What my professors think participation looks like

Participation is a Lie

10–20% of your grade probably doesn’t mean anything…

…or rather, it means something, just not what you think it means.

After reading Nira Yuval-Davis and Joane Nagel’s discussions of the contradictions between women’s ideological roles in a nation or community and their actual realities, my thoughts immediately traveled to my own reality as a student in a college environment. For Yuval-Davis, the contradiction is that while women seem to “symbolize the collectivity unity” of the state, women are also “often excluded from the collective ‘we’ of the body politic” and become othered in the process (19). This conception of the nation or state in which women are othered may lead to what Nagel identifies as a different experience of citizenship (261).

The contradiction of women’s perceived role in the state doesn’t translate exactly to the context of a college classroom, but I think a similar contradiction can be said to exist in this environment. While women, and especially women of color, are used to produce an understanding of a college campus and classroom as being a well-functioning and united utopic environment inhabited by equal yet diverse subject positions, women seem to be excluded from taking meaningful action in this utopic environment. This can create a different sense of “citizenship” in this utopia, or participation in this case.

This is nothing new in academia. This has been written about for women of color professors, who are presumed to not have the intellectual ability to operate in a field typically associated with white men. In a way, such a presumption works to other women of color professors, and in some institutions, may result in a limited ability to operate or participate in academia. I don’t think it’s too far fetched to imagine that this extends to women of color students as well.

As a woman of color, my personal experience in the classroom seems to sync up with this idea of limited participation. On multiple occasions, I’ve spoken up in class (not always with the threat of a low participation score looming over me), only to have my thoughts distorted or ignored, or to get a useless answer from the person instructing. For example, it’s happened that I’ve asked a question in class about the assumptions of a particular theory, only to get a simplified answer from the professor about what the theory states or who came up with the theory (and it didn’t help that this basic information was on the PowerPoint slide on display behind the professor). Right after getting my useless answer, a white male student asks the same exact question that I brought up earlier about a theory’s assumptions, and the professor deems him with the rich, deeply analytical answer I had initially been searching for. While the professor may see us both as equally engaged and active participants (as would be indicated by the equally high quantities of our participation grades) just for speaking up in class, I walk away from class knowing that my participation is limited — it doesn’t have the same value as the participation of someone else. My lived reality in class doesn’t match my professor’s utopic perception of equal participation. My participation becomes othered.

What I think participation looks like

I do admit, this is all coming from the perspective of a cisgendered woman of color, and I don’t really account for the variety of gendered subject positions within or outside of the male-female binary (neither do Yuval-Davis and Nagel — this appears to be outside of their scope). But considering that that these thoughts are based on personal experience, I have to make something clear: this sort of thing has happened to me more than once, and I don’t think I’m alone.

(If anything, the only courses where I don’t feel like my participation is othered is in courses where participation isn’t a part of my overall grade, or in courses about women’s studies or gender studies…I wonder why that is?)

So then given all this, what does my participation mean? If my participation doesn’t have the same value as someone else’s, what does the word “participation” mean when we see it on a course syllabus? To me, it seems that participation doesn’t mean a reward for actively engaging in the course, as most professors in my experience have tried to sell it. It doesn’t even mean a light form of coercion imposed on students to prevent a lag in class discussion (as I usually tend to see it). Rather, participation seems to mean a way to perpetuate the idea of a college setting as being a diverse, equal, meritocratic type of environment. Clearly, this isn’t always the case.

More importantly, what are we supposed to do about this? How can we change the way participation seems to work in college classrooms? If my grade is at stake, what am I as a student supposed to do about this participation problem? Currently, my way of handling it has been more of a quick fix than a solution: now to get my participation points, I just ask the simple questions that I’m presumed to want to ask. Why come up with complicated and interesting questions if they are just going to involuntarily get reduced to something less interesting? Why do the extra work if the quality of that work won’t be recognized? As long as I say something (anything, it seems), then I get my points. Obviously, I’m not proud of this…but if helping my professor believe that we’re all inhabiting a fake space of equality is going to get me that A, then for now, that’s what I’m going to do.