My teaching philosophy has developed from fourteen years teaching writing and rhetoric at the college level. It exists reciprocally with my research, both informed by and informing my scholarship in writing across (and in) the disciplines (WAC/WID), genre, digital writing, multimodal composition, and workplace writing. The courses I have taught have ranged from first-year writing courses to advanced composition, upper-division business writing, and an upper-division special topics course on digital genres cross-listed between English and Communication. The following are the principles most central to how I approach teaching and learning.
Teaching and learning as rhetorical and relational.
My approach to teaching begins with the understanding of teaching and learning as rhetorical and relational. Learning is a process of change, of development. Rhetoric, while answering to many definitions, is, at heart, also about change. In thinking about my role as teacher, then, I find it helpful to apply rhetorical thinking to how I go about it, whether in the space of the classroom, a course management system, an embodied conversation with a student, or the margins of a paper. The rhetorical thinking that goes into my teaching, however, is thinking that recognizes rhetoric as complex, multifaceted, and frequently unpredictable, with ethos and affect often as important as reasoned argument based on evidence. In concrete terms, this means that the logic and evidence I bring to students about our subject material will have little chance of provoking change for them if it is not coupled with an ethos they can respect and a feeling that I value them as individuals. In this paradigm, then, respecting students is not only the right thing to do, but is also important for cultivating learning, as it fosters mutual trust and a willingness to take intellectual risks. This is not an agonistic rhetoric or one of pure persuasion, but rather one that sees the audience as an active partner in producing change (learning) and world-building. Rhetorical encounters are cooperative achievements built through an ecology of means, and teaching benefits from considering rhetorical concepts like identification, motive, and performativity.
“Interest” as critical to meaning-making and learning.
In respecting and valuing my students as individuals, I take their interests seriously, building flexibility into my assignments for students to pursue them in ways that meet our learning objectives. Recent rhetorical theory, in fact, has complicated the notion of audience, reminding us that audiences take an active role in how they respond and what they choose to take up. Similarly, Mikhail Bakhtin, the New London Group, and Gunther Kress have offered a more Peircean view of semiotics that sees meaning as made anew by each person—readers and listeners as well as rhetors. In Multimodality, Kress describes both parties as producing signs, with rhetors “setting the ground” and interpreters creating inner “sign-complexes” (44-45). What interpreters take up and the inner meaning-making that occurs is based, to a large extent, on “interest,” something Kress emphasizes in his discussion of teaching: “Irrespective of the environment . . . it is the learner’s interest which frames her or his attention to what becomes that which is to be learned” (174). In context of my teaching, I take these insights as reminders that students’ interests are assets and partners in learning rather than something to be fought, and that the connections I can make (and allow students to make) to their lifeworlds are not digressions, but rather central to the learning process. Much of my work as a teacher, then, consists of cultivating connection-making with students by paying explicit attention to their interest. Frankly, I gain much myself by doing this as students share practices and literacies with me that I would not otherwise encounter.
Responsive pedagogy in pursuit of inclusivity.
One of the benefits of responsive design stems from its acknowledgment of diversity and its working with the multiplicity of users and user sociotechnical arrangements rather than against them. While I resist the term “user” for students, I strive for a “responsive pedagogy” in this same spirit of multiplicity. Finding inspiration in Universal Design for Learning, I seek to provide multiple entry points for students and to approach deliverables with flexibility about what constitutes effective performance. At the macro level, this means I may accept a range of genres and media for certain assignments; at the micro level, this means I may, when, for example, discussing organization, elicit a range of acceptable and effective arrangements that students may try for a given text without prescribing one ahead of time. Similarly, I may, when assigning inventional exercises, build in flexibility about what modes, media, and heuristics students use, placing more emphasis on the critical thinking they exhibit in the explanatory statement accompanying their submission. As this last example illustrates, a parallel advantage of this responsive approach is that it promotes metacognition about rhetorical choices and performs the argument that rhetoric is an art rather than a science. In the classroom, this means I do not favor a single modality or type of interaction, moving between active learning activities, full-class discussions, workshops, student-led activities, individual reflective writing, small-group conversations, and even short lectures, sometimes within a single class period. As I strive for this responsive pedagogy and for an inclusive classroom, however, I am also mindful that the language of inclusivity can sometimes inadvertently exclude as much as it includes and that I must be open to learning something new from my students about their needs. Inclusivity is something we are all still learning as a society and my students have much to contribute to this conversation.
Learning to learn genres as an end in itself.
As someone who teaches writing, my teaching philosophy would be incomplete without a word on how I approach writing instruction specifically. I have many influences in this area, but rhetorical genre theory has been a major influence for me in the last several years. As Carolyn Miller has observed, “what we learn when we learn a genre is not just a pattern of forms or even a method of achieving our own ends,” but rather, “what ends we may have” (165). These are powerful words that serve as a continual reminder that teaching writing is not “just” teaching writing, but mentoring students as they learn to act in the world. Rhetorical genre theory paints a picture of genre that is flexible, dynamic, and only, in Catherine Schryer’s terminology, “stabilized-for-now.” So while it is important for students to learn genres as part of their development as actors in the world, it’s almost more important for them to learn how to learn genres. Genre research, in fact, strongly suggests we cannot become proficient writers of a genre outside its social context and that immersion and learning from more experienced writers of the genre are important, if not critical, experiences for this learning. These findings can be troubling for classroom teachers of writing and are in part behind genre researcher Amy Devitt’s proposal to privilege “meta-awareness” in writing instruction, emphasizing “the process of learning new genres rather than specific linguistic features of specific genres” (197). An example of this approach in my own classroom is the use of assignment “after-action reports” in my business writing courses to promote reflection on rhetorical choices, the abstracting of transferable principles, and goals for future encounters with the genre. My scaffolding also tends to cycle through activities that promote analysis, criticism, and production, seeking to cultivate writers who are comfortable learning new genres and thinking critically about them.
Attention to technologies as a form of social learning.
My perspective on technology in teaching and learning is influenced by activity theory and sees learning to use tools as part of learning a culture. In Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie Nardi’s words, “the use of tools is an accumulation and transmission of social knowledge” (70). So while taking the time for explicit attention to technology can feel like a distraction from the goals of the class, this attention is often part of achieving those goals. As I think about how to integrate attention to technology in my courses, I have found Stuart Selber’s argument that functional, critical, and rhetorical technological literacies are interrelated and complementary a useful heuristic. While rhetorical literacy is the ultimate goal—we want students to act effectively in the world and to help design our social futures—this is predicated on functional literacy and related to critical literacy. In a writing class, this means I will take the time to help students learn to use writing technologies more fully, while also encouraging them to think critically about the values, histories of use, and ideologies built into them, and finally customizing them for their own informed and intentioned use (or deciding not to use them altogether). In a rhetoric class, this means that attending to procedural rhetorics and to the rhetorical communities enabled by a given interface is well worth our time. And indeed, one could argue that there is little more salient or pressing.
- Bakhtin, Mikhail M. “The Problem of Speech Genres.” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. U of Texas P, 1986, pp. 60–102.
- Devitt, Amy J. Writing Genres. Southern Illinois UP, 2004.
- Kaptelinin, Victor, and Bonnie A. Nardi. Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design. MIT Press, 2006.
- Kress, Gunther R. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. Routledge, 2010.
- Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 70, no. 2, 1984, 151–167.
- New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 66. no. 1, 1996, pp. 60–92.
- Schryer, Catherine F. “Records as Genre.” Written Communication, vol. 10, no. 2, 1993, pp. 200–234.
- Selber, Stuart A. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Southern Illinois UP, 2004.