The Politics of Participation

As a university student (and also in my final semester of my undergraduate degree), participation grades in class are something that's been drilled into my head for years. The concept goes: 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?

And having been a TA (teaching assistant) for two years, I know all about being on the teaching end of this phenomenon. You raise questions and interesting points, and try desperately to raise any sort of meaningful discussion in the group. Some students—specifically social, talkative and extroverted individuals—will almost always shine, recharging their social battery while gathering their much needed participation grades.

But how about the rest?

How about the student in the corner who is really, genuinely, extremely introverted? How about the student who just doesn't like to talk over and interrupt other people? How 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 student have not done their readings. We accomplish our own self-fulfilling prophecy by discouraging quiet students to even try again—only looking 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 "on"—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 in which 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, and 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: the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer—but in terms of participation grades and the platform(s) 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. However, this is not right. Talkative students have had life histories which have allowed them to become the way they are; similarly, shy and quiet students also have complex life experiences which 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; 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—especially those which 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.

Merriam-Webster defines "participation" as "the state of being related to a larger whole."

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.