Blog Post

Okay, But Did It Work? — A Reflection on Consent-Based Participation Practice

The word "Vulnerability", written in cursive, tattooed on the author's forearm.

Last term, as a pilot faculty member with the Designing for All project at LaGuardia Community College, I joined my colleagues in creating a low-stakes assignment for a course that I hoped would increase access to my classroom. I have publicly outlined the parameters of this "low-stakes" activity, but in brief, I was teaching HUT 101 at LaGuardia, which is Art of Theatre.

Many of my students were theatre majors: some were not. When we were designing our grading contracts together (something else that's an essential part of my consent-based pedagogical practices), one of my students said, "so, we should all try to get comfortable being uncomfortable." This insightful comment followed an extensive discussion we had about risk, vulnerability (which, incidentally, in the middle of the term, I got tattooed on my arm and they were delighted), and keeping ourselves healthy. This discussion focused on the fine line between pushing yourself to do something that scares you and then feeling good about it, versus knowing that the very act of pushing yourself to do a certain thing at a certain moment will give you a panic attack and/or make things worse. We're all constantly trying to find that line in our theatre classrooms, and in our class, we were explicit about our commitments to supporting each other in pushing ourselves healthily, rather than destructively; and caring for each other when lines were accidentally crossed.

The cornerstone of this discussion -- and of our class in general -- was our consent-based system of participation. We each (myself included) had red, yellow, and green index card name tags that we changed with our mood. These Personal Traffic Lights signaled to ourselves and each other whether or not we were feeling able to participate physically and readily (green); whether we were feeling tired and/or unsure, but ready to try something new, if tentatively (yellow); or ready only to be physically present in class, not feeling up to engaging in a more direct way than simply being there (red).

The persistent criticism and caution that I heard from fellow faculty members was that students would elect to always be on red; and, since I made it clear that no one would ever be penalized for being on red, they would get a free pass to not participate (in traditional ways). This consent-based system, people argued with me, was setting my class up for disaster, for exploitation, for an utter lack of participation and gaming of the system.

As it turned out, nothing could be further from the truth.

Both on a classroom-wide level and on a one-on-one level, we negotiated what students could do to participate while they were feeling red. Perhaps they'd write their thoughts and give them to me quietly; perhaps they'd email me after class with their comments; perhaps they'd help their team, in the case of group work, by quietly researching, even if they physically wanted to sit far from the group. All of these things happened, and so much more.

My students who were on red participated in profound -- and profoundly unexpected -- ways.

One of my boys, when we were presenting our monologues, was on red. He usually was on red during class. Nonetheless, he got up and performed an absolutely beautiful monologue with passion and poise, even though he showed signs of panic right when he (voluntarily) stood up to begin. When the other students were offering feedback, one raised his hand and said, "Man, I notice that you're on red right now, and you did a kickass job anyway. That's badass and brave. Thanks for sharing with us."

And the rest of the class applauded and snapped while this student beamed and bowed.

There was a chain reaction, then: more and more students who were feeling red that day performed, and they were all congratulated with particular fervor.

Even during peer reviews, students on red were extremely productive. One of my students was on red during peer reviews and quietly backed out of interacting with others. His partner gladly joined another peer review team, without comment or criticism; just a supportive clap on the shoulder. The student emailed his work to his partner; they both agreed to look at each other's work later, in the comfort of their own spaces. In the meantime, the student worked on editing his own ten-minute play, sometimes coming up to me and softly asking me questions and for guidance; but for the most part, he stood alone in the corner, working on his own piece. Which, by the way, turned out to be amazing.

I had students who were never on green; who were perpetually on yellow. One of these students never spoke during class; ever. She talked to her group mates in small group work, and she talked to me (sometimes) one-on-one. But never, ever, ever, in front of the class. She even went so far as to ask a classmate to read out her monologue for her, because she wasn't feeling able to read it aloud herself; it was a spectacular piece of writing. However, on the last day of class, this perpetually yellow student gave a bold, confident, organized, poised presentation as part of her collaborative group project: in front of everyone.

So, I found that the criticisms -- the gaming of the system that people kept cautioning me against -- had no play in my classroom. Students on red and yellow often participated in the most creative and incisive ways, and the bonds between the students were higher than I'd ever seen in another class. They developed group Snapchats just for them, and I know many of them are keeping in touch now, after term has ended.

We as a society too often associate consent -- explicitly or not -- with weakness. With a lack of masculinity. With wishy-washy-ness. All of this, of course, is wrapped in a misogynist culture that associates gentleness and consent with negativity, with being less-than. Throughout education, but also in the humanities -- which is already mired in feminizing tones of not being 'hard' subjects -- countering these attitudes (especially when we've unconsciously internalized them) is a tremendously important aspect of designing classrooms.

Consent-based pedagogy, then, can be a very important part of explicitly inviting, welcoming, and validating students whose bodyminds are disrespected and disregarded by more mainstream pedagogical practices.


This piece is cross-posted on the Designing for All (DfA) project page: this is a project I’m co-coordinating with the Center for Teaching and Learning at LaGuardia Community College. We are working with students, staff, and faculty from across disciplines to create a more accessible educational experience at LaGuardia, countering unequal power dynamics that often prohibit certain bodyminds from truly learning with creative, student-centered pedagogical strategies that transform the horizons of whose bodyminds we welcome into our classes.

This post particularly is part of the DfA faculty’s task to create a low-stakes activity based in “universal” design for learning principles.

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