I feel like every new thing I read, and every new class I teach informs how I approach my classroom. Sometimes new reading alters my approach radically. In the first year of my PhD coursework, I’d say radical alteration is an overarching theme. So this is how I’ve stabilized my teaching philosophy for the moment, in broad strokes and with wet paint– subject to new layers and new highlights as learn and read and experience more.
My approach to teaching begins with the idea of threshold concepts as articulated by Jan Meyer and Ray Land (2005). Threshold concepts are core principles that shape ways of knowing and meaning making within a discipline. Understanding a threshold concept is experiential, transformational learning. Students acquire threshold concepts through application, practice and discovery. That process of discovery can be “troublesome” in that students get stuck, slip back into old patterns, and make tenuous sometimes faulty connections to previous knowledge as they experiment with different approaches to understanding and applying a concept. This tricky, difficult, often frustrating space is where teaching and learning happen.
Thresholds invoke both a doorway and a crossing into new spaces.These metaphors inform how I design writing assignments, give feedback, and ask my students to develop and reflect on their own writing processes. I focus on task-based projects that allow students to identify real audiences beyond our classroom. I emphasize scaffolding and transfer, continually asking my students to talk and write about how they are making connections between new concepts and previous knowledge. This explicit scaffolding strategy where I explain connections to students, while also asking them to make these connections for themselves is how I model habits of thinking and writing. Ongoing reflexive discussion is also how I approach assessment and differentiate instruction for my students.
For an illustration of this philosophy in action, read about my Spring 2015 FYC course, or look at the rationale, detailed schedule, syllabus and assignments from that course.
For me community engagement is about doing rhetoric for the public good. The goals of my research are to look for ways to work with community partners to address local problems. I seek to expand our notion of technical communication as an integral part of public rhetoric and a necessary part of complex problem solving. Active research is about working with others to enact sustainable change in our communities. I approach rhetoric as the work we do in the world, with and for others.
I am inspired by the Ellen Cushman’s definitions of active research and Jenny Rice’s scholarship on how public rhetoric circulates and creates communities. I’m also interested in actor network theory and Callon’s definitions of hybrid forums as a space where lay people and professionals come together to deal with ruptures and overflows within communities. As rhetors and technical communicators I believe we have an important role to play in helping to open spaces (and hold open spaces) for the difficult work of problem setting and problem solving to happen.
My past experience with community engagement has included work for the Restorative Justice Coalition in Bellingham, WA. This is an organization that works to assist formerly incarcerated citizens with navigating through the often difficult systems of parole, obtaining identification, and accessing services like workforce services and medicaid. As I go forward with my public rhetoric and technical communication research I will look for ways to participate as an active researcher with issues important to my community.
I also see community engagement as directly connected to my teaching. I believe in service learning as critical pedagogy that allows students to learn empathy and the importance of recognizing difference and considering its uses and its complications. But beyond service learning as an opportunity to help students be better citizens, it is also an opportunity to help them see the tangible ways writing moves across contexts. By working with community partners on projects with real stakes for real people students can see writing projects not only as assignments, but as Paul Heilker has said as a “way of being in the world.” Julie Lindquist and David Seltz in a recent review of literacy methodologies described mapping literacy as a system which requires tracing those literacies into the community “you have to follow it around into the places where it lives– in people’s heads in communities, in workplaces, in virtual and digital spaces.” I believe vibrant service learning programs for both FYC and technical and professional communications classes allow students an opportunity to follow literacy where it lives, and consider seriously those implications for themselves and others.
For My spring 2015 first year writing class, I wanted to experiment with framing the class around a threshold concept, and I wanted to spend the semester explicitly revisiting how we, both me and my students, understood this threshold concept as we worked our way through three major writing assignments and a final reflection. As I developed my course, I spent a lot of time thinking about scaffolding, and about how smaller explicit and also exploratory writing and reading projects could be combined and redesigned by students into more sustained writing projects.
I also wanted to design a series of assignments that would reflect on, build, and complement each other. To me, there’s nothing that screams, “here’s a GE class you will never think about again” like a set of disconnected units, assignments or concepts. We began our semester with a few central ideas we would return to all semester:
- Writing is rhetorical practice– because I was using a “Writing about Writing” approach, we drew from composition scholarship to frame this idea, including discussions about rhetorical ecology, activity systems, and literacy.
- What does it mean to do rhetoric/how do we define rhetoric– we returned throughout the semester to to big ideas here, one rhetorical and one pedagogical
- The first is Sharon Crowley’s definition of rhetoric as a theoretical frame from “Composition is Not Rhetoric”:
Any theoretical discourse that is entitled to be called “rhetoric” must at minimum conceive of rhetoric as an art of invention, that is, it must give a central place to the systematic discovery and investigation of the available arguments in a given situation. Furthermore, it must conceive of the arguments generated by rhetorical invention as both produced and circulated within a network of social and civic discourse, images, and events. (2)
- The second is an adaptation from James Paul Gee’s “What is Literacy?” His conception of the relationship between learning and acquisition frames my pedagogical approach to FYC:
We get better at what we practice. We develop mastery—flexibility, confidence, authority, and access in a discourse—when we know how to talk about and evaluate what we practice. Continue reading