I fell into teaching in my graduate program at Clemson, after I had spent several years trying to avoid higher education, spooked by the difficult job market. From that first freshman composition course, I was hooked. It just made sense. It was a vocation that activated my creativity, my curiosity, and my love for people. From that graduate assistantship, I got an adjunct job, which turned into an instructorship, which turned, improbably (with a master’s) into an assistant professorship at another college.
I’ve taught a large range of courses in English and communication, many of which stretched the boundaries of my preparation, and this is part of what drove me into a doctoral program. Although my supervisor urged me to do a low-residency PhD and stay put, I wanted the experience of doing a full-time, immersive doctoral program. So my wife and I sold our house, quit our jobs, and moved to Tallahassee.
Some things about my approach to teaching have not changed. Like many in our field, I subscribe to a constructivist pedagogy, where students are encouraged to actively make meaning. If I do give lectures, they are short, and always involve some kind of response or application afterward. But often, when I need students to understand a concept, I begin inductively, providing examples and asking them to begin to generalize about concepts. For instance, in my Writing and Editing in Print and Online (WEPO) course I teach the genre of the press release in order to understand print logics. Instead of lecturing about press releases, we trace the progress of some press releases (as Ridolfo and DeVoss do in Rhetorical Velocity), I have them find a press release and analyze it rhetorically, and then we begin to discuss the conventions of the genre, and how we might bend them.
But some things have shifted in my teaching practices since coming to Florida State: my teaching is more reflective, it stresses assessment, and it is driven by research.
From my interactions with Kathleen Yancey, I’ve started valuing reflection at all stages of learning. Encouraging students to reflect is a valuable way of activating and synthesizing prior knowledge and current knowledge, applying theory, and anticipating future directions. I often have students reflect through blogging, but I also use in-class writing, portfolio reflections, and dialogical, reflective exchanges. A good example of this is here, where at the beginning of my Writing and Editing in Print and Online (WEPO) course, after teaching on the concepts of text, rhetoric, and multimodality, I had them reflect in class on the concepts. I responded to their reflections with questions, and then had them blog a response to one of my questions. Finally, I reflected on their reflections. And I do this out of class too. In fact, following in the footsteps of my major professor Michael Neal, I now reflect on all of my courses shortly after they conclude, in an effort to remember what worked and what did not.
Because I am professionally interested in assessment, I always try to make my assessment and response methods transparent. Often, as Brian Huot and others suggest, I will generate grading criteria based on an assignment description, and then invite students to comment upon, interact with, modify, and question the criteria. I consider assessment and response to be modes of teaching, not unavoidable headaches that are separate from real learning. Grades are signals that an effort is satisfactory, or that more work is needed to bring a project up to expectations. I work with a process approach–multiple drafts.
The goal of assessment is to pursue the good of the student, balancing empathy and expectations. I am strongly moved by Peter Elbow’s contention that we need to learn to like student writing (not just rank or evaluate it), because liking student writing is so akin to liking students. I also resonate with Donald A. Daiker’s argument that we need to learn to honestly praise student writing, not just supply half-hearted encouragement to soften a litany of criticism.
Before I came to Florida State, I did not know how to research. I was interested in learning to do so, but there was little institutional support for doing so. Now, I cannot imagine teaching without also doing research, because they are mutually constitutive. As I research and learn, I teach differently, and as I teach, I encounter questions that drive me back to research. For instance, I’ve been interested, for a while, in templates, especially as they relate to multimodal composition. This led me to construct, with Bruce Bowles, Jr., an assignment that I now regularly teach. I also developed an assignment sequence about teaching rhetorical circulation that has been used by me and others, and will be revised, by invitation, for Kairos PraxisWiki in late spring.
Teaching is practice, and practice does not always make perfect. Teaching is not a popularity contest, nor is it feel-good film where the teacher is the hero. Sure, there are high points, but teaching is hard, daily work, and a lot of guessing. Sometimes I think I’ve blown it with a class, and I strangely get through to them. Other times I plan incessantly, and a class meeting falls flat. That’s what makes this profession frustrating, but also what makes it interesting. And acknowledging failure, when it occurs, helps us to reflect and continue to grow. (And sometimes, things go a lot better the second time).
In the end, teaching is hard and joyful. Since the beginning, I’ve always been a teacher. For now, I learn to teach daily.