“If we want to emphasize ends
and believe that we have an ethical and moral responsibility as makers, then we need to focus on students (the audience/users) as real people in real situations and our assignments as their tasks.”
—James Dubinsky, More than a Knack: Techne & Teaching Technical Communication
The classroom (whether digital or face-to-face) is something of a moving target. Students come to their writing courses—whether traditional rhet/comp coursework or advanced work in technical and professional communication—with an array of beliefs and attitudes towards communication: some dismiss writing as a copyediting skill they need to polish up on for a week or two and hey, skip the rhetoric stuff; other students dismiss the entire enterprise as irrelevant to their real goals; some few have such intense hangups embedded in their processes resulting from previous experience that while they are hungry for writing instruction they are also, paradoxically, seemingly unable to receive it. The knowledge, social, and technical needs of our students constantly change. This diverse (sometimes combative) set of attitudes and the constantly changing social, literate, and technical context for 21st-century discourse demands a highly user-centered and reflective pedagogy.
At the center of my teaching are three beliefs:
- I believe students are agents;
- I believe students can write real solutions for real problems; and
- I believe effective teaching is reflective and iterative.
Whether I am teaching first-year students the basics of academic composition or guiding junior and senior English majors through a new knowledge domain for the first time, among my earliest goals in a course is to help my students sense that they have agency—the capacity to use their existing knowledge and skills to act and gain new knowledge and skills. Composition studies scholar Peter Elbow once wrote that embracing teaching is embracing contrasting mentalities: while we must be loyal to knowledge and society and expect that students will meet high standards for work, we must also be loyal to students and believe in the ways that they already know and do discourse. In the 21st century, we know writers are everywhere, composing in sometimes richly multimodal genres, even if they do not overtly connect this to their academic work. In my classes, I often have students begin with ethnographic and literacy or technology narrative writing, becoming aware of their own seemingly mundane rhetorics and discursive realities. That recognition of passion-based self-motivated learning—reflecting on learning to draw with YouTube videos, or how their notions of political participation are shaped by social media—then becomes an entry point for comprehension of rhetoric, identity, or appealing to logos, pathos, and ethos. These sorts of writing and discussion assignments are also intended to inspire a reflective habit of mind.
As part of this element of my philosophy, in all of my rhetoric and technical communication courses I attempt to emphasize agency with discourse and technology. In asking students to utilize a variety of composing technologies, I try to encourage vital 21st-century technological literacy. I attempt to engender in students a willingness to experiment and try new things with texts; my students have created stop-motion videos in the place of term papers, and collaborated to publish e-books rather than a basic Word document. In digital rhetoric courses, I use Google Drive to engage juniors and seniors in collaborative production, and to literally open my lecture and discussion notes to their input; technical communication students use this and a variety of other tools to create usability test plans and reports. In theories of composition, my students use wikis to publish and share their learning with each other. With these tools and publishing platforms, I not only deliver course content and learning experiences, but also give students practice working in a variety of composing environments.
Especially in my technical communication courses, I emphasize real-world, service-oriented problems for actual clients—this was a major portion of my own graduate training in technical communication. Technical and professional writing students do not need to be subordinated and thus disempowered as absolute novices. When students experience the real exigencies and complications of collaborating with other students to work for clients, they are given a chance to experience writing with something beyond a grade at stake. As James Paul Gee and Elisabeth Hayes suggest in Language and Learning in the Digital Age, learning with others on a team and for a real audience gives “moves, skills, and facts meaning [and] purpose, and motivates people to learn.” Students working on real projects, working on institutional service projects or with community non-profits, are able to see an entire ecology of documents, relationships, and processes as a technical communicator rather than just as a student looking at an individual assignment. My most recent group of technical and professional writing students, for example, applied usability testing methods to complete a set of mobile e-mail set-up walkthroughs for the university’s IT department. This documentation was installed on each first-year student’s computer and been adopted by users across campus. The students organized a complete usability study, wrote testing plans and a report, created the whole range of documents needed to collect, record, and report on data, and then generated a set of manuals as a result of that testing. These were further tested, analyzed, and reported on before students revised and presented their deliverables to clients in IT services. By emphasizing real problems and solutions, students learn how to work in the user’s best interest, incorporating legitimate user feedback to learn about audience. By—again—incorporating explicit reflection throughout, students are able to build metaknowledge and learn to be reflective practitioners rather than sentence entry specialists.
Reflective, iterative teaching is both the starting place and the result of these emphases. This third point is well-previewed in the first and second points in my philosophy: my students reflect in order to change, and I actively do so myself. In my work in rhetorical analysis and criticism, I emphasize the role of reflection in the life of the prudent critic. Just as the good researcher can work to mitigate bias by conceptualizing their own starting positions, so must the good teacher. To be responsive and not simply reactionary or trendy, the teacher must be reflective—this necessitates an iterative approach to instruction. I can honestly say that no more than two of my FYC syllabi have ever quite been the same in over a decade of teaching; I am constantly reflecting on students’ successes and failures, and this drives iteration on my instructional design. With each major project or milestone, my students compose some sort of reflection, whether a traditional essay or a multimodal revision & process exhibit, and they do so with constant evidence of my own reflection in notebooks and letters or other missives to them. This habit of reflection also encourages me to be open to my students about our shared writing challenges. Perhaps the best day in one composition theory class was when my students caught me grousing about dissertation feedback (“I could just shoot you,” my reader had written, complaining about a particular habit for vague pronouns.) I attempt to present myself as an expert to students, but doing so often means presenting my own attempts at expertise as such. Every time I assess them, I assess myself.
When students can see how their experiences as real writers in and out of the classroom translate into experiences in the academy or professions, they learn real rhetoric—the power of listening reflectively to an audience to do good in the world.