On a typical day, my classroom is loud, full of movement, and busy. Students find themselves writing in pairs, drawing with crayons, going on scavenger hunts, and generally not sitting still for very long if I can help it. My intention is to allow students the space and time to play with their writing in a way that emphasizes process; rather than simply assign projects and homework that helps in this metacognitive endeavor, I showcase multifaceted approaches to the writing process in my lessons. The creative chaos I encourage in my classes offers an affective view of my overall teaching philosophy, which centers on placing high value on student-generated content and upon breaking down hierarchical structures typically found in writing courses.
The type of informal, non-normative classroom culture I foster helps students more fully explore the potentiality of their voices. Inspired by expressivists such as Peter Elbow, by critical pedagogues such as Paulo Freire, and by queer and feminist theorists such as bell hooks, Jack Halberstam, Jonathan Alexander, and Julie Jung, I believe that in first year writing courses, each student should be recognized as a writer and author in their own right. The nontraditional assignments and classroom practices I employ break down normativizing academic structures that colonize some students and marginalize others due to race, class, (dis)ability, gender, etc. It is simply a responsible practice to acknowledge the intersectional identities and home literacies of students that have an effect on how they can position themselves as writers in the classroom and beyond. It is not my duty to indoctrinate students into any sort of academic Burkean parlor; rather, it is an obligation to make them aware of some of the institutions and systems in which, for which, and to which, they are composing. By doing so, I can allow them to choose agencies they feel are both available to them and best for them.
Students have their own discourses that they need to identify as being useful to them in multiple situations. What they need to confront regarding academic discourses is that such discourses exist, and what the genre conventions of some of them are. Showing students how to make use of their previously developed literacies in academic situations not only highlights the diversity of the classroom, but also places value on student-driven language and avoids any sort of colonization tactics vis a vis current traditionalism, as multiliteracy scholars such as Carmen Kynard have argued. Inquiry-based writing is, perhaps, the best way of confronting this, as it allows students to explore their own questions, their own interests. The inquiry projects students submit in my classes express the diversity of interests and backgrounds that we, as teachers, often appreciate in a writing classroom. Student-built websites about Chicago drill music as a form of social commentary, text-based projects on the influence of the millennial mindset on the marketing strategies of professional wrestling, or autoethnographies focused on online gaming communities that feature gender ambiguity in users’ avatars as a rhetorical tactic – all come out of my inquiry-driven prompts and students’ abilities to turn in-class exercises toward their home literacies. Students begin these projects with a broad question that they then begin researching using traditional and nontraditional sources, developing personal methodologies on their own as they go along. By encouraging students to pursue their own line of questioning, I am able to more directly prompt students to see the connections between home literacies and academic literacies.
As I’ve thought of students as communicators and active participants in larger networks of discourses, I have made rhetoric an essential part of my pedagogy, standing at the center of my Composition and Rhetoric I and II classes. In preparing students to move on to future classes and to move forward in their professional and personal lives as communicators in the world, it is my responsibility to help them learn to read the world as a gathering of messages that are being transmitted for different purposes at any given moment. As such, my teaching pushes students to become more aware of their rhetorical situations and to develop better communicative habits in order to take the best advantage of their positionalities in life.
Additionally, part of helping them develop a “writerly voice” is showing them that writing does not occur in a vacuum. As someone who is deeply invested in writing center theory and praxis, I emphasize the idea of sharing one’s writing with others in order to gain insights that might not be gained from a professor. Peer review is an essential part of of my pedagogy, with students collaborating both in the classroom and online, from the beginning of the semester to the very last day during our final exam. Teaching students to be respectful reviewers of their peers’ work as well as respectful recipients of critique helps them acknowledge the value of sharing their writing with others in order to improve and change, as scholars such as Kenneth Bruffee, Elbow, and Pat Belanoff have famously asserted. This practice speaks to my view of the first year composition classroom as a writing community – one that students need to explicitly acknowledge.
In thinking about the classroom as a community of writers, I also emphasize the notion of my classroom as part of a larger network of composing in the university environment. In the first year composition classroom we have a duty to ensure that our students see the connection between their work across courses. Transfer is not something we can expect to occur on its own. It is something that must be striven towards, and as first year writing instructors, transfer of writing knowledges begins with us. It is our job to explicitly show connections between high school and college, between Composition and Rhetoric I and II, and between first year composition classes and writing they will be asked to do in classes outside of the English or Communication departments. Without metacognitive awareness and clear explanations from their instructors, how can we expect students to make the connections necessary to transfer knowledges to the fullest capacity? Not only do I employ reflective writing as a tool for metacognitive awareness in my classroom, something recommended by transfer studies scholars such as Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs, but I use writing in/across the disciplines (WAC/WID) as a frame for assignments whenever possible. These assignments encourage students to make connections between home literacies, our classroom conversations, and the composing they are being asked to do in other courses in direct ways, often through an analysis of genre. Allowing them to develop these skills during their first year in higher education will allow them to become better communicators overall as they make connections between situations outside of the academy.
Modality, in addition to rhetoric, genre, and WAC/WID also holds an important place in my pedagogy. I show in my courses that digital interfaces are tools for students, and should be presented as such rather than be presented as novelties, as Cheryl Ball and other computers and writing scholars have suggested in recent years. We have lived in a technology-driven world for some time now. Students should be presented with a variety of modalities in order to ensure that they have as many rhetorical choices as possible when being prompted to present an idea.
At the end of my courses, I do not expect my students to suddenly have adopted a love of writing (although that’s a lovely bonus). A former student, who I had recommended for tutor training after teaching him in both Composition I and II, recently assured me that, while he looked at the world differently after “talking about rhetoric for a whole year,” he would not be pursuing an English major – “I don’t think I can do that discourse community, Miss.” However it is always my goal, regardless of the course, that my students will walk away from me recognizing the importance of writing and its place as a field of study rather than simply a skill or set of rules. First year composition is not a content-less course, and no writing course should be in service of something else. I aim, in my courses, to help my students acknowledge that, to see composing as part of their everyday lives, to understand the value of their multiple literacies, and to recognize that a solid understanding of rhetoric and rhetorical analysis can help them in almost any situation. The content of my courses is meant to help my students succeed both in their future academic pursuits and in their development as writers in their lives in the wider world.