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).