ABOUT WE HEART OUR PLANET
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 around and with teachers, I never really knew, firsthand, what it meant to teach. Now, as someone who has taught first-year, upper-level, and graduate courses, I understand better the demands of the profession. And as a teacher, I 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 are 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.
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, power. Many, though not all, of my students 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 issue. 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; most often, though, 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 isn’t rooted in binary thinking. 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.
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 perhaps also expected from the courses I was to teach. However, after assessing the student work stemming from such assignments, I recognized that 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 didn’t see the point to them. I thus 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 will 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 write in and the value 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. Furthermore, I now design my assignments in ways that ask students to devise and work within their own real world rhetorical situations. For example, a common assignment for students in my first-year writing course involves them identifying a local community-based exigence and responding to it by writing in a genre and targeting an audience that would enact their desired rhetorical result, such as raising awareness and/or promoting future change. For an upper-level course in rhetoric that is perhaps more content- rather than writing-based, I ask students to create a text in a genre of their choosing (e.g., pamphlet, newsletter, booklet, website, YouTube video, podcast) that explains a particular rhetorician’s theories and concepts to a novice audience. Other assignments common to an upper-level composition course include students creating professional portfolios keyed toward specific internships, graduate schools, or professions and students working in groups to develop viral marketing campaigns. While students must always deliver their work to me for assessment purposes, they also must deliver their texts to their target audience. Students thus engage in a more authentic textual transaction between rhetor and audience, and consequently, they come to see their writing as more purposeful and meaningful. Underpinning each of my assignments, then, is an attention to and appreciation for real world exigences, genres, and audiences.
Technologies: Old, New, and the Connections Between
Whether I am 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, and personal 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 technologies shape more than just our messages: they 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 shape 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 how a given technology both defines itself according to and builds upon existing technologies as well as 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 from scholars such as Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Dennis Baron, Henry Jenkins, Clay Shirky, 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 such as blogs, websites, Prezis, podcasts, and videos. In making technology a staple of any course I teach, my goal 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.
Although I definitely learn from my students, as their teacher I am 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 to not only challenge but also contribute to our collective knowledge.