Speaking and Visibility: How Google Docs Can Create Co-Presence in Non-Arts Classrooms

I work in the Faculty of Math at the University of Waterloo. I was hired as part of a massive project to rethink communications for both native speakers of English and non-native speakers of English. This initiative came about after university administrators learned that scores for the standardized test measuring English competency (the English Language Proficiency Exam or ELPE) were so low that students were unable to do the work required of them in their courses – this, of course, was disastrous for the students, who pay exorbitant tuition as international students.

While some faculties are still using the ELPE, based on this information, the Faculty of Math dumped the ELPE and partnered with both UW’s and St. Jerome’s English departments to shift from simply using a standardized test to measure language skills to actually supplying support for the high percentage of international student that comprise students the Faculty of Math (over 80%).

I teach a course called ENGL119 Communications in Math & Computer Science, in which approx. 80 -90% of the students I teach are international students, on average, and of that 80%-90%, maybe 20% are female. While I am very glad to see the changes made by the Faculty of Math, I find there is still a gap in the support systems offered non-native-English speakers, namely for specific marginalized populations within the  Faculty of Math.

My focus is on providing supportive, safe environments for female multilingual student: these students face tremendous systemic racism and sexism, even if they do not realize it (and most do not – when we have discussed this issue in class, these women tend to blame themselves – stating, for example, that they need to simply work harder).


Here we need to turn to Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of co-presence. When these female students are silenced or self-silence (for self-protection), the university loses the voices of these talented students. Their co-presence (active, vocal presence) in the contact zone of the university – the space where cultures of different geographies, histories, languages and cultures intersect – is required to imagine news ways of learning and being. Just to give you an example of these student voices, the following excerpts are by female multilingual students, who were working in an online collaborative environment designed by WordPress and Desire 2 Learn – here, students could interact with each others’ personal pages (this is representative student work – I find most math students are community-minded):

From a personal statement on how math should be taught:

“We should be entitled to the freedom to express and share our personal understandings and experiences in certain disciplines. While this is usually inherent in the arts disciplines, personal understandings and experiences also play an indispensable part in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines to reach out to the general public. We feel connected if we share similar emotions or experiences, and the desire to connect motivates us to learn proactively. Last but not least, we should be entitled to the freedom to diminish the barriers between different disciplines and connect them in varying ways. Blurring the borders between different fields helps us to understand them from diverse perspectives. More importantly, connections between different disciplines bring people interested in these areas together and encourage them to explore themselves from an interdisciplinary perspective.”

From a biography statement:

“Coming from a low-income area in Pakistan, I was determined to change the conservative mindset that prevails in my hometown where the women are considered homemakers and denied equal opportunities. Therefore, I taught in Mathematics in a government school in my hometown. I emphasized the importance of education and women empowerment to the few girls attending the school. This is one of the main reasons I wanted to study abroad at a prestigious university like the University of Waterloo, so that I could set an example for the rest of the girls back home and encourage them to strive for the best.  I also want to further develop my knowledge and thrive to achieve academic success so that I could go back home and make a difference.”

Amazing – right? These women deserve support, encouragement and safe spaces free from the threat of stereotypes (or worse), in which they can thrive.

According to a study conducted by Emily Shaffer, when women had no role models or little in the way of support networks, they equated themselves with the stereotype that women have a hard time succeeding in Math, science or tech fields. The hypothesis when Shaffer started her study of female math students was that these women would try to defy the gender stereotypes they faced; however, what Shaffer discovered is that without a strong support system of peers offering examples of counter-stereotypic behaviours, the women conformed to stereotype and their math scores declined.

Annique Smeding found that when women in STEM disciplines are given support and their counter-stereotype behaviour is supported, they redefine what comprises STEM practice. For example, these female math students who resist stereotypes defined emotionality as  a positive aspect of their STEM practice – a direct contrast to the edict of rationality as the ultimate term of STEM disciplines

Social science studies tell us generally that women in STEM need support networks and I argue that multilingual female STEM students need those networks and strong role models because  they are doubly or even triply oppressed under multiple stereotype threats and are often racialized to boot.

This is where social media comes in.

Elizabeth Koh explains that “[u]sing online collaboration applications, two design elements…. affect learning outcomes – sociability and visibility”; the affordances of Google docs (commenting function, choice to add a photo and other identity markers) can increase agency and confidence. Don’t take my word for it, Popov et al showed that  online collaboration encourages “more equal participation for non-native speaking students… than face-to-face discussion.” Online collaboration enhances inter-cultural awareness, including the sharing of experiences, background knowledge, and decision-making strategies.

The above quantitative social science analysis are useful but in order to culturally situate and find solutions, we need cultural critique: social media can offer the third space, as Homi Bhahba calls it, in which identities are fluid because they and the spaces they are in are always in an act of becoming – they are always in a state of being made. Within this space, new ways of interacting and understanding each other can be imagined and embraced. The third or interstitial space invites respectful, non-violent conflict – this is a space of negotiation. I can’t think of a better description of the Google docs space in which students join with me to comment and interact. Students can remain anonymous or take on their own identities. Female students (actually all students) who normally do not say a word in class are talkative in this space, sharing ideas, and even countering my own interventions.

Watch Your Essentialism

Helen Kennedy, in her essay in that really excellent essay collection edited by Julie Rak and Anna Polette Identity Technologies, explains that we need to take heed of Stuart Hall’s warning concerning “the essentialist model of human subjectivity,” but we also need to understand that “the tropes of identity and community endure.” After all, visibility is not necessarily a good thing: as Foucault tells us, visibility is a trap. The online presence must not be about surveillance and control. And so, as Kennedy explains,  we must not simply understand identity as static and quantitative  but fluid cultural performance and  practice that is in continuous formation. Whether online identities are fragmented or not, (keeping in mind Sherry Turkle’s famous analysis of online identity formation) people will continuously try to connect across political, social and cultural barriers and to me, marginalized students, in particular,  can use the intersectional capabilities of social media spaces to empower themselves through visibility and agency.


What Do I Do?

The way it works is that you need to get a Google account, then open a Google doc and create content you and your students can edit or that your students can build. Hit “share” (top right of screen in Drive) and choose “get shareable link” so that your students can use docs without having to open a Google account (most of them have one, though). The idea is to interact with students and encourage them to interact with each other in a safe space online. This space is, in part, made safe by reminding students they need to follow the ethics of the university and also the presence of an encouraging teacher (I try). When I saw how powerfully female multilingual speakers were interacting on Docs, I knew that they saw this as a safe space and told me so in an online survey. Now I will expand my use of Drive and Docs to provide resources for female students while also creating an inclusive environment for all my students.


Koh, Elizabeth, and John Lim. “Using online collaboration applications for group assignments: The interplay between design and human characteristics.” Computers & Education 59.2 (2012): 481-496.

Popov, Vitaliy et al. “Perceptions and experiences of, and outcomes for, university students in culturally diversified dyads in a computer-supported collaborative learning environment.” Computers in Human Behavior 32 (2014): 186-200.

Shaffer, Emily S, David M Marx, and Radmila Prislin. “Mind the gap: Framing of women’s success and representation in STEM affects women’s math performance under threat.” Sex roles 68.7-8 (2013): 454-463.

Smeding, Annique. “Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM): An investigation of their implicit gender stereotypes and stereotypes’ connectedness to math performance.” Sex roles 67.11-12 (2012): 617-629.

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