Denise K. Comer, Associate Professor of the Practice of Writing Studies and Director of First-Year Writing, Duke University
One of—if not the—most important features of writing pedagogy: considering classroom politics. Broadly conceived, this involves considering the intricate, shifting interplay of power, cultures, behaviors, and performances that shape interactions between people, and inform the writing within and beyond one’s course.
Twenty or thirty years ago, this concept would likely have been termed “classroom community.” But that term—classroom community—connotes several problematic assumptions that are worth exploring as a way of better understanding classroom politics:
Debunking “Classroom Community” Assumptions
- Teachers, as the authority in the classroom, can somehow control, create, and maintain classroom communities.
While teachers can exert influence, they cannot—in spite of and because of their authority—fully control the politics, dynamics, and relations among and between learners, or between learners and teachers.
- A discrete, static community can somehow persist within the ‘walls’ of a classroom.
As online and hybrid learning contexts proliferate, many ‘classrooms’ do not, quite literally, have walls. Even those that do, however, must also reckon with the reality that walls are, by nature, porous, with overt and hidden features that are always shifting in response to an enormous variety of impacts. Even if such a discrete community were possible, what would be to gain from keeping it pent up within walls, disallowing the seepage needed so it could morph for and in response to other endeavors?
- A group of people in a ‘classroom’ can agree on and work toward some ideal notion of community.
Not all people will actually agree on what constitutes an ideal community. Everyone has different, sometimes competing, aspirations and priorities, and each individual has varying, ongoing experiences and ideas. Every classroom already has hierarchies of power that inform any pretense of consensus on an ideal. To deny this is to overlook the very politics one is trying to address.
So, no control … no permanence … no ideal … and no consensus … where does all of this leave teachers of writing?
This more slippery approach to classroom politics means that, rather than developing a few back-pocket pedagogical strategies, one instead prioritizes questions such as the following throughout every aspect of the course:
- In what ways do politics motivate course aims and intended learning outcomes? What are those values and priorities? What are the stakes?
- Whose ideas and which people may be marginalized in any given conversation? Why? How can one work productively to address such marginalization?
- How would you name and describe the politics informing the texts, writing projects, and interactions within and across a course?
- What politics shape student-student interactions? teacher-student interactions?
- What behaviors, performances, and expectations will be most conducive to accomplishing intended learning outcomes? How, and by whom, might those matters of classroom politics be introduced, modeled, and, when needed, reconsidered?
- When disruptions, challenges, or resistance emerge, what can be accomplished? What are the impacts? What is at stake in the various choices for responding?
As these questions suggest, considerations of classroom politics should—even must—play a central role in a writing course, from course design and assignment sequencing to feedback structures and interpersonal exchanges.
Influencing classroom politics involves defining and naming what one’s goals are, gaining investment from others through a process of give and take, and remaining flexible in response to new developments, different priorities, and deeper understandings. Although sustained considerations of politics will yield varying approaches within and across any course, the following ideas offer some practical ideas for how to teach writing with thoughtful considerations of classroom politics:
- Choose texts that reflect a variety of perspectives.
- Integrate exploration of politics into conversations about all texts.
- Craft assignments that invite students to examine the values, priorities, and assumptions informing their arguments, positions, or conclusions.
- Promote student agency through learner autonomy and collaborative learning strategies such as peer feedback, small-group work, and think-pair-share.
- Address challenges and disruptions with directness, understanding, openness, transparency, and collaboration.
- Respect boundaries and embrace difference.
Politics reflect and shape the ways in which learners and faculty share writing, build knowledge together, explore and construct scholarly identities, and learn how to develop and contribute ideas to ongoing conversations and disagreements. Actively considering classroom politics can productively destabilize hierarchies of power, open pathways for student agency, and make visible the ways in which all people—students and teacher(s) alike—have valuable ideas to contribute and meaningful experiences to consider.
Perhaps most importantly, cultivating an awareness of, and willingness to, grapple with classroom politics helps students develop intellectual sensibilities about writing and provides a platform for exchange based on respect for and appreciation of others’ perspectives. Doing so will, in turn, enable students to build knowledge, pursue curiosity, and listen more effectively through and with their writing.
Although not nearly as tidy as a discrete, controlled, static, ideal classroom community, considering classroom politics yields enormous promise, harboring the potential to marginalize and disenfranchise or inspire and empower.