I continue to define myself as a writing teacher, not just a composition specialist but also a teacher who writes. I deliberately rely on my own experiences as a professional and academic writer when I design and run my courses, while also being mindful of the diversity among my students’ experiences and interests. In addition, the following principles guide my pedagogical and curricular decisions:
Be Realistic and Rigorous
My courses are designed to meet my students where they are while still maintaining high standards. In that effort, I explain the methodology and structure of the course whenever possible for transparency and clarity. In particular, I highlight the ways the low stakes assignments, with many opportunities for feedback, are sequenced carefully and deliberately to lead to the more complex analytical work. I know that many of my students struggle with and even “hate” writing, to use their words. Rather than dismiss those experiences, or try to dissuade my students of those beliefs, I instead work to provide a means and a vocabulary with which they can name, examine, and then transform their approach to writing so they can accomplish the task effectively and efficiently in the future.
Metacognition and reflection are as important, if not more, than declarative knowledge. As both a writer and a teacher, I believe that learning how to think and analyze is more likely to transfer successfully than learning just what the content of the lesson might be. And to foster such transfer, I connect our current material to students’ previous knowledge and experiences with the subject to strengthen connections. Within the class sessions themselves, a mixture of individual work, small group interaction, and whole class discussion provides opportunities for as many different learners as possible to engage with the material. In recent years, I have implemented the Writing about Writing approach within my courses as well as examining it in my scholarship. I believe that this curricular focus aligns the goals of a writing course with its content in profound ways and provides a vocabulary, structure, and environment that is conducive to helping the very real, very individualized students who come into our classrooms learn to be better writers.
Bringing current scholarship and content into the classroom is critical and so for both my cultural studies and writing courses, I integrate my own research, as well as that from my colleagues in the field, in my teaching. In addition, my personal and professional experience with writing demonstrates that twenty-first century students need to be fluent with technology so I use various digital tools where it enhances the course experience. For example, I provide feedback on essay drafts via MP3 files, assign discussion board conversations for continuing the classwork and proposing essay ideas, and require online submissions of all assignments, many of which are available to the entire class to generate a diverse data set for analysis.
As a scholar trained to examine the rhetorical context of every communicative event, I recognize the dynamic nature of all knowledge and share that with my students. In writing classes, for example, I directly acknowledge that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to predict the writing tasks my students will encounter. Thus, my goal is that each student will leave my class with an effective, individualized process that can be adapted to meet the diverse demands of writing at the college level, and even into the professional and civic arenas. In addition, in first-year writing, I focus on inquiry-based academic writing, a conception based in part on feminist and other critiques of argument theory, to move students beyond binary thinking and to engage them with the complexity of the situations under analysis and thus present academic discourse to my students as an inter-textual conversation. This aspect of my pedagogy has been reinforced by the results emerging from The Citation Project, the multi-institutional research project investigating student use of outside texts in their writing. In non-writing courses, meanwhile, I emphasize that new knowledge, new ideas, and new dilemmas are being generated every day and encourage my students to come to resist easy, simplistic answers and instead seek out provisional, complex conclusions to interesting questions.
I continually reflect on and adapt my pedagogy, emphasizing what is working for the current group of students while eliminating and/or adapting activities and assignments that appear to be ineffective. I make mid-semester, even mid-unit, adjustments based not only on my own perceptions but also those of my students. One of the benefits of the Writing about Writing approach, in fact, is that assignments provide “real time” pedagogical feedback as students reflect on the course as well as their own actions. In addition, I often survey my students at the mid-semester mark and make adjustments when indicated. My hope is that I will never stop learning how to teach students to improve their writing.