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Teaching Philosophy

My teaching philosophy is simple: Non scholae, sed vitae discimus. We don’t learn for school, but for life. I’ve dedicated my teaching career to creating experiences for students that prevent them from just “doing school” (i.e., writing what Elizabeth Wardell [2009, p. 774] calls “mutt genres” to be handed in solely for a grade). Doing school is the death of student and instructor engagement and, therefore, real learning.

Within the university environment, writing instructors are the uniquely positioned to help students overcome the dissonance of doing school. As a teacher of writing, I want first to work with my students to create experiences that seem relevant and even authentic, that is, experiences that they can articulate with the lives they are trying to build for themselves beyond my classroom. Students who fail to see this relevance—or who are unwilling to consider that something from the classroom might someday be relevant—tend to lose motivation. Creating such experiences requires an instructor who is flexible, willing to listen to his or her students, and has at his or her disposal a variety of assignments that will enable students to practice writing even as they explore their individual fields of interest.

I’ve found that incorporating new-media tools into the classroom helps students attribute a greater significance to any assignment, perhaps because the students sense that creating digital artifacts can provide opportunities for them in whatever community they enter. As I work with my students to experiment with new-media tools, I try to pose (and get them to pose) problems that writing in a digital environment can address. Never do I introduce a tool outside of a rhetorical situation in which it might be meaningfully applied. I use the following principles to choose appropriate tools and to guide my course design.

Encourage students to practice various genres by having them participate in online communities that already exist.

For example, I regularly task my composition students with writing a book, product, or movie review and posting it in an online forum (e.g., Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes) of their choice. To submit their assignment, they must post it to the selected site and then tag it appropriately using Diigo, a social bookmarking application through which we share information on the web. This assignment causes students to look at posts by other writers to try and decode how the community instantiates the review genre. This type of genre decoding is something we all do when we enter new environments and try to learn how to become competent performers. I want my students to practice that.

I also feel like this project addresses an important shortcoming of a number of composition assignments because it enables students to participate in the wider distribution and consumption of their texts. The act of posting to a review site is a reminder that they’re not just writing for their teacher or classmates. They have to think a little harder about the characteristics of their audience.

Ask students to create digitally rendered autoethnographies (portfolios) and use ethnography as a way into (or deeper into) communities in which they’re interested.

By institutional necessity, students emerge from a class with a grade, but much more importantly they should immerge from each class having created artifacts for a portfolio. I agree with James Gee (2004) who notes that economic security no longer lies in “jobs and wages” but in a person’s portfolio: “the skills achievements, and previous experiences that a person owns and that he or she can arrange and rearrange to sell him or herself for new opportunities in changed times” (p. 97). My job as a writing teacher is not only to create assignments that result in portfolio-ready artifacts, but also to advise students about innovative ways of arranging and deploying their portfolios. I believe portfolios are an excellent way to ensure that students make use of my feedback and reflect on their work. I ask students in my composition courses to explain how each artifact in their collection embodies the outcomes suggested by the Council of Writing Program Administrators.

I use ethnography assignments to help students learn about communities in which they are or would like to become full-fledged members. For example, in my Writing in Disciplinary Communities course, I ask students to generate a digital ethnography. Students gather documents, take pictures, record video, and then represent in multimodal form how the communicative actions they have documented contribute to the overarching goals of the group they have observed. Student inquiry on this project has resulted in some remarkable work, from documentary video about FIFA video game fanatics and to an undergraduate-research poster about the “hall talk” of cancer researchers.

Use data collection and visualization to make students aware of their surroundings, communities, and routines.

I believe that digital tools can help students gain new perspectives on places and routines that seem ordinary. I also believe they can be a way of getting students more involved in the community. I regularly ask students to create digital maps (initially with Google Maps, but now—in more advanced courses—with R’s ggplot2 package or Tableau) that represent a thesis about place.

In my New Literacies course at UALR, one student developed a map that rated a number of restrooms on campus based on size, cleanliness, and privacy. He did so in support of his thesis that the best facilities were located in the buildings that housed either university administration or departments that brought in a large number of grant dollars. Another student made a map of independent drugstores in Little Rock. This project was a response to the purchase by Walgreens of the independent pharmacy where she worked. The student handed out pencils stenciled with the URL of the map to patrons in the weeks before the official change of ownership. She reflected that her work enacted resistance to the corporatization of community pharmacies, a trend that she researched extensively. Another recent project had a composition class documenting “underground Emory,” with each student creating a wiki entry that described a little-known or under-traveled place on campus or in the surrounding area.

Ask students to learn by building and participating in games and simulations.

I don’t believe someone can master a genre by simply memorizing a bulleted list of genre characteristics. A person has to be immersed in the types of situations that make the genre necessary and has to share in the social motive of the people engaged in a particular activity. Early in my academic career, I created online simulations to help immerse student writers in these types of situations (see portfolio for a full description). More recently, I have developed the course “Writing in Disciplinary Communities,” in which students move through three units which require that they learn about and attempt to write genres that characterize activity in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, respectively. This course, in which we use the Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing (2015) as our rhetoric, invites students to marshal various type of evidence as they develop a literacy narrative, apply a theoretical framework from the social sciences to their own experiences, and generate a multimodal scientific logbook and findings report. I’m particularly excited about our natural-sciences project this semester: Students are building their own spectrophotometers as they gather data about the relative concentration of blue dye in sports drinks. Key to this project will be their recordkeeping in a paper-based scientific logbook in which they must practice the (rather stringent) conventions that enable traceability.

In conclusion, it is my firm belief in the centrality of writing and the importance of writing instruction that caused me to return to the university after ten years of work as a technical communicator, corporate trainer, project manager, systems analyst, and instructional designer. I believe that the study of rhetoric and practice with writing has much to offer students from all disciplines, and I want to play a role in shaping its future. In addition, I simply love working with students. I find that I learn something new in each interaction I have with them. I always come out of the classroom feeling invigorated and excited about the educational project.

References

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. Psychology Press.

Miller-Cochran, S., Stamper, R., & Cochran, S. (2015). An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing A Brief Rhetoric. Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Wardle, E. (2009). “Mutt Genres” and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University? College Composition and Communication, 60(4), 765–789.