Rhetoric and Composition PhD
Rhetoric and Writing Teacher
Digital Rhetoric Scholar
ABOUT WE HEART OUR PLANET
STATEMENTS: TEACHING PHILOSOPHY & DIVERSITY STATEMENT
I come from a family of educators. My mother, her sister, my grandparents, two of my cousins: all are or were teachers. Yet despite growing up with and around teachers, I never really knew, firsthand, what it meant to teach. Now, as someone who has taught first-year, upper-level, and graduate courses over the past 15 years, I understand better the demands of the profession. Yet despite my experience, and perhaps because of it, I still feel the constant need to reflect upon and refine my own pedagogical practices. Through such reflection and refinement, I have developed a teaching philosophy grounded in three key practices: (1) implementing a social-constructionist approach to knowledge, which involves fostering physical and online spaces that allow students not only to explore and critique the ways that knowledge is created but also to create knowledge individually and collaboratively; (2) asking students to identify, construct, and respond to real world rhetorical situations that parallel the writing world they’re already a part of (or want to enter) as well as the one they’ll enter professionally and civically post-graduation; and (3) incorporating different technologies into the classroom and having students both analyze and use technologies, old and new, that mediate our world. In implementing this philosophy, I also actively and consciously practice and perform a feminist pedagogy of empathy.
Knowledge: Socially Situated and Constructed
An important feature of any course I teach is attention to the creation and circulation of knowledge—and, with that, the presence and transaction of power. Many, though not all, of my students have been shaped by the ideals of the Enlightenment era and thus have a propensity to see knowledge as discovered, fixed, and sacred. They see facts as existing objectively and empirically in the real world, just waiting to be unearthed and observed. Put another way, they have difficulty understanding the ways knowledge is socially constructed and the role writing (and by extension, language and symbol systems) plays in the creation, legitimization, and control of knowledge. Thus, one of my goals as a teacher is to help students see writing and language as epistemic—as creators, mediators, and shapers of reality.
To this end, I have students engage in rhetorical practices that illustrate and emphasize the epistemic nature of language. For instance, students often employ the Sophistic exercise of dissoi logoi, formulating multiple arguments pertaining to the same exigence. During this exercise, I draw from Kenneth Burke, underscoring that a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. Equipped with this lens, which admittedly is challenging for them to see through at first, they come to realize that there are ways—not a single way—to read and interpret a given text. Thus, when students rhetorically analyze texts together in class, they come to see this process as a collaborative means of meaning-making. Sometimes, there’s a consensus in meaning; other times, there’s respectful disagreement. And that’s fine—healthy, even—as I urge students to see such disagreement as a valuable and productive form of dialectic, especially if it’s respectful and it isn’t rooted in binary thinking or bigotry. In coming to view knowledge as socially constructed rather than static, students are able to view any form of rhetoric through a critical lens, and this critical approach to consuming diverse texts is one I also encourage them to apply to the creation of their own texts.
That said, and given our present political and technological climate, I also spend time defining and identifying not only instances of fake news but also multiple forms of cognitive bias that make people attracted and susceptible to fake news—the combination of which, among other factors, has provided the conditions for our current post-truth era. Then, we work together to specify the differences between and among the ethical social construction of empirical events, the fabrication of events, the distortion and manipulation of data, and the circulation and appeal of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Through these discussions, we critically address and unpack nefarious strategies such as whataboutism and false equivalencies, the pitfalls of both-sides-ism, and the paradox of intolerance, all of which prepares students to understand, navigate, and participate more consciously, effectively, and ethically in our everchanging political atmosphere.
Rhetorical Situations: Authentic and Purposeful
One of the most important epiphanies I had during my early years as a teacher was realizing that I was asking my students to compose in inauthentic rhetorical situations, what David Jollife calls “school genres.” As an undergraduate, I responded to many made-for-classroom assignments that called for standard academic prose, and those experiences led me to believe that such assignments were not only suitable for but also perhaps expected from the courses I was to teach. However, after assessing the student work stemming from such assignments, I recognized that the investment in and the quality of writing was below my expectations and, more importantly, that the students didn’t want to write in these academic genres—in fact, they struggled to see the point and value of them. As a result, I altered my approach.
