Ableism in the Classroom, Teach@CUNY

Rethinking “Participation”: Starting Conversations through Low-Stakes Writing

"Notes" via CC 2.0: by

By Lindsey Albracht

A few years ago when I started teaching first-year Composition, I had far more rigid expectations about what it meant to “participate” in class. These expectations were built on the classes I had taken as a college student myself. I wanted students to talk a lot. I thought I should use the grade to incentivize them to do so, as I had been incentivized to do so.

A student of mine who had an anxiety disorder managed to communicate to me in reflections and freewrites that she was having a hard time with this requirement. She wrote about how starting college and being expected to “participate” felt insurmountable. Interviewing people (a requirement of my class) felt as impossible as attending one-on-one Writing Center appointments. Conferences with me, and the thought of peer review, kept her awake at night.

Frequent, low-stakes writing assignments became a way for us to “talk” to each other. I would comment, and she would often comment back, leaving the “conversation” on my desk. In these reflections, we discussed research methods, strategies for navigating interviews, and ways of “participating” without speaking. I also got some insights into her first year as a college student.

Instead of conferencing, we used this method to brainstorm ideas for her final end-of-semester research project, which was a how-to guide for faculty who have students with anxiety, or for students who are doing group projects with other students with anxiety. She wanted to communicate what was specifically difficult about navigating these kinds of spaces, and some suggestions for changes we could make (like reformulating my own rigid “participation” policy).

This research project caused me to radically reshape my own thinking (and accompanying course documents) to reflect what this student had shared: that “participation” can, and should, mean much more than speaking. My new grading system, the language that I use to explain participation, and the ways I’ve built in more opportunities for students to give me feedback now reflect what I learned from her work.

For those interested, here’s a copy of the revised assignment prompt for the final research project, as well as “before” and “after” versions of my participation policy.

Lindsey Albracht is a doctoral student at the Graduate Center, an Instructional Technology Fellow at the Macaulay Honors College, and a Hybrid Coordinator at Baruch. When she’s not earning a shadow PhD in watching cockatoos dance to Elvis songs on the internet, she is pursuing her actual PhD in English with an emphasis in Composition and Rhetoric. Her work focuses on translingual praxis and faculty development.

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