Theory of Teaching
I'm a naturally anxious person; being in spaces where I am visible, evaluated, held responsible, etc., tend to exacerbate that anxiety. Teaching should inherently terrify me—and some days, it does. But I am shocked at just how good it feels to plan a lesson, collaborate with students, and watch them engage with or understand writing in new ways. I’ve taught composition courses with central themes involving social and political issues, narrativizing our lives, and the rhetorical situation. I've had students write masterful genre analyses of dystopian YA and the ways these novels are poised to interrogate our most pressing social issues. I've had students research Childish Gambino's "This is America," uncovering imagery related to race and power that I would have never noticed myself. It's been thrilling seeing my students understand the concepts we talk about and enact them in our coursework. Still, regardless of the style of course that I teach, I have the same core goals for my students. I want my students to leave my class with: a sense of a situated literacy; that is a sense that there is not one acquired literacy, but literacies, all valid, contextual, rhetorically situated, digital, linguistic, visual, and otherwise. Additionally, as a teacher, it is paramount to me that my students are able to produce analyses and researched arguments that are nuanced, but most importantly, meaningful to them as individuals, connected to their lived experience, and sensitive to the subjectivities of the communities they focus. To do this, my teaching takes on a feminist, collaborative approach.
I was first introduced to an explicitly feminist composition pedagogy through Shari J. Stenberg’s Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions for a Neoliberal Age. Since reading, I’ve developed my pedagogy around several of its core concepts. Some of these practices that have especially informed my practice are narrative disruption (28), a dialectic between public and private writing (33), an acknowledgement of the complex lived experience of my students (33), and finally, a collaborative practices that attempts to disrupt the idea of a pedagogy made for my students, not with them (36).
I value these ideas because disruption, complex subjectivities, and situated writing practices are among central themes in my classroom. For example, in my class, I rhetorically situate grammar and style in the context of genre. I ask my students to engage in writing that will shift the way they think about/use multiple grammars throughout the semester, using the writings of Asao Inoue, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Gloria Anzaldúa, and others to inform my practice. I value this understanding of fluid voice because as a queer, white, mentally ill, gender-nonconforming person with working class roots. Life and reading have made me aware of the ways in which I am and am not privileged and how these privileges have inherently affected my educational experience, my writing, and my engagement with the world around me. As a student, I’ve experienced the ways composition courses and courses that engage with rhetorical theory can allow students to explore these aspects of their identity, and as an instructor, I ensure this is a part of our classroom discussion and a space that students may explore in their writing.
As a scholar interested in narrative theory, I have always been interested in the ways in which writing allows us to narrativize our lives; however, I also root my instruction of researched scholarship as a means of narrative composing. Specifically, I situate our research as a means of narrative disruption, a feminist practice identified by Stenberg (28). In other words, I frame the process of developing a research question as first understanding the narrative, and then, challenging or disrupting said narrative. One of my favorite examples of this in my students’ work is a research essay I received on Hurricane Katrina. My student—whose family experienced the storm in Mississippi—was interested in deconstructing the narrative of Hurricane Katrina that centers on New Orleans; as such, he wrote his essay to illustrate the ways other communities in the southeast were also devastated by the storm. In order to root this in his lived experience—because it is his lived experience—we discussed ways he could interview family members to include their testimony as evidence. This paper, I believe, exemplifies most of the qualities I strive for in my students’ writing: freedom of topic choice, collaboration in shaping that topic into something researchable, the opportunity students to recognize lived experience in context with this research, and more.
Other elements of Stenberg’s feminist praxis enter my classroom as well. For example, it's naive to think that I can fully decenter myself in my classroom; I am, after all, the instructor, and I am expected by my institution to assess my students. That said, I work to create a classroom that is radically collaborative in nearly every element in order to ensure that, again, the classroom is built with them, not for them. For example, because assessment holds so much power, rubrics are always conversations. While I build a document meant as a starting point, my students and I shape and revise this rubric in order to privilege what we, as a class, determine to be the most valuable rhetorical concepts relevant to the assignment. Additionally, I often act as facilitator rather than lecturer in my classroom; our discussions are primarily student-led, and I do my best to foster a dialogue between my students rather than answer their questions as if I hold all of the knowledge. In lessons revolve around genre, research, and rhetorical situation, we might define and deconstruct these concepts so my students feel equipped to using these terms in their own words.. Questions about definitions directed towards me are usually thrown to the room—"What do y'all think about that?"—and all of my activities are group oriented. As groups talk, I float around the room, joining conversations, sitting among my students, physically taking me away from that central, front-of-the-room space that somehow holds so much authority. When we come back together, I like to have large discussions around these concepts, too, that ground them in social reality. Take the rhetorical situation: if we are saying that good composition is a “fitting response” response to an exigence, I’ll ask my students to consider: What genre have I selected? In what ways does this genre allow me to respond appropriately? How am I conforming to and subverting generic expectations? How does this serve my purpose? How am I asserting my own voice, ideology, ideas, and subjectivity? How am I conveying my perception of the world around me, and am I doing so clearly? As I do this, whose voices am I aligning myself with? Challenging? Silencing? I consider this feminist pedagogy, then, because it highlights the idea of a classroom built with my students. As such, we construct the terms that guide our course, discuss hegemonic narratives, center subjectivity, and more.
Finally, my pedagogy is also highly influenced by models and modeling. It's my belief that if my students see me modeling an interest in writing, especially their writing, they'll have that same interest in their writing, too. I particularly model this through my obsession with feedback. During draft one, I hold 15 minute conferences. Draft two, we do peer feedback, where I float around and comment on each of my students' drafts, as though I were another participant in each group. The final draft gets comments, too: I highlight choices that work, discuss areas that may benefit from revision, and always talk about the document like it is still a work-in-progress—and in my course, it is. I let my students revise any final draft at any point of the semester to be re-graded. It is my hope that if they see my interest, they'll realize that their writing is exactly that—interesting. And it is my hope that my interest will affirm to them that we all deserve to be a part of this lofty space that we call the academy.
Stenberg, Shari J. Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions for a Neoliberal Age. Utah State University Press, 2015.