Participatory Pedagogies: An Approach to Meeting the Needs and Elevating the Desires of Adult Undergraduate Writers

Gabrielle Isabel Kelenyi



Year Published

First Seen In
The Sandbox

Influential figure in adult education Paulo Freire’s educational philosophies treat adults as complex human beings and critique educational standardization in favor of helping adult learners acquire the literacies most appropriate for their needs and goals.1 Freire trusted students to determine those appropriate literacies.2 However, these critical considerations have lost emphasis in adult literacy education due to uninterrogated deficit-based comparisons of adult undergraduates3 with students who follow a traditional progression to and through higher education and structural marginalization of adult learners in higher education. 

So how might literacy researchers support and study adult literacy and adult literacy programs in ways that honor the complexity of adult undergraduates’ literacy practices and learning? An answer begins with Freire’s understanding that “education is politics” and involves asking, “[I]n favor of whom am I being a teacher?”4 By connecting scholarship in lifespan and community literacies with community-engaged research principles, and values from abolitionist, humanizing, and critical pedagogies, this article proposes an approach to localizing understandings of adult undergraduate writer experiences and identities that can help educators teach in favor of this diverse student group. Specifically, I offer participatory pedagogies (PP) as an approach to understanding and elevating adult undergraduate student writers’ purposes, audiences, and contexts for writing as well as their conceptions of literacy in postsecondary writing courses. 

I am the daughter and sister of “nontraditional” students who I never really considered “nontraditional.” My mother and older brother are intelligent, capable, and successful; they are largely self-taught and brought much experiential knowledge to and from their college classrooms, such as workplace applications of course content and being primary single parents while attending school.

Nonetheless, my mother’s and brother’s academic trajectories make them doubt their own efficacy. This is especially true for writing because the ways they conceptualize and find purposes for writing differ from students entering college directly from high school and instructors focused primarily on “academic” writing. From my experiences as an educator, I’ve seen how many courses, instructors, and classmates don’t help adult undergraduate students’ higher education journeys. In the world of content standards and institutional policies, the reasons why I became a writing teacher were easily lost in the hustle of introductory composition in a charter high school invested in white middle-class notions of discipline, scholarship, and honor. Without space to normalize and elevate individual experiences, I contributed to the creation of “nontraditional” students, as secondary students from my school dropped out and seldom found a sense of belonging and possibility in our classrooms. My mother and brother have shared senses of academic unbelonging with me that contribute to doubts about their efficacy and preparedness within and beyond the academy. 

Research on adult learners in postsecondary settings aligns with these experiences. Adult undergraduate students make up a large, complex, and evolving student population that cannot be contained by a one-dimensional definition; adult undergraduates can include veterans, currently or formerly incarcerated persons, gig workers, retirees, parents of grown and young children, the un(der)employed, etc. Yet a one-dimensional age-based definition of adult undergraduate students—age 25 or older without a college degree—is what appears most consistently.5  Catch-all definitions of adult undergraduate students elide other characteristics—such as other axes of power and identity like race/ethnicity, ability, and gender, as well as other factors like delayed enrollment, part-time status, financial status, and family status—that are important to understanding who adult undergraduates are and how they experience (literacy) education.6 As such, this diverse student group has often been academically disenfranchised by structural oppression and inequities.7 These issues inform the deficit perspectives that undergird research on adult literacy and learners8 and how adults are supported in college writing classrooms—affecting their writerly self-efficacy.9

This inspires my qualitative community-engaged research with a university-adjacent writing group for low-income adults. An approach that valued what my mom and brother brought to their college writing classrooms may have helped them develop a greater sense of belonging rather than forcing them to overcome imposter syndrome. Such an asset-based, inclusive approach to literacy instruction/learning is what guides the purpose and procedures of Our Writing Group (OWG), a space that meets members’ literacy desires. OWG enacts participatory pedagogies: writing pedagogies based in love, respect, and horizontal power relationships. PPs help OWG validate and affirm the literacy expertise and desires the group’s adult undergraduate members bring with them, which helps enhance OWG members’ writerly confidence. Findings from my research with this group support PPs as Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies (CSPs)10 conceptualized specifically for adults; PPs stem from a similar guiding question as CSPs,11 but as theorized by Paris and Alim, CSPs are predominantly conceptualized for youth.12 But what about the unique needs of adults who perhaps have been broken and/or made whole through education, whose opportunities to “survive and thrive”13 in education have been disenfranchised? 

