Last spring, I walked toward my office with my arms full of boxes, rolled up posters, tri-fold presentation boards, and a host of other handmade objects. As I careened through the student-filled hallways, one of my colleagues caught my eye and cheekily said, “Looks like somebody’s having fun.” While no response immediately came to mind, a few moments later as I deposited my load of student projects on my desk I realized that yes, I was having fun, and more importantly, so were my students. But it was not until the end of the semester that I realized that the fun was not trivial, rather, it prompted student achievement, and supported my students’ successes; my students repeatedly mentioned in their end-of-semester reflections and course evaluations how much they learned from making multimodal representations of their research. Students said that they better understood how their evidence supported their claims and that the “flow” of their papers improved. The multimodal assignments help them engage with their writing on a different and sometimes more empowering level. It occurred to me that, after all, student engagement is the target of my teaching and the rationale of virtually all of my teaching practices.
I have discovered that students may better engage with their writing through one-on-one conferences. While the classroom offers plenty of opportunities to teach concepts broadly, my writing center experience has taught me that meeting with students individually can yield real improvements. For instance, I have my students come to my office for a conference as they begin the research paper. Before they begin their research or develop a thesis statement, they present a proposal in which they offer questions they would like to answer about a topic. Together, we often do some preliminary research by examining library resources on my laptop or through their smart phones. Through this personalized instruction, I help students develop their critical thinking, fill gaps in their research skills, and offer questions for further consideration. Moreover, some students light up with curiosity and engage with their writing and ideas when they can avoid the judgmental eyes of their peers. My composition classes strike a balance between class-wide instruction and tailored one-on-one support.
Another way in which I further student engagement is by privileging process over product. Here I have found classical rhetorical theory a firm grounding for my teaching practices. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates argues that rhetoric is like cookery; it is not an art. Socrates tries to reduce rhetoric to a set of recipes or tricks instead of a transcendent art. What Socrates forgets is that even the greatest artists rely on a set of skills and processes perfected over years of practice. Masterworks, when placed under UV light and X-ray, show reused canvases, revisions, redactions, and mistakes. Nobody executes perfect chiaroscuro technique on her first try. Similarly, nobody executes a perfect research paper on her first try. When teaching students how to write, I believe in showing students that imperfection and revision are part of the process. I sometimes bring in my own papers, covered in red ink, to demonstrate that my own writing process can be painful and difficult. My students are shocked that their teacher struggles, and this emboldens them to engage in their own revision process. My composition classes always provide students with ample opportunities for peer-review, which is at the heart of writing center pedagogy, and my students benefit from the attention from small groups or individual peers. To ensure peer-review does not degrade into mere copy editing, I provide detailed rubrics by which students can assess the arguability of thesis statements, quality of evidence, and overall structure of their papers. In my classes, students learn the first mantra of composition: writing is never done; it is only due.
My composition classes thus call upon students to engage with me and their peers as two means of developing a process of writing that also calls upon them to engage critically with their world. I try to organize my class readings around a central theme, such as “Technology and Communication” or “The American Dream.” To facilitate a robust corpus of readings, I create a website for each class in which I provide links to Creative Commons licensed articles and other media. Class readings address immediate concerns such as the status DACA and more long-standing issues like racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. The first assignment of each class asks students to use examples from their own experience and describe the ideal American citizen. This diagnostic essay provides me an opportunity to assess each student’s skill level, while giving them an opportunity to express their experiences and thoughts. Diverse classrooms that combine students from rural and urban communities, recently returned veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan, or returning students who spent years away from school often afford the most powerful and insightful class discussions, a fact which demonstrates how problematic our notions of nationalism and identity can be.
Whether I am teaching first-year writing or a course for upper division undergraduate professional writing majors, I emphasize the importance of engaging in public discourse. My courses designed for writing majors require students to maintain a blog that draws connections between class discussion, class readings, and the world at large. For example, in my course on rhetorical theory, many students find early definitions of the ideal rhetor alienating because their gender and race were not represented. In the face of our current political climate, students who connect rhetoric to #BlackLivesMatter, the Women’s March, and immigration understand how their voices have been historically marginalized. My classes address the power and impotence of social media, new forms of journalism, and viral videos. By engaging in discussion about these issues, students gain confidence and power to write their representatives, publish op-eds, and encourage well-considered debates among their peers. My pedagogy emphasizes the roots of classical rhetoric because civitas, social and political engagement, requires rhetorical acumen.
As I have found, students who are engaged with and invested in their writing are better writers. My composition classes provide students with a combination of skills, theory, and praxis whereby they become better writers and perhaps better citizens. My course evaluations and continuing relationships with students demonstrate that they are empowered by my classes. My classes also combine a variety of tools, digital texts, traditional essay formats, and multi-modal compositions, through which students learn how to draft, revise, and polish. This philosophy of teaching inspired me last spring when I sat down armed with a hot cup of tea, a well-lit desk, and a pencil to grade my students’ multimodal projects. This philosophy accounts for why when I opened the first project by one of my quietest students, I was not shocked to discover a beautiful and thoughtful poster depicting her family’s struggle to achieve their American Dream. Rather, I took a sip of tea and knew that she had become a better writer.