Nearly every aspect of my teaching is shaped by the same question I began asking myself during my first teaching assignment ten years ago: How can I empower my students, especially those historically underrepresented in higher education, to connect where they’re coming from to where they want to go, and to act as rhetorical change agents wherever they find themselves? The more immersed I become in the scholarship and practice of rhetoric and composition, the more I come to believe that all students already possess a wealth of rhetorical knowhow, and that my principal objective is to help them amplify and attune it to new composing situations and technologies through reflective, equitable, and collaborative teaching and learning practices.
To amplify students’ existing rhetorical knowhow, I’ll often design a first writing sequence culminating in a website describing the communicative practices of some aspect of college life (e.g. dorms, clubs, classes, disciplines) to a nonacademic discourse community. Alternatively, I’ll ask students to describe the communicative practices of one of their nonacademic discourse communities to their classmates. In either case, the sequence asks students to instruct and entertain an audience of their peers, while it treats students’ alternative discourses as valuable objects of study and means of communication.
I’ll scaffold the sequence with analyses of results from primary research and promotional materials designed for various social media, through which students draft elements of their websites in advance of the final deliverable. Even the most prepared student can experience culture shock in their first year at college, so valuing students’ prior and other literacies is about more than facilitating transfer; it’s about cultivating a learning environment that doesn’t require students to develop a double-consciousness. Instead, students gain a sense through my first writing sequence for how their literate lives beyond college can contribute to their success in the classroom.
I want students to recognize how language shapes the world, and vice versa, and to begin to see their own writing as part of a dynamic semiotic ecology. But I also recognize that terms like “discourse community” and “semiotic ecology” are part of my metadiscourse, whereas it’s more important to me that students develop their own working theories, in a vernacular that works for them. So in addition to reading significant works in rhetoric and composition and related disciplines that explicate what we know as a field and how we have come to know it, my students also read the work of peers from current and prior classes alongside works by nonacademic writers. Together my assigned readings display a spectrum of possible shapes and applications students’ writing theories can assume. To further develop their writing theories as analytical frameworks, students conduct inquiries into the discursive practices of particular communities, professions, and disciplines, and they use their theories to contextualize lessons in critical reading, style and mechanics, source integration, peer response, and reflection.
Students in my class reflect individually, on what they’ve learned and what they’re confused about at the beginning and end of nearly every class; on what’s working for them in the class and what’s not in the anonymous online surveys I have them complete throughout the course; and on how and why they make particular composing decisions in the memos I require them to submit with each major assignment draft. We also reflect collectively on each major assignment by expanding upon and revising the guidelines and establishing the rubric criteria together as a class. We draft the language through analyzing readings and conducting peer review, class discussions and online discussion forums, until the criteria is able to describe in a meaningful way for students what it means to effectively write in a particular genre, in response to a particular rhetorical situation.
I want my guidelines and rubrics to function as interactive models of a writing ecology wherein meaning takes shape through a process of negotiation. But I also want them to function as heuristics for reflection, which is why I use them primarily for assessment, not evaluation. To emphasize this distinction, I use a contract grading system stressing rigor in reflective practice over quality of written product. Like valuing students’ prior and other literacies, focusing on the demonstration of learning as opposed to proficiency isn’t just better aligned with current best practices in rhetoric and composition; it also creates a more equitable learning environment wherein all students are met where they are at, and coached to get where they are going.
My approach to collaborative, reflective assessment is particularly valuable when teaching technical and professional communication, where I place even greater emphasis on experimenting with a range of new media and multimodal composing strategies. I care less that students master particular versions of swiftly evolving (and sometimes equally swiftly obsolescent) technologies and media and more that they understand how and why they make particular composing choices, and why it’s important to approach digital writing as a lifelong learning process. In that respect, teaching students to compose in new media only further attunes them to the lifelong challenge of learning to write in general.
I should acknowledge that more than a few students—especially those used to successfully interpreting and meeting their teachers’ expectations—experience collaborative rubric development and contract grading as culture shock. But the artfulness of a teacher is not evidenced by how comfortable they immediately make their students so much as how effectively they create opportunities for all students to think their ways out of the initial discomfort associated with encountering new and unfamiliar challenges. By inviting my students into the incredibly messy and rewarding process of meaning making with me, I try to model in my own teaching the openness and curiosity I want them to practice in their learning. And in emphasizing the collaborative nature of meaning making, I encourage my students to count on me as a mentor and to develop friendships with one another. More than any particular pedagogical intervention, the connections I help students make in my classroom will have the greatest impact on their sense of belonging and ability to succeed.
Student Evaluations of Teaching
Observations of Teaching
Engl 110.610 is one half of a first-year learning community course pairing entitled “Twenty-First Century Health Challenges.” The link brings you to the rhetorical situation, guidelines, and
rubric for Major Writing Assignment (MWA) 3, in which students design a “Student Testimonial” website informing incoming freshmen of what to expect when enrolling in our learning
community, but also explaining what they learned with reference to revised versions of their two previous MWAs and relevant student learning outcomes. All sections of Engl 110 are required to assign an outcomes-based reflective portfolio, and all students are required to pass the portfolio
with a C or better. Implicit in the rubric provided on the site are ten-point grading scales for each category (as students have seen the numeric version of the rubric in the previous two Major Writing Assignments). This assignment attempts to frame reflective writing as a public act with
consideration toward multiple purposes, audiences, and composing technologies.
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I provide a number of writing workshops for MBA students in the Anderson School of
Management. In each case, I design the workshop based on my knowledge of faculty values, expectations, and writing assignments. In designing the MBA Educational Leadership writing workshop, I knew that faculty wanted students to know when to summarize, analyze and evaluate; to choose the appropriate analytical framework for the context; to write in the appropriate style with the appropriate level of diction; to formulate research questions to guide the research process; and to correctly interpret sources. For those reasons, I focused on teaching writing as a process of inquiry, and source integration as rhetorical positioning. I also taught
basic principles in plain writing style, PowerPoint slide design, and collaborative writing technologies, because I knew faculty assigned a lot of group writing projects that included presentation components.
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