Last updated December 2017.
When I was eleven, my father, a physics teacher and education researcher, cajoled me into visiting his large introductory lectures, ostensibly to see the Socratic method in action. When we arrived, he unveiled what would become his favorite physics demonstration: a six-by-four bed of nails for me to lie on while he lectured about pressure and weight distribution, using his premade course set of flash cards labeled A-F to assess retention and stimulate discussion. On the drive home, he declared, “Bet you a quarter they never forget those concepts!” Over twenty years later, his former students still reminisce about retaining conceptual understandings from his courses, calling them “classes where I knew I’d learn something.” As a writer/teacher/scholar situated at the intersection of composition, media studies, and genre-crossing art, I too aspire to create courses where students “know they’ll learn something.” Across all my classes, I emphasize my father’s principles with some interdisciplinary twists, in particular: 1) interpretive problems and the dialectic process; 2) active-learning instructional methods; and, as I have fibromyalgia, 3) intuitive, embodied learning and an accessible pedagogy and classroom management style that admits and interrogates multiple modes of learning and expression.
Interpretive Problems, Dialectical Process
Regardless of whether I’m teaching journalism, creative writing, media studies, or first-year composition, I advance the interpretive problem, a tension to be explored and clarified, in place of a conventional thesis, an assertion to be proved. In asking for thesis statements, I found I was herding my students toward writing uncomplicated, overbroad position papers or papers that ignored questions about why or how as well as context and motivation. By reframing the thesis as an interpretive problem to be identified and explored, I try to lessen my students’ anxiety about how to formulate a thesis and instead encourage them to linger with and attempt to resolve perplexities. I adopt an inquiry-based approach to research and writing, asking students to begin with artifacts, incidents, and phenomena, identify problematic aspects, and consider why and how those tensions emerged and endured. Locating an interpretive problem around concrete exhibits allows students to use their lived experience and knowledge to narrow and refine their research questions, as with the student whose subject evolved from big data and texting to the disciplinary character of auto-correct regarding language and bourgeois propriety. This method compels students to recognize, articulate, and better mobilize the inferential processes by which they form meanings.
This change in perspective complements the dialectical process I learned from my father, where opposing forces clash, mingle, and in the end, transform. In open-ended interactive discussions, I ask my students to reflect on their assumptions about the world, impressing on them that the media texts we examine, like all texts, are inexhaustible sources of new analyses. Where a thesis-focused pedagogy might indulge in “whataboutism” or perpetual devil’s advocate, I work to create an atmosphere of “productive discomfort,” to motivate students to critically reassess the values and beliefs informing their interpretations, and to articulate and rationalize them clearly orally and in writing. As I strive to be authoritative and not authoritarian, I am not exempt from this discomfort. I tell students, “Call me out when you see fit,” and I use those moments to model “productive failure,” as when a student questioned why I had grouped the readings by race, class, and gender as though the three didn’t intersect. By the end of my classes, students have comfortably exchanged simple assertions about facts with interpretations that admit complexity and uncertainty. In these ways, my classes become learning communities, and writing becomes collaborative and negotiable instead of individual and prescriptive.
High Impact Educational Practices and Active Learning
In my father’s set of flash cards, A-E comprised ordinary multiple choice answers, and F was the anomaly: “Don’t know, don’t care.” Among his students, there was an obvious, unstated love for F, the freedom to publicly acknowledge what everyone knew: that the course was mandatory, and student enthusiasm for the subject was low. As different as active learning in the writing classroom may be, it also hinges on frequent, honest assessment and the cultivation of student investment. Accordingly, on the first day of class, I involve students in syllabus editing and rubric drafting. I provide them with my final syllabus as though it’s a draft, projecting it and inviting them to collaboratively edit it, with explanations, in Etherpad or Google Docs; if the class reaches a full consensus on the end result, I implement the changes. I ask them to design a grading rubric, and we hold at least one “grade norming” session. Thus, our mission and values for the class align. I use nondirective questioning and allow students to determine the course of discussion, and I welcome tangents as my students pursue a line of inquiry wherever it takes them. Most of my students are used to lecture-based classes or constrictive models of academic research and writing, like the five-paragraph model learned in high school, so they revel in the freedom to explore their subjects, seek ambiguity, estrange themselves from traditional academic subjects and writing styles, and luxuriate in that strangeness: for instance, the student who submitted an essay on online identity politics and Google+’s ban on pseudonyms that was composed on Facebook as a series of status updates and comments, then printed, collaged, and bound like a grrrl zine.
Although I prioritize critical inquiry before mechanics, I treat grammar and style with the same approach. Taking a cue from Frank Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language, I conduct five-minute grammar lessons each class organized around internalizing flexible standards rather than memorizing rigid rules; I describe (rather than prescribe) grammatical practices from published examples ranging from established to questionable usages, in the hopes of making students sensitive to language and inspiring them to attend to their own craft. I tailor these lessons to patterns of error, acceptable uses that bend the rules, and moments that admit their often diverse linguistic repertoires. I also incorporate grammar lessons in peer-editing workshops where students take on the responsibility of diagnosing and advising on problems in each other’s papers. By involving students in curriculum building, making them responsible for both the content and style of learning, I open their eyes to the fact that their lived experiences, interests, and practices are viable for critical analysis, demonstrating that our themes and the craft of writing have consequences in and out of the classroom, and empowering them to take charge of their processes and needs.
