As a teacher of creative and academic writing, I strive to cultivate an awareness of the real-world importance of critical thinking and self-articulation skills. One of the most prominent ways in which I do this is via the fostering of a sense of community. Once students begin to see themselves as integral members of a classroom community, it is much easier for them to understand that they play the same role in the larger community of academic discourse, as well as in the communities of their career fields, peer groups, and society at large.
I start each semester by making sure that students know one another. One way I do this is by beginning each semester of a composition course with a short personal writing assignment and having them share it with a small group. Encouraging students to think about what’s important to them and allowing them to learn something about their classmates begins to do the work of fostering an open, communicative, and differentiated community learning environment.
Many students enter first-year-writing courses full of preconceived notions both about writing and about their skills as writers. Furthermore, many come into the first-year classroom having had the neatly-boxed five-paragraph structure drilled into them. It is my goal as a teacher to push that box open from all sides and challenge student notions of what writing can do. Oftentimes, the “hatred” of writing is one of the things that bands students together. Rather than dissuading them from their positions, I encourage them to unpack that hatred: Where did it come from? Do they really hate it or do they struggle with it? What do they like about writing? Once we have these discussions, we’re left with a common starting point, and a sense of their goals.
This interrogation of assumptions transfers to the texts we read and write. Since awareness of subjectivity is key to any rhetorical analysis, discussions of cultural positioning are almost always at the center of my assignments. Experiences of gender, race, class, sexuality, nationality, etc. inform all writers and readers, and encouraging students to discuss and critically analyze this is crucially important to me as a teacher. This is why I make it a point to assign work by diverse writers. When, in 2012, I designed a comp course that revolved around marriage and families, I included essays that represented many perspectives, including queer and international writers. Another course structured around globalization and students interrogated the topic from the stances of liberals, conservatives, wage laborers, CEOs, international companies, small business owners, and economic theorists. There is never just one perspective on an issue, and as such, I want to expose my students to as many of them as possible.
This approach also informs the way I teach. I come into academia from the perspective of a queer, female, first-generation college student who attended urban public schools. Being outside of the academic stereotype has prompted me to constantly interrogate expectations and to differentiate experiences within my own classrooms. Students from various backgrounds will necessarily prioritize different things both in their lives, as well as in their writing, and their experiences with diverse educational systems and home lives cannot be treated uniformly. I strive to model openness and sensitivity to these kinds of sociocultural variances, and often find that this translates to the same approaches both in class discussions and in student texts.
In terms of classtime, I work to utilize multimodal approaches. Sometimes, short lectures or discussions are the best approaches; sometimes it’s group presentations or a trivia game. Regardless of the approach, I always incorporate multimedia when possible. Audio, video, social media, blogs, concept mapping, and popular culture/current events all regularly show up in my classroom. Not only does this appeal to various learning styles; it also encourages students to see writing as an omnipresent entity. It’s not just in essays–it’s in films, it’s in advertisements, it’s on Facebook, and it directly impacts their lives on a daily basis.
Furthermore, neither academic or creative writing are “just” art. They are responses to every piece of writing that’s come before, to every circumstance and conversation and challenge. The most important thing I do as a teacher is to empower my students with the confidence to write what they need to write. Whether it’s an argumentative essay about GMOs or a poem about their childhood, once students have the rhetorical and technical tools to tell the story, they own that story. Teaching students about how words can reach people leads them to see the importance of their own work, and from there, they can see themselves as active producers of meaning. They become important contributors to the discourse rather than passive receptors of it.
Because I want students to see themselves as capable and important contributors, I avoid positioning myself as an ultimate authority. I don’t offer right answers or right ways to do it. I offer possibilities, alternatives, and challenges. Even my lesson plans are written as questions. Rather than making notes along the lines of “Discuss counterargument” or “Talk about imagery,” I ask myself questions in my lesson plans: Who does this argument persuade? How might the author persuade another audience? What impact does the tone have on the reader? Why might it be especially important to pay close attention to the point of view here? Constantly questioning how I’m reading a text leads me to be able to consider the “why” of form rather than just the “what” of it, and oftentimes, the “why” is not only the more compelling critical question, but the one that allows students to take something away from the text, craft-wise.
This Socratic method carries over to my comments on both critical and creative student writing. I model my approach after Peter Elbow’s contention that he comments “as a reader about effects rather than an editor trying to fix the text.” This approach lets me offer feedback as an audience member rather than as an authority. “How do you see (x) being in conversation with (y)?” or “How might the reader’s emotional experience be impacted by couplets vs. tercets?” are frequent questions that show up in the margins. I never want a student to think he or she has done something wrong, but rather, to question how he or she could do it differently, and to what effect. Writing is a complex process, and I push students to grapple with that complexity via my comments. The multitude of angles from which one can approach any given text contributes to this complexity, and as such, in my creative writing courses, we read stories, poems, and essays as writers, considering what we can learn from the texts, and how we might institute that in our own work. This kind of guided experimentation gently pushes students out of their comfort zones and into considering what various drafts of a story, poem, or essay may look like.
This aspect of writing as a process is one that I strongly emphasize. In first-year-writing courses, I focus on pre-writing strategies and have “drafting sessions” wherein students openly discuss their struggles–finding sources, meeting the page minimum, including metadiscourse, etc.–and offer one another suggestions about what’s worked for them. Seeing one another as resources rather than as competitors helps to foster a supportive environment wherein writing is demystified. I borrow many such revision strategies from the realm of creative writing, including peer review, group workshops, and text play (including cutting up essay paragraphs and rearranging them and recording one another reading their essays aloud) in order to emphasize the ways in which writing can go from being an intimidating process to a fun one.
This is not to say that my laid back environment is equated with having low expectations of my students. In fact, just the opposite is the case. I always set a high bar with the philosophy that if students are well-supported, they will not only be capable of rising to that bar, but that they will indeed want to rise to it. Because I position myself as a mentor figure rather than an authority figure, the focus becomes less about impressing the teacher and more about impressing (and expressing) themselves. My students quickly adapt to the fact that they are the center of discussion, they are the meaning-makers, they are the researchers and the writers and the poets. The greatest thing I can give my students is the confidence in knowing that the questions they want to ask, the stories they want to tell, really do matter, and furthermore, that they are completely capable of commanding the audience their words deserve.