Communication as Praxis, Reflective Practice

Responding in the Classroom

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

By Jason Nielsen 

The Classroom Communication as Praxis workshop series began with participants thinking collectively about four words–listening, questioning, talking, and responding. Everyone seemed to be the most comfortable with listening, but each of us expressed ambivalent feelings around one or more of the other terms. 

Responding felt the most problematic to me. I thought about how wound-up I can get when I respond to student writing. With first drafts, I worry about how to respond without giving so much feedback that it is overwhelming. When does feedback slide precipitously close to taking over student ideas or feeling like I am co-writing instead of supporting or challenging students?

One way I try to address responding to writing is with “lower stakes” informal writing. To this, I wonder whether I should even respond at all. Some scholars in Composition and Rhetoric make the case that we do not need to necessarily read all or most informal student response writing, but it is in that more immediate form of writing that I most want to get into a form of conversation or exchange with students. 

Another participant in the workshop shared concerns about her in-class writing activity. She described having students write regularly, often more than once in a single class session, in journal writing that was not collected. But she wondered if students saw this “freewriting” as useful or connected to the class. To what extent should freewriting in class – meant as a moment of staying grounded or connected, or having an internal dialogue – be directed more toward course learning objectives or concepts? I asked her if this writing might sometimes be collected, shared, read aloud – and if so, by what terms? Should instructors refer back to response writing later on, or make use of it to cast ahead or preview later course content? I try to do this – sometimes – but I consistently wonder if I should, instead, let students write, regularly, in spaces that are free from my perception and comments. I wonder if my repeated attempts to make use of or read aloud from student responses, even if I mostly do so anonymously, is a little overbearing – too much of their voice selected and filtered through me. 

I do not necessarily have answers to these questions, but I began to think about how to address the multiplicity of loaded energies around “responding” as the instructor by thinking about prompts instead. (And the wording of prompts – especially for assignments – is another matter than can send me into a spiral of doubt). All these questions around responding might come down to one or two.  What do we want from students when we ask them to respond (to course material, to me, or hopefully, to each other)? Or, what are our primary intentions when we respond to students? We have different answers to these questions, of course, at different points in the semester, but during these workshops I found myself trying to think about “response” as a varied and multiple form of exchange that moves in different directions in the course of an entire semester and through any given class session. 

Graduate school trains us well to think non-dualistically, but the realities of language, and a syllabus, and student expectations can drive us back towards either-or terms: Do we value “public” or “private” response? Is response particular to the individual, or necessarily part of the social experience of the classroom? Do we foreground the necessity of voice and speaking, or is it fine – even good – if students listen more than speak? Should our responses, and our prompts, be incredibly careful and precise, or loose and open? 

This satisfies no one, including myself, but my answer is usually “all of the above,” which gets a little messy. I use prompts more than I did in the past, especially for spontaneous forms of in class writing, and I try to worry about the precise wording a little less. The more ways that students might have into a prompt, the better, and students will fill in or negotiate their responses to prompts in different ways through the semester. Patterns emerge, they pick up on something that someone else said, and so on. I wonder if we can help students learn to respond, or demonstrate multiple ways to respond, as a kind of network or field that goes towards more connections and more questions. 

For a final activity in our last workshop, I attempted a first day in-class writing prompt that I have used in different versions of American Literature and American Studies courses. It’s a first-day prompt I’m never quite happy with (too open, too diffuse), even though I often like the field of response that is generated.

The workshop activity had four steps.

1) I first asked everyone to write down a possible prompt for a course they teach (or might teach) in the form of a question or two. The challenge here was a write a prompt that they could imagine every single student having at least one or more responses to, even without prior knowledge of the course (through associations, questions, examples, feelings, terms, and so on). 

2) I then asked everyone to act “as if” they were undergraduates – perhaps on the first day of class – and to respond to each other’s prompts. 

3) Then, after a brief period of writing, each person said or read one brief thing written down in response to a prompt. I usually go in a circle for this (Given the number of people in the room, and class time, it’s usually only a few times in the semester when I gently encourage every single person to share their responses to a prompt). 

4) Finally, I asked participants in the workshop to reflect on the function of prompts in their own classroom. 

In versions of this later in the semester with my students, I collect their responses and read back selected parts from many of them – almost always anonymously, unless students choose to identify and say more about what they wrote. The purpose of this as a first-day activity might be different from a point later in the semester, or perhaps not, but I was interested in ways of coming up with prompts that are open, even a little vague, to elicit the widest range of response. Vague in careful ways, though – “So what did you think of the reading” is not a useful, open prompt.

If it’s on the first day, this activity will likely generate a field of terms or ideas, some of which will come up over the months ahead. If this is a prompt later in the semester, it might serve both the student who has done all of the work to that point, is interested, and is ready to further, perhaps well beyond whatever I had in mind; or it might allow for students that are lost or disengaged along the way to find a way back in, if even for that moment. I am interested in very open prompts that let the student decide – and not the instructor – the terms of private versus social, individual or relational, anonymous versus open. 

I try to think of response in phenomenological terms. Forms of response operate in a field in relation to forms of listening and forms of thinking. Sometimes the personal moves to the impersonal – you give what is “yours” over to others or the room; or the impersonal (new concepts, or outside language that comes from others) becomes personalized through affective response, identification, and internalization. Students might hear that a response that felt so unique or personal is, in fact, shared by others; or vice versa, they might identify or find interest in new ways – ways that I usually never know of, unless they write about it – to the responses of others. This sometimes happens. Responding to one prompt leads to a train of associations – and it might lead to the meta-level question of what it means to arrive at and have a new form of response as a way of learning.  

Jason Nielsen is a Ph.D. Candidate in English and teaches at Queens College. 

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