PPs extend CSPs to include adult learners and emphasize making space for adults to see themselves as whole and love themselves through self-direction of their learning. They manifest in OWG through a collective leadership structure guided by a collaboratively-devised mission statement and procedures as well as shared facilitation responsibilities. Prioritizing multiple avenues for participation in all aspects of group meetings—such as serving as facilitator, writing to a prompt, sharing writing in group, and/or providing feedback to other members—makes room for OWG writers to exert collective leadership over the group. Thus, PPs encourage members’ literacy desires to inform the expertise shared during OWG meetings and help members affirm that expertise through their participation and engagement, thereby enhancing OWG members’ writerly confidence. For example, group members take turns facilitating OWG weekly meetings, and each member chooses a new topic to inspire members to write. OWG members have facilitated meetings about meditation, bias, storytelling, ego, and songwriting, among others. Members research the topics they choose, assemble materials for the meeting, and devise writing prompts that guide on-the-spot writing.

Then, the member-facilitator leads members in sharing and feedback procedures. In response, group participants encourage member-facilitators, thank them for sharing their interests, and celebrate the rich variety of topics addressed. PPs enhance OWG members’ writerly confidence by encouraging them to write about something new. As one participant shared,

A lot of the stuff that we’ve done in [OWG] has been inspiring, like […] when people do their presentations, I get inspired to do something. And so [writing] does kind of come easy. I mean, it’s not, not as taxing emotionally, but it gets me excited, because I hope that the other members of the group can see like something done like that can get you excited, and you can write a really good piece of work, even though you didn’t think you knew a lot about it at the time…

By placing the power to determine the purpose of OWG and how the main activities of the writing group are executed, the structure of the group models how participative spaces can question the status quo of structural power:14 just because I am a credentialed educator gaining formal expertise in writing studies does not mean I should have more of a say in OWG’s activities than any other member. Through PPs, the knowledge, experiences, and desires of OWG writers are valued and affirmed; the group is clearly “zoned” for them15 when so many other writing spaces are barricaded by student status, cost, location, and explicit and implicit certification (e.g., publications, literary agents, awards, etc.). 

This move to affirm their writerly expertise is especially important for adult undergraduate students, a student population about which composition scholars still don’t know enough16 but who are arriving or returning to postsecondary classrooms17 with a variety of experiences that affect what they want to learn and how. Rather than do away with adult students’ existing repertoires as adult learning theory endorses,18 PPs offer a more developmentally and socially appropriate framework to support adult literacy and evaluate adult literacy programming. PPs honor and stimulate the complexities of literacy practices and learning by combining principles of community-engaged research as well as values from abolitionist19, humanizing, and critical pedagogies. This approach to adult literacy learning/instruction prioritizes student-educator collaboration and values the experiences and expertise of students and teachers equally, as in community-engaged literacy research participatory methods.20 It positions students in control of their own literate/educational journeys, as advocated for by critical pedagogies.21 PPs avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to (literacy) education by encouraging students to value and utilize their previous experiences as in humanizing pedagogies22 and create knowledge that can build students’ capacities to solve problems and enact social change with the same creativity, courage, and urgency of abolitionists.23

This nuanced, localized approach is of the utmost importance for meeting the needs and elevating the desires of a diverse group of learners like adult undergraduates. PPs help ensure student investment in literacy courses and help demonstrate courses’ and instructors’ investment in student writing purposes and desires as well as students’ experiential and cultural knowledge. Furthermore, PPs offer opportunities for instructors, researchers, and administrators to gain nuanced understandings of adult undergraduates. In Learning to Question, Freire encourages educators to “re-do” what he’s done not by following him but by developing practices that respond to the limitations and affordances of unique teaching contexts.24 PPs provide such a framework by aiming to accept unique individual writing processes and celebrate them, offering a perspective through which writing products are treated as important manifestations and representations of the identities and values writers want to put into the world. When we come to understand writers’ processes and products this way, writers, researchers, and educators can better support and enact inclusive and culturally sustaining conceptions of literacy in higher education.



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