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King, Emily. Student Silence in Classroom Discussion. TETYC, Mar. 2018. Posted 03/21/2018.

King, Emily. “Understanding Classroom Silence: How Students’ Perceptions of Power Influence Participation in Discussion-Based Composition Classrooms.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 45.3 (2018): 284-305. Web. 16 Mar. 2018.

Emily King conducted a qualitative study of students’ willingness to participate in discussions in writing classrooms. She finds such exchanges essential in critical pedagogy, which, she contends, requires collaborative, dialogic engagement in order to raise student awareness of inequities and power structures “in the classroom and beyond” (284). In particular, she addresses how students’ perceptions of power differentials may influence their willingness to take part in discussion.

King reviews several decades of scholarship on student participation in critical classrooms to reveal hypotheses about the reasons students may or may not choose to speak during class. She cites scholars like Ira Shor, Paulo Freire, and Patricia Bizzell to propose that students often conclude, in Shor’s words, that their job is to “answer questions, not question answers” (qtd. in King 285), and that teachers’ efforts to make the classroom more democratic only arouse students’ suspicions because they perceive that the teacher will always retain power (285).

Other scholars reviewed by King find an explanation in students’ efforts to differentiate their identities from the institutional ones they find imposed when they enter college (285). Russel K. Durst posits that students resist the degree to which critical exploration “complicate[s] rather than simplify[ies]” the lives of students who simply want to see writing as an instrumental means to a goal (qtd. in King 286). King argues that all these explanations revolve around student responses to power relationships and that attention to this question can enhance teachers’ ability to further critical curricula (286).

The study employed “gateway research,” a six-step method related to oral history created by Carolyn Lunsford Mears. Based on interpretation of interview data, the method allows researchers to explore “students’ individual narratives” to understand how they respond to experience (288). King observed a colleague’s first-year writing class for two weeks, taking notes on student participation, and distributed an anonymous questionnaire to several sections, eliciting 75 responses. She conducted in-depth interviews with four students from her own and her colleague’s courses (288-89). King maintains that comparing survey and interview results yielded an informative picture of student attitudes (290).

King found that 43% of the students surveyed said they “seldom participate in class discussion,” while 35% classified themselves as “moderate” participants. Only 23% claimed to speak often (291-92). In King’s own observations of the students in her class and in the class she observed, students participated even less than their survey data indicated, with only 36% of the students falling into the “high” and “moderate” categories (292).

In both the interviews and the surveys, students insisted that “social difference” (292) had no effect on their participation while revealing in comments that they were very aware of issues of race, class, and gender (292-94):

[T]he interviewees spoke freely about social difference and injustice in the world and even on campus but were adamant about the lack of connection between those judgments and their own classroom behavior. (293).

King contends that students appeared to see the teacher’s fairness or lack of bias as the primary guarantor of equality in the classroom (294).

Examining her data on motivation for classroom choices, King finds that despite denying the influence of power and social difference, students are both aware of these components of classroom behavior and work actively to respond to them. King argues that many participation choices are not connected to learning but rather to efforts to “manage reputation” and “alter or affirm social identity” in response to pressures from class, gender, and race (295).

Particularly salient, in King’s view, was the association in students’ comments between speaking in class and appearing intelligent. The two female students, who were the most vocal, noted that classmates often spoke because “they ‘wanted to seem smart’ but really ‘had nothing to say’” (296), while in one case, in King’s representation, the student specifically wanted to appear smart and engaged because “she did not believe [these traits] were generally associated with Hispanic students” (296).

Similarly, the less communicative males King interviewed expressed concerns about appearing less intelligent; in one case the student “was very concerned about racial stereotypes against which he believed he was constantly working, even within his own family” (297). Comments quoted by King indicate he wanted to participate more but “I don’t want to seem like I’m dumb” (qtd. in King 297). This same student indicated concerns about other students’ perceptions about his social class (297).

