“Underlife and Writing Instruction” really made me curious about what my own students are saying when I notice them talking to each other in the middle of class. Often, as a way to politely call them out and also because I am genuinely concerned, I will pause the discussion and ask them if everything is okay, if there is something they want to bring up, or if they have a question. Almost always, the answer is no. I wonder how I might encourage them to share what they are talking about with the rest of the class. If their comments pertain to the discussion, as many of the observed side conversations do in “Underlife,” then I would be interested in hearing them (especially if the students having these side conversations were those who don’t contribute to class discussion). On the other hand, if students did reveal their side conversations to the group, would they cease to function as “underlife” activities and would the students then be deprived of the individuality they are trying to establish? In other words, how can we incorporate these underlife behaviors in class discussion? And should we?
Turning toward Dirk’s “‘I Hope It’s Just Attendance,'” I was somewhat liberated by the conclusion that it might be best not grade participation. As Dirk found in her study, participation is difficult to quantify, and therefore, because professors have a hard time qualifying it, students also have a difficult time knowing how participation is graded. I’m in favor of doing what I can to create a high-control environment for my students and so wouldn’t be against eliminating the participation grade if it helped with that. Also, I will admit, as a student who rarely spoke up in college, I would have been relieved to find that participation was not a part of my grade. Professionally, I would love to see all of my students participate and I do fundamentally believe contributing to the class discussion is an important part of learning. However, I cannot help but personally identify with those students who are too shy to speak up. Furthermore, participation being a part of my grade certainly never encouraged me to talk more. While I earned good marks on essays and exams, I was so nervous to speak, I often accepted a lower final grade just to avoid talking in class. If the grade isn’t motivating students and might in fact be harming them, then why do we keep the participation grade except out of our own fear that eliminating it will make talkative students quiet? Perhaps scoring participation has more of a symbolic purpose than a functional one. Putting it on the syllabus, in the grading section, is a signal to the students that the course is one that is discussion based. I’m curious to hear where others stand on this… I’d also be interested to know how we all do score student’s participation. On the other hand, I will say I’m all for grading attendance and lateness. These are easy to quantify and I believe being present and on time are good skills for both our professional and personal lives.