The politics of participation Tutorials at McMaster University should try to cater to more students

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By: Jason Lau

As a university student, participation grades in class are something that’s been drilled into my head for years. If you want a better grade in the course, participate actively in class discussions and voice your opinions about the class material. Higher grades go to those who participate and engage with the material, and lower grades to those who don’t. Sounds fair, right?

Having been a TA at McMaster for two years, I know all about being on the teaching end of this phenomenon. You raise questions and interesting points, and desperately try to raise any sort of meaningful discussion in the group. Some students, specifically social, talkative and extroverted individuals will almost always shine as they recharge their social batteries while getting their much needed participation grades.

But what about the rest? What about the introverted student in the corner? What about the student who doesn’t like to talk over and interrupt other people? What about the international student who is unconfident with their English speaking abilities?

We give them low grades, if any at all. We tell them that they have not fulfilled the course criteria, and we rationalize it all to think that not speaking means not participating. We assume that these students have not done their readings. We accomplish our own self-fulfilling prophecy by discouraging quiet students to even try again as they look forward to slipping out the door right when the clock hits 20 minutes past the hour.

The evaluation of students’ learning is nevertheless dependent on our ability to be constantly extroverted, talkative, loud and opinionated. We promote it as the only way that demonstrates you have learned something, and the only method of evaluating success as a student in a tutorial environment.

However, more often than not, the phenomenon of tutorial and class participation reflects larger sociopolitical influences and biases that are extremely subtle, but still underlie how participation is practiced and controlled in a classroom environment.

The way that tutorials and class discussions play out reflects the complicated politics of who gets to control the conversation, who gets to voice their opinion and whose story gets told over others’. If an instructor is not careful of their biases, they will make the mistake of favouring several students or types of students over others.

We give them low grades, if any at all. We tell them they have not fulfilled the course criteria, and we rationalize it all to think that not speaking means not participating.

While giving a platform for the favoured to voice their opinions, they will also simultaneously silence others and communicate to them that, somehow, their opinions matter less.

In some cases, instructors sustain a cycle of privileging specific voices that are already privileged while keeping minority voices subordinate. Think of it as the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer, but in terms of participation grades and the platforms given for specific voices over others in an academic environment.

I will admit that I have made mistakes of my own as a TA in favouring only the talkative students whom I consequently saw as the only engaged ones in my tutorials.

This is not right. Talkative students have had life histories that have allowed them to become the way they are. Similarly, shy and quiet students also have complex life experiences that have made them afraid to voice their opinions in public around a group of people who may not be like them. We have to understand that, and we have to take that into consideration.

It’s not okay for an educator to assume one specific mode of engagement as correct and capitalize solely on that. In fact, as an educator, our roles are to make students feel as if their voices matter at all. It’s not about sitting back and waiting for students to speak up, or come to us, but instead actively working to encourage the expression of student voices.

This is especially true for those that may already be stifled. It’s never going to be perfect, but education should nonetheless be about democratizing academic discussion, and not perpetuating the very inequalities that already exist in our world.

Let us finally realize that true academic participation comes not from the voicing and reception of singular and insular ideas, but instead the synthesis of ideas, relationships and conversations between all members of the whole classroom.

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