The other male student exhibited characteristics of what Ira Shor calls “Siberian Syndrome,” casting himself as a “listener” who sat on the periphery in class (298). According to King, this student’s choices indicated an awareness that “his contributions to class discussions would be judged by his peers” (298).

King writes that the two women’s choices allowed them to establish power in the classroom (299). These women connected their classroom behavior to their personas outside the classroom, with one stating that she was a “natural leader” (qtd. in King 299). Their roles included a sense that students had a responsibility to the class and that part of their role was to “maintain” conversations the teacher had started (299). In addition, these women suggested that such a sense of leadership and group responsibility was a gendered trait (297).

These observations lead King to note that while teachers value active participation, “very talkative students” may be motivated more by a desire to be noticed than by learning and that they may stifle contributions from less vocal classmates (299). She presents interview data from one male interviewee suggesting that he did feel silenced when other students dominated the conversation (298). King writes that this reaction may be particularly prevalent in students who struggle with “Imposter Syndrome,” doubting that they actually belong in college (300).

King notes that her study may be limited by the effect on her objectivity of her involvement as researcher and by ambiguities in the definitions of words like “power” and “participation” (301). She contends that her research offers a “different lens” with which to examine student resistance to engagement in critical classrooms because of its focus on student responses (301). Her study leads her to conclude that students are alert to power issues that arise from social difference and often manage their responses to these issues without teacher intervention, even when they actively deny the influence of difference (302).

King urges more attention to student voices through qualitative research to determine how teachers can effectively develop their own roles as facilitators and co-learners in critically informed classrooms (302).


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Lawrence, Ann M. Teacher-Educator Identity Work in Doctoral Programs. RTE, Nov. 2017. Posted 01/04/2017.

Lawrence, Ann M. ‘(Dis)identifying as Writers, Scholars, and Researchers: Former Schoolteachers’ Professional Identity Work during Their Teaching-Education Doctoral Studies.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.2 (2017): 181-210. Print.

Ann M. Lawrence reports a longitudinal study of the ways in which teacher-education doctoral students specializing in language, literacy, and/or literature education at a Midwestern research university constructed identities as writers, scholars, and researchers. Lawrence’s fieldwork over 16 consecutive semesters (185) gathered data from doctoral students who were previously PreK-12 schoolteachers (189) working toward professional positions as “university-based teacher educators” (182; emphasis original). Lawrence’s research suggested that these students were reluctant to accept the identities of writer, scholar, or researcher for themselves.

Lawrence investigated the process of identity formation in two contexts, the doctoral program itself and extracurricular writing groups. Her data consisted of narratives on the semester evaluation forms for the writing groups, which she facilitated as “writing coach” (195). She focused particularly on “quick-write[s],” which she defines as “10 minutes of continuous, stream-of-consciousness writing” in response to the terms “writer,” “scholar,” and “researcher” and the question, “What criteria are you using to evaluate your writing/research?” (190). The prompts were designed to avoid “assuming connections between participation [as writers, scholars, and researchers] and identification” (190). Follow-up interviews and conversations also supplied data.

An important concept to Lawrence’s theoretical design was that of “figured worlds,” a term drawn from the identity-formation work of D. Holland, W. Lachicotte, D. Skinner, and C. Cain (183-84). In such worlds, participants identify “figuratively in terms of “available cultural associations with the personas” involved in that world, as well as “idealized versions of those characters and familiar plots of their activities” (183; emphasis original). For example, “academia” is a figured world; Lawrence casts the doctoral program and the writing-group environment as “localized figured worlds” in which

particular characters and actors [were] recognized, significance [was] assigned to certain acts, and particular outcomes [were] valued over others. (Holland et al., qtd. in Lawrence 184; emendations in Lawrence)

Both Holland et al. and Lawrence integrate this concept with Bakhtin’s theory that “authoritative discourses” can become “internally persuasive” as people develop identities voa the discourses, which direct activities and perceptions within figured worlds (Bakhtin, qtd. in Lawrence 184).

