College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


2 Comments

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).


Leave a comment

Kraemer, Don J. Ethics, Morality, and Justice. CCC, June 2017. Posted 07/16/2017.

Kraemer, Don J. “The Good, the Right, and the Decent: Ethical Dispositions, the Moral Viewpoint, and Just Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication 68.4 (2017): 603-28. Print.

Don J. Kraemer argues that scholars in composition studies conflate the terms “ethical” and “moral.” He contends that distinguishing between these concepts through examining the ethical-moral interface as ‘a topic” (607; emphasis original) can provide a heuristic opportunity that can enhance compositionists’ efforts to work with diverse student views and values.

A starting point for Kraemer is Joseph Harris’s 2015 article, “Reasoning at the Point of a Gun,” in which Harris records discussion with grad students about a first-year student writing in opposition to gun control (603-04). Kraemer reports that Harris’s concerns included both urging the student “to inhabit, at least for a moment, a point of view you disagree with” and, at the same time, “find[ing] a way to help him develop the argument he wants to make” (qtd. in Kraemer 605, 604).

Kraemer presents these goals as representing the confrontation between the moral and the ethical. He also quotes Patricia Bizzell’s 2009 “Composition Studies Saves the World!”, maintaining that her reference to her “personal morality” (qtd. in Kraemer 605) actually describes “an ethics” (604-05).

To explore the distinctions between these concepts, Kraemer draws on a “kantian” approach in which, “ethically, we evaluate our actions in terms of the good, morally in terms of the right or obligatory” (606; emphasis original). He argues that we all belong to varied communities that may or may not share the same range of values or goods, that values can conflict even for individuals, and that these conflicts become “moral conflicts” in that we use moral reasoning to assess and judge them (605-06).

A further distinction Kraemer invokes to illuminate the moral-ethical interface is the difference between “what one is to be” and “what one is to do” (James Porter, qtd. in Kraemer 606-07). Kraemer categorizes questions about the kind of person an individual would like to be as ethical in that they deal with individual aspirations and values, the individual’s “good,” while questions about actions are questions about “what is the right thing to do,” that is, “the right thing for one, for anyone to do” (607) and therefore moral; emphasis original). For Kraemer, what individuals aspire to may or may not accord with the universal right thing supplied by morality (607).

Kraemer argues that when morality and ethics confront each other, as they must, we use morality to assess and reason about our ethical choices. In this process, the ethical good, which may accrue to groups and communities as well as individuals and which may be specific to particular circumstances, is not overridden by the moral, universal judgment but is taken into account. When, in Kant’s words, “human morality” and “human happiness” come together in “union and harmony,” the result is the “highest possible good in the world” (qtd. in Kraemer 607). “This,” Kraemer writes, “is the just” (607).

An important component of the just in Kraemer’s formulation is that it takes into account what doing the right thing will cost the individual actor or the community in which a particular version of the good is invoked. The heuristic value of the moral-ethical distinction, in this view, is that it sustains the “inventive tension” (615) between what we owe others (the moral) and what we see as important to achieve, to succeed at (the ethical) (611).

This view of ethics provides Kraemer with the argument that an ethically directed writer might value the rewards, both tangible and psychic, of doing a particular kind of writing well, even if that kind of writing does not commit the individual to making the highest use of his time by acting specifically to benefit others (610, 619); in fact, an individual’s practice of the good as she sees it in her writing may “may add to a reader’s labors, if not also offend that person, or worse” (615). Yet morality does not disappear; it involves the question “as to who benefits and who bears the cost” of an individual or group’s ethical choices (611). When these two kinds of stances “face each other,” we approach “the just” (611).

Kraemer develops his argument through a reading of John Duffy’s “Ethical Dispositions: A Discourse for Rhetoric and Composition.” Bringing this text into conversation with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, Kraemer traces what he sees as Duffy’s movement between the ethical and the moral, arguing that keeping these terms separate allows a more fruitful understanding of the dilemma faced by writing teachers as they work to support students’ individual goals while also fostering a set of dispositions claimed by rhetoric and composition as foundational to the field’s mission.

For example, Kraemer examines Duffy’s statement that asking students to respond to counterarguments in their texts fosters “the dispositions of tolerance, generosity, and self-awareness” (qtd.. in Kraemer 616). For Kraemer, this exhortation to students “seems unnecessarily unilateral” (616). If listening to others respectfully signals care for their ends and “that person’s life as an end in itself,” then we are obligated to “inquir[e] how his ends, taken as policy, would affect us—as well as any of the people we have the luck (good or bad) not to be” (617). In other words, this obligation requires us to expend the same rigor in examining our own position as that of others.

Kraemer provides an example of how such discussions in Duffy might more usefully reflect this interplay between morality and ethics:

It has indeed been the moral side of the discussion that has been voiced. . . . Giving voice to ethical virtue can take as little as adding, to the sentence that follows, “and to themselves”: “To teach these particular practices is therefore to teach students to read, speak and write in ways that express their commitments to other human beings [and to themselves] (Duffy 224; bracketed material added). (618)

Kraemer addresses the problem of morality when it is imagined as and critiqued as a rigid universal code. He agrees with Duffy that a moral code adopted from the perspective of one group to the exclusion of others fails as a source of reasoning about the just. However, he contends that “writing pedagogy will be better informed . . . if morality is not dispensed with as a preexisting standard only” (612). Dismissing its attention to what might constitute the good for everyone and embracing only values attached to specific local contexts diminishes the power morality has to call ethics to account.

Apropos of the “‘perfect’ justice” that may result from too rigid an application of the universal, Kraemer turns to Aristotle’s idea of “decency,” which “corrects” laws that fail to establish the just universality they intend (620). Decency derives from the “practical wisdom” in play when morality “judg[es] in situations with that situation’s particulars in mind” (620).

Applied to the writing classroom, such decency, in Kraemer’s view, honors both individual decisions about “what a course well taught might mean” and claims about what such a course “might do for all students” (621). The tension between these goals is where Kraemer argues that we approach justice, a willingness, despite our individual ethics, to “try to establish terms with one another that everyone can agree are reasonable and fair” (621).