Now, I discuss with my students the prestige of and misnomers about academic writing as well as the common academic genres they’ll likely encounter and be required to compose in for their other courses. In addition, I ask students to write about both the genres they commonly compose in and the importance they confer to those genres. Through these discussions and exercises, students are able to understand better the capaciousness of writing and the frequency with which they engage in writerly acts, ones informed by genre. Furthermore, I now design my assignments in ways that ask students to devise and respond to their own real-world rhetorical situations, ones wherein they pay attention to and make rhetorical decisions regarding exigence, genre, audience, multimodality, and ethics.
For example, for a first-year or upper-level course in writing and/or rhetoric, students might create professional portfolios keyed toward specific internships, graduate schools, or professions; they might work in groups to develop viral marketing campaigns for local causes that involve composing in multiple print and digital genres; they might analyze real-world events with and through various rhetorical theories in order to illuminate new insights; they might narrate their experiences with and in social media as a means to raise awareness about digital literacies and larger issues involving social media; they might construct a genealogy of a given technology or text to spotlight historical, rhetorical, and technological connections and interventions; and they might remediate and remix existing works in transformative ways. While students must always deliver their work to me for assessment purposes, they also must deliver their texts to (or provide a kairotic plan of circulation for) their target audience(s). In conceptualizing and executing their projects vis-à-vis the rhetorical situation, students engage in a more authentic textual transaction between themselves as rhetor and their audience, and consequently, they come to see their writing as more purposeful and meaningful.
Technologies: Old, New, and the Connections Between
Whether I’m teaching a first-year course in writing, an upper-level course in composition or rhetoric, or a graduate course in rhetoric and composition, I make a concerted effort to incorporate technology both appropriately and effectively into the classroom. Moreover, I ask that my students pay attention to technology’s presence in their academic, professional, personal, and civic lives. That said, the specific ways in which I attend to and discuss technology vary according to the course.
For example, in a first-year writing course, I ask students to write about the different technologies they encounter in a given week and the different ways they interact with those technologies. As students share what they write, I highlight our collective dependence on technology (old and new), the habits that result from this dependence, and the way this is assisting yet also hindering communication. Throughout, I have students challenge the rhetoric of technological determinism, but together, we come to acknowledge that even though we use technologies to shape our messages, technologies shape us too. In an upper-level composition course, my students and I often discuss the rhetorical canon of delivery and the way our devices for delivery influence how we’re able to communicate and to whom we can communicate. In addition, students explore the history of technologies and media, working to understand not only how a given technology both defines itself according to and builds upon existing technologies but also how we develop uses for technologies that align with our cultural, social, political, and economic needs. Toward that end, students familiarize themselves with the theories and works from scholars such as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Dennis Baron, Safiya Noble, Adam Banks, Clay Shirky, Anne Wysocki, Cynthia Selfe, and others, applying these theories to their own experiences and texts. Even in an upper-level or graduate course in rhetoric where the objective is to provide a historical foundation, I still stress what technologies are available during a given time period and how those technologies affected who could communicate and how.
Although the ways I implement and teach technology differ across courses, I always encourage my students to experiment with various print and digital technologies in the creation of their own texts. For instance, students create print texts such as pamphlets, newsletters, booklets, and posters, and in creating digital texts, they use newer technologies to compose blogs, websites, infographics, presentations, podcasts, and videos. My goal in making technology a staple of any course I teach is for students to see writing as a technology and to see communication of any kind as a mediated event. Given this awareness, students have a better understanding of how technology informs writing and rhetoric of all kinds and how they can utilize technology to become effective writers and rhetors.
Philosophy: Feminist and Empathetic
As a teacher, I strive to implement a critical feminist pedagogy of empathy because, for many of us, education is both a sacrifice and a struggle. I learned this firsthand not only from watching my mother, who taught high school English in the second poorest county in the state of Wisconsin, but also from watching my father, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in his midlife and as such had to transition into and adapt to a life of physical disability. My experience listening to and learning from my parents is a practice I work to model for my students. However, it’s also one that I enact when I interact with my students.
