My experience teaching and developing a variety of courses has focused on facilitating a diverse group of students to develop critical analysis and argumentation skills through contextually relevant situations. By allowing students to find their own relevance in the course content, their writing can more easily become meaningful to them. When students find relevant contexts to express themselves, I believe they are more likely to transfer skills from the classroom into their own practices outside of the classroom, which is ultimately my goal as a teacher. My teaching practice is a result of my research on education, pedagogy, and, perhaps more importantly, what I’ve learned is effective through my experience and student feedback. I take pride in my teaching and am honored to have been nominated for the Star Faculty Award each of the ten years that I have taught at my current two-year college.
Dirkx & Prenger argue that adult students learn best when skills are situated within a meaningful context. I have seen this to be true in my own practice. As Brown, Collins, & Duguid claim in defining situated cognition, contextualizing learning environments facilitates the building of skills that can be applied, as opposed to mere knowledge and facts that can only be recited. In order to apply this in my pedagogy, I actively promote multiple contexts in which we (my students and myself) can understand the application of the knowledge required by both course outcomes and participation in civic life. In composition, for instance, I’ve found that using mash-ups to teach synthesis is much more effective than reviewing the corresponding chapter in a textbook or handbook. While it is certainly possible to have students model “ideal” texts, the effectiveness of those texts falls apart when rhetorical situations change. As a result, we explore multiple contexts, like various forms of social media— each different in some important affordance— to talk about what appeals might be effective in specific, everyday rhetorical situations. Beyond leading my college’s progress toward themed first-year composition sections, I have applied my dissertation research on digital media and alternate reality games as course structures to simulate more tangible writing situations for my students.
Context and meaning, however, are unique to the individual student. Therefore, none of the above is possible without engagement— not just with me, as the facilitator, but with each other, as a community of learners. As Nealon & Giroux point out, encouraging student agency is integral to the formation of meaning; more importantly, it is the negotiation among unique individual contexts and meanings that inoculates against a singular authority and defends against the uncritical consumption of rhetoric. Frequently, students steer the conversation through small and large group discussions. Encouraging students to exercise their own agency also displaces my worldview and experience from a central position, allowing for intersectional identities and experiences to shape our project of inquiry and learning. Of course, preparing lecture notes and slides can be much easier than using student-centered approaches; one benefit of a teaching-heavy two-year college load, however, is that I’m not afraid to improvise. I’ve gained the ability to feel comfortable improvising to suit the needs of the situation and unique sets of student contexts, as multiple and varied as they might be. Collaboratively walking the tightrope connecting individual experiences and relevance with the course outcomes is an exciting experience that my students and I share.
As a continuation of the agency I encourage my students to embrace, my approach to writing instruction is highly focused on providing facilitative comments, as opposed to directive comments. For students to find their own voice, I choose to ask them (many) questions about their purpose, audience, situation, and the ideas they want to communicate. While there are students who prefer to be told what to do to succeed in my courses, I believe it is a disservice to their critical thinking to simply have them copy what I would do, instead of synthesizing course concepts to successfully complete a specific assignment. Also, neglecting the formation of critical thinking undermines close reading skills and citizenship skills that are important for students to transfer outside of the classroom.
To build a classroom community, the first moments of class are not devoted to my voice; rather, through conversation, students begin to form bonds with each other in order to establish a community where it is more comfortable to share our diverse perspectives. Discussion, not lecture, enables the sharing of context, and gives me an opportunity to discover what is meaningful to the rest of the community. I also have found it important to allow for multiple formations of discussions and collaborations— from a single large group to individual conversations— and modes for participation, such as written and spoken, from blog posts to brief classroom assessment techniques (CATs). Finally, learning doesn’t stop at the end of a class meeting: I have tweeted pictures of notes, and posted links to articles that relate to current course discussion, such as critiques of new games for my Games & Culture students.
Acknowledging and discussing the discomfort of the writing classroom has also been an approach to encourage metacognition in my students. We frequently discuss the stresses of writing, especially for the perceived (and often foreign to their concerns and cares) audience of the instructor. I have started to incorporate meditation and mindfulness techniques, as well as values affirmation exercises in to my pedagogy as a way of managing student stress both in and outside of the classroom. And the feedback from my students echoes the success of my approach; they frequently cite feeling empowered and less frightened by my composition courses. They want to write because it has become less scary.
Furthermore, I make the course design transparent to my students. From the beginning, I reinforce the recursiveness of the writing process and how that is reflected in our course sequence. By doing so, students learn that assignments build upon each other; making sure they complete individual assignments greatly reduces the burden of the project to which those assignments lead. I have found that this anecdotally reduces stress for students and has increased students’ confidence in drafting and revising their work.
Lastly, as an expert in digital media, I strongly focus on using the appropriate tools for the learning situation. Whether building interactive fiction with Inform7 and reflecting upon that experience in order to give a fuller perspective of text adventure games, using digital tools to compose arguments about digital networked technology, or using iPads to remix comics to identify visual, gestural, and spatial choices for multimodal rhetorical analyses, it is important for students to not only learn about abstract knowledge but to be able to develop skills in applying that knowledge using tools specific to the context. Of course, there are times when digital technology hinders our work, and limiting the use of tools can both aid our learning and encourage us to confront new constraints in our rhetorical situation. While assessments for first-year composition courses are predominantly written, I also incorporate multimodal composition into my courses through the concept of remediation— translating works from one medium to another or others. In my technical communication and digital media courses, assessments include more collaborative and digital projects. I frequently make use of formative assessments that make use of pass/fail or checkbox rubrics to adjust my instructional methods during the semester.
As a two-year college instructor, my primary responsibility is to teach writing and communication skills to a diverse student population, not to focus on my own research. And I am grateful for this focus, as it often enriches my research and service experiences. Teaching is truly my vocation— a calling to share with and help others to understand concepts and skills. I seek to achieve this through making classroom situations relevant and transferable to my students. By engaging in student-centered discussions, I feel intellectually rewarded and find new connections and directions in my own research.