In order to address the diverse needs of 21st century students, my teaching philosophy centers around questioning assumptions. I design courses to push students to delve deeper into what they “know” and to ask big questions about the processes of knowledge formation and transmission. My teaching persona disrupts the idea that a good teacher has all the answers; I regularly incorporate my own research inquiries into course themes so as to participate in the process of discovery and analysis alongside my students. As a result, my courses fulfill traditional learning outcomes in reading, writing, researching, and critical thinking while featuring innovative approaches to analyzing texts, conducting research, and sharing knowledge. I design courses that aim to awaken student curiosity by leaving a space for the unknown, meaning my students follow their own imaginations, chase down ideas, and make valuable and original contributions to both class discussion and the larger field of English. By holding open space for the students’ own inquiries, my classes challenge their assumptions about the value of literature and the humanities in their lives.
Even from the very first day of class, I ask students to deeply consider context and influence within the study of English. In a course like my Survey of American Literature, 1850- Present, we spend a class period close reading the course anthology’s introduction. We look at the table of contents and editors’ biographies and work through how their educational and academic backgrounds might have influenced the texts included and how those choices shape classes on that subject. The goal is to teach students to recognize and begin to articulate how a canon of major works is shaped by historical, political, cultural, and economic forces. I structured my Golden Age of Children’s Literature course around similar theoretical approaches to help majors and non-majors alike challenge the assumption that literary analysis is irrelevant beyond the classroom. For example, many students were struck by the fact that classics like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Jungle Book contained racist, classist, and sexist content and worked to reconcile how books normally assumed to be “just for kids” have a significant impact on the way a society reproduces and passes down prejudice and difference in the guise of required reading and nostalgic childhood favorites. American Myth” Stories We Tell (American) Children challenged assumptions surrounding race, gender, immigration, and colonialism while considering who is allowed to embrace and explore the “American Dream.” Using texts like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little House on the Prairie, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” students examined the ways historical events are presented to children and how these myths have been used to define, celebrate, and isolate what it means to be an American in contemporary society.
Many students are surprised to learn that my classes require projects rather than just written essays. By embracing projects that require students to think creatively and compose artifacts that feature visual rhetoric, electronic modes of transmission, and live presentations, I aim to prepare them for the wide variety of communications they will be asked to participate in throughout their college and professional careers. For example, my Writing Through Media: Fairy Tale Adaptations course asked students to design fairy tale-themed advertising campaigns for make-believe products. The assignment engaged students on the fairy tale content of the course, as well as concepts of adaptation, meme theory, and visual analysis, while challenging them to translate one message across multiple mediums.
In addition to embracing multimodality, my courses regularly employ digital pedagogy techniques to help students tackle the rhetorical challenges of analyzing 21st century texts. In The History and Rhetoric of Science Writing for Children, the “Possibly Impossible Research Project” introduced students to original research as well as public forums for sharing the results of that research. Rather than lecture on various research methodologies, this assignment required students to conduct original research in digital archives, government records, and genealogical listings in order to find biographical information on their assigned 19th century female author of science texts for children. Classes during this unit more closely resembled a workshop or laboratory, as I would give short demonstrations of different digital resources or research techniques, then work collaboratively with students to problem solve and encourage innovative approaches to finding information. Collaboration was further encouraged through the use of Twitter as a real time research journal where students regularly challenged their own assumptions about what a research project looked like or where they might look for reliable sources of information. Whether students were able to complete a Wikipedia biography for their author or the research portfolio options that included a “no results” list of dead end searches, all of the students were given a glimpse into the ups and downs of original research while also experiencing firsthand the way these important scientific figures were written out of the scientific and educational records because they were women. The focus on collaborative problem solving, along with the public-facing digital elements of the assignment allowed many of the students to experience, for the first time, their place in a larger research community where they had original information to contribute. Students’ research portfolios were assessed on their process, creative problem solving, decision making, and record keeping rather than a quantified amount of information found, challenging what many of them viewed as “success.”
By affiliating my courses with the service learning unit on campus, many of my courses feature assignments that focus on building community connections as well as pushing students to address a specific audience beyond the instructor. In Making the List: Best Of, Best Sellers and Banned Books, students read about the historical, political, economic and social implications of book censorship in the United States before working in teams to design “Banned Books Week” campaigns for local libraries. Students presented these multimodal campaigns to our community partners in a poster session showcase. Students each prepared an “elevator pitch,” which required them to distill their nuanced and carefully researched campaigns into a short, engaging introduction for a live audience. Local librarians “shopped” for projects to use in their own educational spaces as they asked questions and engaged the students in lively debate, making the partnership mutually beneficial for all participants.
I also create a classroom environment that varies in structure from class to class, challenging the traditional lecture or seminar-style class sessions that many students assume are the norm. I vary the types of lessons that I present and incorporate a variety of teaching styles, such as lecture, discussion, group work, writing practice, and activities. In my upper level Technical Writing courses, I use a “Bad Flyer Scavenger Hunt” to introduce the unit on visual rhetoric. Student groups find a flyer on campus that exhibits poor design then each team presents on the principles of good design that the flyer has violated (often with a lot of laughter). This interactive lesson makes theoretical concepts concrete while engaging students through a variety of learning styles; it is also far more fun than a series of Powerpoint slides discussing visual design elements like proximity, balance, and color contrast.
As an instructor, I am dedicated to making my course accessible to a wide variety of diverse populations. I regularly work to undermine my own assumptions about what my “digital native” students already know. By planning lessons that demystify academic and professional genres of communications, such as professional emails, I teach rhetorical analysis and genre conventions appropriate for literature and composition courses while intentionally leveling the playing field for first generation and international students who may not have been exposed to subtle and hidden rules of U.S. academic communication. I also strive to employ digital tools in ways that balance their instructional value against the potential financial barriers to access. Building social media use into my classroom participation requirements allows students to participate in class discussion even when they find seminar style discussion difficult (either due to English Language Learner status or learning disabilities). Students in my Rhetoric, Propaganda, and the High Stakes of YA Dystopian Fiction course used the class Twitter hashtag to elaborate on ideas they had begun to articulate in class or to provide links to articles referenced during class discussion. Many course evaluations noted that while students had initially assumed Twitter was a frivolous social media toy, this form of participation allowed for a more inclusive discussion with a greater emphasis on depth.
In assessing student work, I aim for a high level of transparency; I set very high standards for work in my course, but provide students with detailed assignment sheets, scaffolding work, and explicit grading rubrics to help them achieve (and often surpass) those expectations. My feedback identifies students’ strengths and successes as well as concrete advice for improvement. By focusing on skill development and process in assignment design, my feedback points students towards how to continue to improve, even as they are finishing my course. In grading projects holistically, students recognize that mechanics and technical precision matters, but so does the quality of the content, the attention to rhetorical situation, and their design choices.
As a mentor for first-year graduate student instructors, I modeled this professionalism and pedagogical approach, while encouraging each instructor to develop their own teaching personas and teaching philosophies. To do this, I often encouraged my co-instructors to examine their reasoning for classroom management decisions, like whether or not to accept late papers. By demystifying my own pedagogical methodology, I strive to help my co-instructors locate their own philosophies and not simply adopt mine. Ultimately, I strive to serve as a positive model of intellectual and professional engagement for my students and fellow instructors. Ultimately, I strive to serve as a positive model of intellectual and professional engagement for my students and fellow instructors.
My ultimate goal is for students to leave my classroom feeling empowered to question their own assumptions and to seek out solutions to the problems caused by larger societal expectations. By emphasizing creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, and adaptable writing techniques, I prepare students to succeed in my class, in future university courses, and in their chosen careers.