For me, the feminist pedagogical practice of listening to, learning from, and supporting is present when an undergraduate student comes to my office hours because she’s struggling with mental health and is worried about keeping up with the assigned homework. It’s present when an undergraduate student comes to my office after class to share that he’s feeling overwhelmed because he recently transferred from a community college and, as such, is having difficulty acclimating to a new community and more intimidating academic context. It’s present when I conference with an undergraduate who wants to know that she can write her social media literacy narrative about the resistance she received from her family when she decided to post about her lesbian identity online. It’s present when I talk after class with a graduate student about her missing next week’s class because she’s traveling to meet her biological mother for the first time. It’s present when I meet with a graduate student to discuss, encourage, and validate her scholarship on the historical portrayal and exploitation of women of color like herself in professional wrestling. It’s present when I volunteer to babysit a graduate student’s two boys, so she as a single mother has enough time to finish her grading and complete her seminar project at the end of the semester.
This feminist pedagogy of empathy is present as well in the ways I reflect on and work to refine my own teaching by listening to and observing the experiences and practices of my colleagues. It’s present, then, in working with trans colleagues and colleagues of color to understand better not only their teaching but also the ways in which the institution at large tends to question and make less safe their presence as teachers. It’s present in participating in pedagogical workshops, in attending conferences, and in consuming scholarship from diverse voices. It’s present, in other words, in the circumstances I understand, value, and for which I work to hold space.
Although I definitely learn from my students, as their teacher I’m ultimately responsible for their education. In that spirit, I attempt to cultivate an environment that promotes critical thinking and awareness and that positions students in contact with the world outside the academy. I design my courses and the lessons that comprise them in an effort to help students see their writing and rhetoric as purposeful, as shaping and being shaped by technologies, and as a way not only to challenge but also to contribute to our collective knowledge. And throughout this process—as well as through the readings, activities, and projects, I assign and the conversations we conduct—I implement a critical feminist pedagogy of empathy that is explicitly and actively anti-racist and anti-bigoted.
As an undergraduate planning to follow in the footsteps of his mother by teaching high school English, I was thrust into a mini-existential crisis when I was assigned to read Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” during my junior year. The style in which she wrote as well as the content of her writing were both new to me. Why was this the first time I encountered code-meshing and code-switching in school? And why was this the first time I was assigned a reading that asked me to consider critically the intersections between identity and language?
Fast forward a few years: now, I’m a MA graduate student reading Jacqueline Jones Royster’s “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” My context was different; the reading was different. The feeling, however, was familiar: once again, I was reminded of how little I knew about the relationship between and amongst rhetoric, language, subjectivity, and identity.
I spotlight these two texts and my reactions to them because they, amongst others, were instrumental in me realizing the importance of diversity in the researching and teaching of writing. As a cishet white male, I was slow to recognize the ways in which the world was designed by and for people with my subjectivity—and what’s more, that the world was designed that way, and then normalized, with and through language. Now, as teacher-scholar who has researched and taught writing for over 15 years, I work to make sure that my scholarship is attentive to diversity and that my students leave my classes with the awareness I was unfortunately slow to comprehend in full.
In my scholarship, I explore the ways that digital technologies impact and inform how we theorize, teach, tutor, and support rhetoric and writing generally and multimodality specifically. As someone who grew up using and experimenting with emerging digital technologies, I was drawn to the field of Rhetoric and Composition because I was captivated by the capabilities of a new medium that allowed me to compose in ways different from traditional print media. However, after reading Cynthia Selfe’s “Technology and Literacy: A Story about the Perils of Not Paying Attention” as a new graduate student, I began to reconsider and think critically about not only the ramifications of my access to and use of digital technologies but also the consequences of ignoring issues of access for those who are different from me—and what all of this meant for the teaching of writing.
