between one and three minutes. Since the students and I agreed that we wanted everyone to earn an “A,” the result was that each student was expected to participate at least once, but preferably twice, though no more than twice, each week. Thus, an “A” was defined in social rather than individualistic terms. In other words, the best grades were earned by those who respected the parameters designed to preserve equality, not by those who dominated and crowded others out. Rather than a race to talk first, longest, and last, graded discussion became a collective effort toward meaningful inclusion. It really did! And, the culture we established in the classroom carried over into our online discussion activities, all of which I found very thoughtful and respectful. By the way, almost every student did in fact earn an “A.”

Keeping track of everyone’s participation would have been a source of distraction during class, as well as a drain on my writing time in terms of keeping up with grading documentation, so I decided to give the students the additional responsibility of grading themselves. I divided the semester into quarters, and at the end of each of these periods students sent emails describing some highlights in their participation, reflecting on how they would like to improve or refine their performance (such as listening to classmates more carefully), and proposing a grade. In most cases, I agreed with their self-assessments, though at times I commented that they were too hard on themselves or that they might try taking more notes or composing their remarks on paper before communicating them to the group. At the end of the semester, I averaged these four grades to derive each student’s final participation grade. It was clear to me that this opportunity for reflection and improvement was truly valuable for many of the students, giving them a chance to strategize their participation and to notice how delicate the balance of equality can be.

During the first few weeks of implementation, I regularly asked the students for feedback. In response to their observations and suggestions, I expanded participation opportunities by creating an online forum for continuing the discussion. In addition, I created extra credit opportunities for those interested in learning by correcting mistakes that had lowered their grade (such as over-participating). I also experimented with discussion formats and with the amount of guidance and intervention that I provided, finding that a variety of textures and arrangements allowed for each student to, at least occasionally, participate in the way they appreciated most. In other words, I, too, learned from collaborating with the students in the ongoing elaboration of this economic system of participation. I shared quite a bit of power with them, but not so much that they could take undue advantage of me (in another post I plan to discuss in detail the relatively greater risks faced by female instructors using critical pedagogies). I see this as a responsible approach to critical pedagogy, one that avoids pretending that no power differential exists between student and instructor but nevertheless functions as a laboratory for controlled experimentation with anti-hierarchical organization.

I should mention a few other ways in which I protected myself from the inevitable student who sees our relationship purely in terms of exchange and litigation. Since I wanted to wait until enrollment stabilized before calculating the participation economy, on the syllabus I provided a very general participation policy: “Students are expected to arrive at class prepared and with texts, materials, and assignments in hand. Minimum preparedness includes being ready to provide a brief verbal summary of the required reading and relate it to course themes. I recommend bringing reading notes to class and taking lecture and discussion notes during class. Preparedness also includes raising questions and making comments if relevant, as well as doing one’s part to help maintain a respectful and inclusive environment for all. Disrespectfulness towards the instructor or towards classmates will result in a lowered participation grade.” I also stated that the “syllabus and assignments may be subject to change,” given that so many students will use any perceived inconsistency as leverage to manipulate instructors into raising their grades.

Not many students took issue with this policy in any way. In fact, the response was outstandingly positive. However, a few felt that their “freedom of speech” was unfairly limited, commenting anonymously that they found it very frustrating to have to compose their statements mentally before speaking (yes, they complained about this!) or that they had to reflect on how much they had already participated (I was surprised to read these comments, given that opposing social inequality was a central theme in the class that everyone claimed to agree with). However, I viewed these complaints as indicators of the policy’s success as a substantive technique for a “pedagogy of the advantaged,” as I like to think of it—my transvaluation in privileged North American terms of the “pedagogy of the oppressed” that Paulo Freire developed while teaching adult literacy in South America. If Freire sought to empower the marginalized, in most college classrooms we must endeavor simultaneously to neutralize “unearned advantages” so that we avoid further empowering the already empowered and thereby merely reproducing a stratified social system.

Who knows, one day my students may look back on this experience and realize that it was a form of socialism and that they liked it!

3607 Syllabus Elerding Spring 2016 updated 1.4.16

Stay tuned!

A few of the topics I will address in upcoming months include:

  • Dialectic of Transparency
  • Student Participation in Syllabus Citation Politics
  • Sharing Power with Students: How Much Is Too Much? How Much Is Enough?
  • The Accidental Critic: Meaningful Engagement with Students Who’d Rather Be Elsewhere
  • Online Self-Defense for Women and POC Instructors
  • And much, much more….!



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