In all of my courses, I aim to cultivate critical, creative, responsible, and reflective habits of mind among my students. Renewing my own teaching practices is part of this commitment, and while my pedagogical approaches are adaptable, the following three key philosophies guide my teaching.
Writing is a Public Practice
When designing course projects and deliverables, I start with the idea that writing is public. Many of my course projects present students with a local problem and invite them to respond creatively within certain parameters. For example, students in my introductory composition courses interview leaders of student-run campus organizations and then create public service messages and pitch letters that support the organizations’ major goals. My professional writing students conduct research on current business uses of social media and then report this information to a local business owner in an industry-specific white paper. By guiding students toward real, public audiences for their work, academic knowledge is integrated into local community contexts, and students begin to see themselves as composers critically engaged in the world around them.
Public writing also inspires students to invest in course projects and place value on revision and response. Drawing on the idea that composing is an act of “response-ability,” I uphold listening and responding at valuable rhetorical actions that lie at the core of learning. To draw attention to composing as an interactive process, I structure each project as a scaffolded movement toward overall goals that includes regular feedback and response. Most projects in my courses begin by asking students to deliver a project proposal (including a schedule) so that I can help them establish individual project plans. Motivated by Keith Hjortshoj’s research on writing blocks, I ask students to experiment with a variety of invention strategies (i.e. drawing, outlining, visualizing, imitating, summarizing, and talking) to help them discover which composing practices work best for them. After receiving feedback, students often write “revision responses” and “comments on my comments,” which ask them to summarize feedback and generate revision plans. Writing workshops and conferences also help build a classroom environment that privileges listening and responding.
Curiosity Catalyzes Critical Thought
I trust in the power of curiosity; when we are curious, we place ourselves in a position through which to understand, to see, to care. When I practice curiosity through questioning and reflection, students often are inspired to do the same. This might take the shape of a practical learning moment: a business writing student discovering gender discrimination in a company policy. Or it might be more ephemeral: a rhetorical grammar student reading about the value of everyday literacy encounters, like making a shopping list or writing a letter to a landlord, which at first seemed inconsequential or unimportant. I believe in the power of curiosity to catalyze change—whether in social understanding, critical outlook, or practical approach. A major goal of my courses is to privilege reading, writing, designing, and communicating as venues through which to pursue curiosities and grapple within and about difference in its countless forms. One of the major learning outcomes of my Rhetorical Grammar courses, for example, is for students to strengthen their rhetorical awareness and stylistic ability as writers, while at the same time contemplate the impact of standardization on cultural language differences. As I evaluate student writing, I look for moments of curiosity where students ask questions for which they do not have answers. In my syllabi, I quote Eugène Ionesco’s wisdom: “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” In the course of our time together, students learn to navigate multiple discursive spaces, identifying literacy practices that help them compose creatively and responsibly within a variety of contexts.
Collaboration Promotes Experiential Learning
Some of the most inspiring moments for me as a teacher occur when I shift away from standing at the front of the class, and instead move into a mentoring role that facilitates experiential learning. When I think back to the most memorable learning experiences of my life—hearing a graveyard story at the top of a reclaimed mountain in eastern Kentucky, writing a “lost poem” in the campus archives, or sharing writing ideas with colleagues over a cup of coffee—I realize that the most memorable learning for me happens when I connect in a powerful way with both my material environment and the people who inhabit it with me. Just as classical rhetoricians in Rhetorica ad Herennium memorized speeches by moving physically from room to room and speaking their lines aloud, I believe that learning is linked to sensory experiences that are highly embodied and multimodal. I enjoy playing with the shape of the classroom and my students’ expectations for what kind of learning might happen there. During class, we might get into pairs and take a short walk down a campus sidewalk to talk-out the major points we’re trying to get across in our writing, or I might end class with a brief period of quiet reflection on the most memorable thing we learned that day.
Most of the comprehensive writing our students perform is expected to happen outside of the classroom—in dorm rooms, libraries, study halls, or kitchen nooks. In class, I might ask students to do a short free-write to get conversation going, or even create a visual representation of their most recent writing scene, but for the most part, they depart the classroom and head off on their own to compose their projects. By re-structuring certain course sequences into collaborative projects, I have found that writing processes begin to play a more central role in my courses. For example, in a collaborative recommendation report project, student-teams in my business writing courses work together to develop community campaigns for a local nonprofit organization. In my rhetorical grammar course, students are currently conducting collaborative research on a contemporary topic in grammar and writing instruction. To facilitate their shared writing experiences, I often designate one hour of class per week to collaborative research and writing in a campus computer lab. These hours are some of my favorites. I love entering the classroom and seeing students gathered around computer screens and notebooks, talking about how to word a sentence, where to place a paragraph, or why a certain article might be important to their argument. By bringing this kind of hands-on learning into the classroom, rather than designating it as independent work, students are able to experience first-hand a variety of writing, reading, and research practices that help broaden their conceptions of what composing does and how composing happens.
A Note on Graduate Mentoring
Collaboration is especially important in graduate seminars because it allows emerging scholars to work together to decipher disciplinary conventions and build pathways for new research. I look forward to mentoring graduate students as they grapple with rhetorical theories, cultivate professional personas, and experiment with teaching approaches. I believe that conducting research and writing with graduate students is one of the most valuable acts of mentoring. Research collaborations allow for more comprehensive assessments and analyses, and provide graduate students with immediate feedback on their thinking and writing. Composing together, more broadly, expands the possibilities of our writing practices, and allows us to reflect on the approaches that work best for us individually.
My teaching blog provides me with an interactive space for sharing teaching ideas with colleagues and renewing my philosophies of teaching and learning.