Since then, Selfe’s call for us to pay attention to these issues of access has underlined and motivated my research. Whether that research involved determining departmental and institutional infrastructure needed to support multimodal pedagogy, discovering the best practices to provide sustainable tutoring for digital and multimodal composing, or theorizing an emerging digital rhetoric pedagogy, I’ve remained committed to spotlighting issues related to access and identity. Moreover, my overall prioritizing of multimodality exemplifies my dedication to diversity and inclusion: in researching the ways we theorize, teach, and support multimodality in the subfield of Digital Rhetoric, I’m attentive to the multiple and often non-privileged modes through which marginalized people construct both meaning and themselves.
In addition to researching the best practices emerging within both multiliteracy centers/digital (writing) studios and the subfield of Digital Rhetoric, my scholarship going forward is investigating in greater detail the importance of identity in digital rhetoric. More specifically, I’m exploring the ways that the prevailing notion of rhetoric-as-polemic permeates the design of social media and thus invites and endorses digital and capitalistically profitable performances of toxic masculinity and white supremacy. Through this scholarly inquiry, I hope to illuminate the presence of digital toxic masculinity and its relationship to white supremacy, to explain why people and men in particular are conditioned to employ digital toxic masculinity within social media in our hyper-aggressive capitalistic society, and to offer a hermeneutic that can help us identify, understand, and work to mitigate the existence and effect of digital toxic masculinity. In 2018, I presented initial work in this area at Computers and Writing, arguing that social media has given rise to what I term the digital aphorism, which has been weaponized not only to normalize further but also to perpetuate and profit from toxic masculinity.
As my inchoate research on toxic masculinity indicates, or as anyone who frequents social media knows perhaps too well, our current moment is chaotic, overwhelming, and disorienting both politically and technologically. Our students are attempting to understand and navigate a culture in which there are increasing calls for inclusivity, yet at the same time, people are attempting both to undercut such calls and to silence diverse voices. As such, and as a teacher, I find it imperative that I not only contribute to calls for inclusivity but also foster such inclusivity in my own classroom. In the vein of Krista Ratcliffe’s work on rhetorical listening, I ask my students to listen to and attend to multiple and diverse voices in earnest and conscientious ways—through in-class discussion, through writing, and through reflection. And in collectively listening to and engaging with diverse voices, we as a community of learners aspire to talk with, not at, each other. After all, it was the moments of classroom inclusivity—moments when I was invited to hear the voices of Anzaldúa, Royster, and others, often my own peers—that most profoundly shaped and helped me navigate critical and chaotic social and political events.
Through the work of Asao Inoue, Ibram X. Kendi, and others, I’ve also come to learn that it’s not enough to be non-bigoted and non-racist; I aim instead to be actively anti-bigoted and anti-racist in my pedagogy. To that end, I assign readings representative of diverse perspectives and identities, as students need to engage with voices similar to and different from their own. In addition, I conduct in-class conversations keyed to issues of social justice, a theme that underpins my courses overall. Here, students might critically interrogate the notion of Standardized English, considering the ways it promotes white and masculine hegemonic ways of knowing and doing, or they might examine and discuss the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, focusing in particular on the ways these movements use writing and leverage technologies to expose and combat oppressive social and institutional structures.
In attending in particular to our current post-truth era, I ask students to identify the issues and corresponding rhetorics common to and constitutive of the fake news and disinformation that currently function as the (digital) coin of the realm. After reading, watching, and discussing content about fake news, students readily recognize the ways that many of the conspiracy theories and data manipulation/fabrication that mark disinformation appeals to a pathos rooted in fearmongering and othering. In both recognizing and unpacking these insidious rhetorical strategies, we work to understand better the ideologies they attempt to sustain and the rhetoric that reflects those ideologies. Throughout, then, as a teacher I work to adhere to the paradox of intolerance: that is, if we’re committed to cultivating a culture of tolerance, we must be intolerant to those intolerant of others based on innate differences. Bigotry is inexcusable and indefensible, and I make that explicit and persuasive in and through my pedagogy.
My field of Rhetoric and Composition was created to function as a gatekeeper, as a means to deny students access to higher education if they were unable to master and perform Standardized English and whiteness generally. Over the last 100+ years, I believe we’ve evolved to the point where we can now function as a gateway, as a means for students to understand better what writing is and how they can become not just better writers but socially just ones, too. It’s in and through that spirit that I approach and enact both my research and my teaching.