Embodiment and Accessibility
Chronic pain and affective dysfunction are inextricable parts of myself, and they have profoundly affected my positions as a teacher of media studies and composition. A disorderly body myself, I believe in dismantling dominant Western and ableist pedagogical frames, and so—whether teaching first-year writing, creative writing, or media studies—I work toward developing accessible pedagogy that promotes multiple modes of expression. For me, an inclusive curriculum accounts for disability-related and socioeconomic situations, both of which impact students’ ability to access the university. I strive to accommodate multiple ways of being, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, processing delays, mental health issues, and autoimmune disorders; and, given that disadvantaged students may not know basic academic tools and resources, I integrate lessons about Microsoft Word, what office hours are, how to obtain accommodations, and so on. I devote time to learning my students’ diverse ways of learning and writing, and I account for their preferences in my presentations, class discussions and written assignments.
Students expect traditional academic writing to be detached, disembodied, formulaic, and emotionless, but they engage more deeply with course material and their own writing when we repair the severed connection between intellectual and emotional learning. As such, my pedagogy emphasizes embodied writing—a writing practice from the perspective of the body that also requires attending to bodily rhythms and responses while writing—in multimodal formats to make space for the body’s role in knowledge production and academic accessibility. Consequently, in my classes, I deemphasize the conventional “butt in chair, pen to paper” approach in favor of being present in both mind and body: for example, alternating between simple yoga (from meditative breathing to simple posing, contingent on student ability) and drafting to stir the hand to write as well as the mind. Students discover and learn to accept their internal, associative logic while also experimenting with the rhetorical affordances and limitations of media forms. Using multiple senses and forms of sensory expression restores emotional investment to the classroom and evokes sympathetic resonance in self and audience, resulting in “present” students and compelling writing.
To restore the body to the classroom as dynamic and kinetic, I use what my students call “teaching tattoos” to introduce topics such as social control, interpretive closure, cellular automata, and tricksterism. As my curricular materials always touch on structures of power and surveillance, I use a tattoo of the panopticon in lectures about the Foucauldian disciplinary society and biopolitics—a lesson, I’ve been told by colleagues, that my students remember well beyond my class. As certain body modifications are noninvasively replicable for students—such as a neodymium magnet taped to a fingertip during computer use, mimicking how I use my magnetic implant to foreground classes on sensory studies and electronic “presence”—students both witness and undergo extra-linguistic, affective experiences in the writing process that bolster sympathetic resonance between writer and writing. Through “computer vision (CV) dazzle parties,” where we marble each other’s faces black-and-white with face paint, we disrupt the algorithm of facial detection software, catalyzing dialogue about disciplinary power and self-policing. Moreover, these moments conspicuously join professor and student in the common endeavor of learning, promoting a communitarian culture in the classroom instead of a utilitarian, hierarchical one. The body already serves as a provocative site of inquiry and, when modified, facilitates complex discussions and rich writing in the classroom about forms of being, sensing, surveillance, resistance, and alterity.
Finally, as the body and the page are also common sites of failure and shame, I consciously model failure as low-cost, highlighting my own differences and workarounds as a professor with processing and energy impairments. I let students know when my flare-ups occur, and when words escape me those days I use descriptive phrases and make students complicit in the labor of instruction by supplying terminology; I frequently write on the board to compensate for my processing delays and have students photograph and upload these notes to our course site; I designate a couple of students “Googlers” for the week, and have them search and post terms, tangents, esoterica, and search “fails” to the course LMS’ chat room, to help them practice research, flexibly absorb missteps, and make them responsible for class learning that transcends the day’s lecture. Afterwards, students claim that these methods make them feel like agents of their own learning, entrusted with enriching the education of the class as an imperfect, always-becoming community with real needs.
I routinely reflect on and reconsider my approach to these principles based on peer evaluations and student feedback. I don’t see myself as the gatekeeper of knowledge or students as consumers completing a transaction for a grade. Rather, I recognize teaching as an equalizing exchange that opens an inclusive, accessible space for critical thought, interactive spectacle, and creative praxis. I encourage students to position themselves as meaning-makers with valuable epistemological contributions to the field, and to therefore advocate for, and own, what they want to learn and how. I believe my students empower themselves as perpetual learners and rhetoricians when they assume the critical work of crafting, participating in, critiquing, and sustaining a learning community in which all participants may improve their knowledge, analytical skills, and rhetorical craft. Thus, my pedagogy is flexible and responsive, promoting informal extracurricular learning, and repopulating the classroom with real, messy bodies, with all their diverse contingencies, capabilities, and writerly identities.