My pedagogical practice is deeply rooted in space, identity, and agency. College is an opportunity for students to grow as intellectual, civil human beings who are pursuing their passions and careers; the humanities especially have the privilege (if not the obligation) to assist students in this journey. While this means no two classes will ever be the same (since no two students are the same), as Mary O’Reilley states in Radical Presence, “Our most productive comments can do no more than hold open a space into which the student may in time grow.” It’s my responsibility as an instructor to create a community in the classroom—a student-centered environment that encourages students to take charge of their education, think critically, ask questions, be curious and creative—so they can find success in future classes, and fulfillment in their professional and personal lives.
When teaching first-semester composition, I always begin with a “writing biography,” a blend of literacy narrative, ethnography, and rhetorical analysis. Over the course of two weeks students collect their writing—homework, class notes, texts, emails, social media posts, etc—and catalog when they wrote, who their audience was, and what type of language and tone they used. Afterward they must use the data they’ve collected to support who they believe they are as writers; meanwhile, they reflect on their relationship with writing and how they came to where they are now. They must also consider what sort of writers they would like to become.
Not only does this assignment help me get to know my students and where their strengths, weakness, and insecurities lie, but it helps them become more self-aware. Most students come into the class thinking they’re not writers, which often means they either think it doesn’t matter what/how they write, or that no matter what they’re going to fail. During the unit we look at and discuss their work (with names removed) as a group; some students realize how unprofessional they sound with excessive typos and the lingo, while others discover they actually do have an audience in mind. They realize what kind of role writing plays in their everyday lives.
While teaching a night class at Pellissippi Community College in Tennessee, I had a nontraditional student who had a limited educational background and was initially intimidated by my class because of his insecurities with grammar and spelling. But when his draft came in, he put his soul onto the page: he described growing up in a household that did not value education, his life in the military, and how now he wants to be a positive example for his daughters. In doing this, he said that for the first time he felt he could write as himself, and that discovering this mode of self-expression was liberating. Not every student will grow and progress in the same way, but it’s important that each has access to individualized attention and feedback—that each has an experience he or she can take away something he or she didn’t know before. This assignment gave this student the opportunity to discover that, and helped him devise strategies for when he struggled during the semester in this and other classes. Writing became an outlet for him because of the space it gave him to say what he felt he couldn’t out loud.
In addition to be able to find a voice on the page, the ideal community in the classroom allows students to be able to speak their minds and exchange opinions. However when developing ethical reasoning, it can be a challenge to balance encouraging students to speak and asking them to be mindful. The master syllabus for the first year writing program at Temple University, where I currently teach, is rooted in the sociopolitical issues surrounding race, gender, and class in public space. The majority of first year students come from the surrounding suburbs, but there are also those from inner city Philadelphia. This can be a great intersection of perspectives, but at times creates tension. In asking my students to consider that balance, I must also demand that balance from myself. While I may be troubled by student views that are potentially racist, classist, or sexist I must also remember that they are still developing their world views. It must be a space of discovery for everyone, and teaching this semester has confirmed that I must be an advocate for everyone.
Despite how exciting the generative and reflective nature of first year writing can be, it is a required course and that can make it easy for the student-teacher relationship to become an adversarial one. If a student does not want to be there, the teacher may grow to resent the student’s unwillingness to engage. Or in the case of a class that’s so politically charged, the teacher may resent a student’s opinion or worldview. This resentment may be sensed by the student and make the classroom the exact opposite of community. To counter this, I always ask myself: How can I make sure their experience in my classroom is productive, and that their learning is first and foremost? How will they accomplish the course goals? At Temple, this means I model to my class how to have important conversations about controversial subjects and thoughts, no matter how uncomfortable they are. This supports those who may feel vulnerable or uncomfortable by unintentionally privileged comments, but refrains from condemning the commenter. The focus becomes the conversation itself rather than any one person.
Equally I can model to my students that there is more than one way to enter writing through my own skill set. I have spent the last seven years professionally developing myself as a writer and editor as well as an academic. My poetry has appeared in over 30 publications around the globe, and I have edited for multiple print and online literary journals while promoting the value of the English-language haiku tradition in higher education. I bring these writing and editorial experiences to the classroom because it helps students understand the interconnected and multifaceted nature of writing and research. For example in my research courses, I supplement the main project and lessons with collaborative Japanese poetry to teach students the importance of strong word choice, brevity, editing, listening, and creative expression. Because it is a class-wide effort, students have to pay attention to what their classmates are saying in order to write a stanza that would appeal to their sensibilities and win their vote. Equally, they have the opportunity to persuade classmates to vote for a certain stanza—thus practicing argument with supporting evidence—and discuss editing options.
As a result they learn to edit each other’s work constructively, which transfers into research paper group workshops from brainstorming to final revisions. They approach each other’s work with a critical, but kind eye as they’ve built a rapport with one another throughout the semester and through low-stakes activities. Rather than saying, “This is what you need to fix,” they suggest, “This is what your work has the potential to become.” They’ve seen through poetry how differently everyone can communicate the same goal, so they’re are open to exploring multiple options. Students have left the course stating that they feel more confident and empowered because what they have wanted to express is finally, coherently on the page for others to read. In creating a space for growth and development, I can’t think of anything more rewarding than a student leaving my class being able to communicate clearly and effectively.
Critical writing, reading, and research are universal skills that a student will use for the rest of his or her life. In teaching writing, I find it rewarding when students discover their own individual voices and that they have something worth saying, regardless their background. Every writer is different; I want to help each develop his or her own individual identity and successful writing habits.