At the core of my teaching philosophy is a belief that all students bring with them to the classroom, rich and diverse histories, experience, and acquired literacies and that what takes place in the writing space itself is a far more complex undertaking than our disciplinary history has allowed. Central to any course that I teach, whether a seminar in composition theory or a first year writing course, is first the recognition that learning takes place in the context of projects and that the writing that takes place in the classroom functions beyond representation.
These beliefs and commitments are born out of and connected to my past and current research, an interest in understanding how individuals use language in the writing space to resolve some of the conflicts that arise when the familiar intersects with the unfamiliar. As part of this research I’ve come to understand that the construction of knowledge as dependent on the context in which it evolves. A belief that learning is always and already situated has had significant affect on my teaching. My approach is best characterized as —multi-genre/project-based, rhetorical in nature, and community research-based, all of which provide opportunities for students to take ownership, make rhetorical choices, and think critically about their work and their learning.
In undergraduate writing classes, for example, I highlight three major focuses, choosing topics, exploring problems and designing projects. Students use multiple genres, all in service to a larger project. The project itself is treated as a kind of overall assemblage within which students’ multi-genre compositions function as parts constituting the whole. Writing projects include short stories, which help students zero in on what is significant about a memorable event. This particular genre helps students identify topics of special interest. Another assignment asks students to use the short story as springboard for producing a radio essay for NPR. This audio essay asks students to attend to a particular audience and extend what is personal to an issue of a political or social relevance. As part of a research unit, students schedule interviews and write interview protocols, which provide students a chance to articulate and design questions that will challenge their assumptions. And for a final project, students propose solutions to social, academic or workplace problems born out of their research. Ultimately, to supplement written project proposals, students create multimodal deliverables, including brochures, websites, prezis, posters, and more. Deliverables provide the occasion to address a need in a concrete way. At the heart of her pedagogy is a focus on relevancy, understanding how various genres and mediums connect to and support other projects, and most importantly an understanding that “good writing” takes place in context. My interest in a project-method pedagogy grows from a firm conviction that the study of rhetoric is central to the teaching of writing.
In line with the work of many post process theorists, I take seriously the idea that to learn is to interpret and to interpret involves more than a capacity to code switch or adopt the discourse of another, but rather to engage in what Thomas Kent calls the paralogic process of entering into a relationship of understanding with other language users, a process I treat as inherently rhetorical. This has informed my pedagogy in significant ways. This approach, what I call “adopting a rhetorical lens” serves as the theoretical framework for recognizing teaching and learning as a complex dialectical undertaking dependent on the very particular context within which it takes place. While rhetorical criticism and analysis is common in most undergraduate composition classrooms, I believe that it’s important that we move beyond analysis, that we have a responsibility, as teachers, to saturate the classroom with opportunities for students to produce projects of their own design. In alignment with a project approach is the belief that learning always takes place in a context, and it is attention to context that affords students the chance to regard their learning as relevant.
For undergraduates in particular, a project model represents an enthusiastic nod to student-centered pedagogy, and provides a chance for students to develop skills in what Michael Apple calls “functional,” “critical,” and “political literacies.” Community based research, a central component in the undergraduate courses I teach gives students a chance to challenge some of their assumptions and understand issues from multiple perspectives.
I include a community-based research component in most classes I teach as a means for students to reflect more critically on how their interests intersect with the interests of the larger community. For example, a Hispanic student enrolled in a FYW class who chooses to pursue a project aimed at raising awareness about the rise in diabetes in her community finds after interviewing one of her local social service providers that there is a good deal of information available but that not everyone has access to the information. This new information helps the student think more critically about the problem, sending her in a new direction. Rather than simply regurgitating information on diabetes, she decides to focus on issues of access and distribution, and her final creative project is informed by the complexities inherent both to her topic and composing process. Such community-based research affords students at all levels, the chance to situate their ideas in real-world contexts, to look critically at some of the assumptions they hold, and to experience the power structures and political contexts that affect the reception of their work.
This past year, I designed a writing course that intersected with a community-writing workshop centered on writing for social and digital media contexts. As part of a two-week workshop, the course hosted a guest instructor: a digital media consultant and e-book author. The workshop was open to the community, and students enrolled in the writing course used what they were learning about rhetoric and writing in the first unit to prepare, posters, event cards, and flyers to promote the workshop and recruit community participants (individuals connected to non-profits, community organizers, entrepreneurs, hobby bloggers, etc.). In addition to promotional materials, students developed presentation tools and various other deliverables for the workshop, aimed at helping community participants develop their writing projects by understanding their own learning and writing as a rhetorical act.
I believe that for students to participate actively as members of their communities, they will need to expand their notion of audience beyond the academy, to develop skills in identifying and analyzing a variety of audience needs, to adapt conventions of writing and speaking, genre, and medium for diverse groups. The methods and practices described here insist that students develop an awareness of the presence of diversity in their communities, and they insist students engage the rhetorical skills needed to enter into an understanding that writing is public, interpreted and situated, that it is inherently rhetorical.
I recognize that for most, this kind of critical awareness does not come easily, regardless of education and background, yet I believe this kind of rhetorical sensitivity is necessary to meet the challenges of our increasingly global and digital world. My courses provide students, both graduate and undergraduate, with an opportunity to focus on everyday language, its uses and problem, drawing from the student’s own experiences to better understand the social, cultural and political nature of language and literacy within familiar contexts; and then to situate these rhetorics in relationship to others. Successful instruction requires what Angela Valenzuela refers to as “additive environments” where students bring with them their rich experiences, languages, dialects and ways of knowing to share with others in a “respectful, relational manner.” My goal is to facilitate students’ capacity to draw upon familiar “vocabularies”as the necessary means to engage vigorously in the negotiation of a new one.
Above all, I am convinced that as teachers we must locate methods and practice that make possible students’ capacity to take bold stances toward their own learning, to engage the well-sharpened tools of the academy not as ends unto themselves or merely objects of representation but also to regard their work in the university as an important and necessary component to their intellectual growth and immediately relevant to their personal, professional, and academic lives.