Teaching Philosophy

Teaching philosophy for composition & Rhetoric, last updated 2014. Click here for the PDF.

As an instructor of composition and rhetoric, I aim to empower my students by teaching them to use writing as a means of interrogating the problematic ideological work of discourse. In pursuit of this goal, I strive to instill self-motivation and confidence in my students and develop their abilities to generate, assess, and articulate interesting, complex claims that transcend academia. To these ends, I anchor my pedagogy in three interconnected principles: the dialectic process, student engagement, and everyday practice. These tenets form the foundation for teaching strategies that pivot on the thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad; incite interest by rendering the familiar strange, complex, and therefore engaging; and demonstrate that critical analysis has wider applications than the classroom. I elaborate on this pedagogical foundation below, under the classroom maxims that I regularly repeat and that my students routinely internalize. They illustrate my stance as a dedicated teacher and a perpetual learner, constantly seeking to refine my teaching methods to sustain a learning community in which all participants may improve their knowledge, analytical skills, and rhetorical craft in furtherance of effective, incisive communication.

The dialectic process: “Split the atom; question your logic.”

My use of the above statements, rarely decoupled, is premised on the belief that critical inquiry and analysis are best learned through organic exploration and discovery. I seek to maximize transformative learning by minimizing my initial input, instead referring to the model of the atom: that basic unit of matter that is further and further reducible until the high-energy moment of nuclear fission. In asking students to “split the atom,” I request that they follow a similar pattern of increasing specificity, in which they repeatedly “question their logic” to refine a broad claim into a thesis that invites antithesis, synthesis, and the possibility of continued reflection.

These are essential steps to refining a claim prior to and during the dialectic process, which facilitates organic, self-motivated learning and allows me to insist that students exit their comfort zone, largely as a response to their initial preference for overbroad, familiar arguments that deflect complexity and discourage antithesis and synthesis. To address multiple styles of learning, I present the triad in classic and multimedia formats, such as the ending monologue of Pulp Fiction. I also teach the process by example, dynamically questioning my own logic aloud as I discuss a sample essay. As repetition breeds habit, I also have my students practice the process in writing exercises such as relay writing, in which students sit in columns and, starting from a shared thesis, craft an antithesis and pass it along, after which they must synthesize the thesis-antithesis pair they received, and so on until the “atom” can be split no further. For similar reasons, I have my students watch and analyze a music video together, such as Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” At the video’s end, students are confronted and surprised by their own cultural preconceptions and become self-motivated to figure out why. The dialectic process does not end with an obvious conclusion about gender expectations, however. By continuing to split the atom, claims are made about the construction of lesbianism, which is linked to social anxieties about feminine sexuality, from which they leap to reproductive anxieties and the labor force, winding down to a discussion of how such depictions ultimately reify stereotypical masculinity and patriarchy, and the class suddenly, glowingly realizes how much ground they covered on their own.

In my pedagogy, I am relentlessly seeking this nuclear fission, the proverbial Eureka effect that encourages student interest.

Student engagement: “Why? So what?”

While difficult to define or articulate, “interesting” and its semantic field essentially express an epistemophilic feeling, somewhere between a bodily affect and a desire to know. When an artifact or assemblage defies easy explanation, it is best described as “interesting” until we can better answer the silent “Why?” and “So what?” My courses, frequently, revolve around articulating these answers, which are concerned with reasons and relevance. The above questions feed into my larger goal to foster a natural thought pattern by which students become instinctive and adept at making sustainable and “interesting” claims about larger issues. It is driven by my belief that transformative learning is best realized when students become actively, affectively engaged with the material. This often hinges on their ability to first split the atom and then contextualize the claim within a larger dialogue.

In my courses, this mental footwork is exemplified by interpreting strangeness, by answering “Why?” as though the object is novel, and “So what?” as though the end goal is more than a student paper for a mandatory course. To this end, I use the absurd music video to ABC’s “Look of Love” as an interpretive exercise. I have students make sense of disparate ideas by having them select one of five passages from Invisible Cities as a lens concept for discussing the Internet, which they do by asking “why” the pairing works, and anticipating a “so what if it does?” I also project a mazelike, unpredictably scrolling stage from the video game Ecco the Dolphin and ask for a volunteer to play while the class offers direction. Afterward, we discuss pattern recognition, the affective experience of impending failure, the desire to persist and succeed. Their observations satisfy the assignment, but “so what?” becomes essential to discovering any larger relevance. In their essays, they ask the question and wonder if habitual players subconsciously learn or forget caution from the adrenaline rush of in-game high stakes. They wonder what such affective habituation means for a competitive dance competition, for school, for war. They break through into claims about life, play, and failure, drawing interesting and productive vectors between all three.

As such, I make sure to make “Why? So what?” an immediate staple of my classroom rhetoric by inviting students to ask these questions about writing on the first day. Thus, I am able to address the often pervasive belief that writing, and the claims made in student papers, are meaningless outside of the classroom. Unchecked, this belief fuels the belief that student claims, and therefore first-year writing, are fundamentally not interesting. To cultivate student engagement, excitement, and dynamic participation, I seek to overturn that expectation. In short, I meet them where the scholarly and the interesting intersect.

Everyday practice: “Everything is constructed.”

I use this statement as a reminder throughout my courses that, like the popular culture and new media artifacts we examine, nothing about ideology is coincidental. Even artifacts that seem to elude power inequalities frequently succumb or allude back to it. Students have emailed me during class and well after the semester’s end, saying, “I saw The Dark Knight Rises recently and I thought it was more like a criticism of Occupy Wall Street,” or, “I just saw the ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ graffiti on a dumpster for the movie promotion; I thought graffiti signaled lower-class so I think it says something if movie companies are using it for ads.” Ultimately, I strive to leave my students with this new aptitude for everyday perception and practice, an analytical framework that allows them to recognize pervasive, problematic ideologies, identify the gaps in the reasoning behind them, and articulate these problems in writing.

The three pedagogical principles outlined above enable me to help my students internalize the forms of questioning necessary to this thought pattern. I ground my teaching in them because I firmly believe that they are necessary to the lived, everyday practice of students who may not remain in writing or the humanities but will carry this framework with them and always find it illuminating.

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This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

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