Lawrence notes that in both the doctoral program and the writing groups, participants produced academic research writing, in many cases successfully submitting to conferences, journals, and books—even “compet[ing]” with faculty mentors (189). She reports that in the doctoral-program figured world, the participants were cast as students under the directorship of an authoritative faculty supervisor. In contrast, in the voluntary writing groups, which met both face-to-face and online, participants were considered colleagues and collaborators (184, 187).

Comprehensive tables track the shifting identifications of the participants across semesters as they worked on a variety of scholarly and professional products. Lawrence’s analysis of the quick-writes of the 10 woman and single man in the study revealed “a genre of (dis)identification narrative recounted by the women” but not by the man (194).

The narrative, Lawrence writes, developed through three “plot points” (195). The women recognized the “figural” personas associated with the terms writer, scholar, and researcher: “literary authors, discerning individuals, and meticulous investigators” (196). In the second plot move, the women distanced themselves from such figures, whom they saw as hierarchical and elite, characterized by “exclusiveness” and, in the depiction of one student, “superiority” (197). Finally, the women “revised their initial images of writers, scholars, and researchers to evoke more of their own values, practices, and goals,” creating

a revised figurative identity that did not require publication, privileged the self as audience, and promoted the aesthetic experience of “spontaneous” composing, rather than adherence to genre “conventions.” (quotations from study participant in Lawrence 197)

In Lawrence’s view, with these moves, the women recognized “figurative identities” affiliated with the figured world of academia but refused “positional” identifications that would have required them to accept the relations of power, authority, and privilege associated with their perceptions of these figures (196). The women opted to recreate the figures into “amalgams” with limited expertise and authority that they were then willing to claim (197).

In contrast, the male participant aligned himself with the conventional academic identities, displaying little of the conflict evident in the women’s narratives (200-01). However, he subsequently revealed to Lawrence that his portrayal of himself concealed responses similar to those of the women that he had felt “inhibited from sharing” because of “sociocultural norms” dictating masculine expressions of weakness or doubt (202).

Lawrence indicates that the voluntary writing groups introduced many of the skills necessary to successful academic research and publication, but that the study participants struggled to accept the role of authoritative colleague that these groups offered, opting more often for the role of “student’ encouraged by the doctoral figured world (202-03), thus, in Bakhtin’s terms, finding the “schoolishness” (A. E. Whitney, qtd. in Lawrence 206) of the program’s “authoritative discourses” more “internally persuasive” (203). For Lawrence, these choices may be related to an “imposter syndrome” derived from the widespread lack of authority granted to schoolteachers and even to teacher-researchers in general, especially to the women who most often occupy these roles (204-05).

Lawrence stresses the importance of teacher-education programs that encourage developing faculty to recognize and act on their authority as researchers and colleagues. She notes that in later correspondence, her participants reported that their tendency to avoid these roles affected their ability to earn promotions and assert their expertise in their later careers (204-05).

In her discussion, Lawrence explores how the figured worlds of the writing groups and the more formal doctoral program might work together more effectively to encourage professional identity formation among students like her participants. Because the groups, as voluntary and extracurricular activities, did not command the “institutional authority” of the program itself, their influence on identities may have been undercut (206).

Lawrence suggests that program faculty might become more proactive as participant-facilitators in these groups by acting as colleagues rather than supervisors and sharing their own experiences as writers and researchers (207). Although faculty might fear “potential risks to faculty authority” (207), Lawrence argues that such roles can lead faculty to explore their own roles as educators and allow group members, including faculty, to analyze their trajectories through different identities, including that of “schoolteacher,” which Lawrence sees as an important springboard for the study of writing education (182). Such interaction, Lawrence contends, can make the doctoral program itself more conducive to collegial interaction (206-07). Lawrence urges more research into the development of faculty identity with attention to gender and to the productive intersection of possible figured worlds (205-06).