As an instructor, I resist the notion that students cannot write. All too often, I hear colleagues lament that their students’ writing falls below their expectations. I take issue with this assertion because I believe that students can write—I see them writing all the time. But all too often, in the first few weeks of class, students confide they aren’t good writers, that they can’t write. To be a successful instructor, I must be willing to use what students do write to teach them everything they can write. I do this by connecting theory and practice, valuing diverse experiences, incorporating multimodal composing practices, and encouraging conversation and collaboration.
I connect theoretical concepts with practical writing situations.
As I design courses, assignments, lectures and discussions, and more, I strive to make the “why?” of the material just a clear as the “how?” Students are more than capable of completing an assignment when they realize how it fits within the goals of the course. And they will accept the course goals when they understand how these goals fit within their academic, professional, and personal goals. As an instructor, it is my priority to make the connections between course goals and student goals apparent.
When I introduce an assignment, I want to make clear to my students the pedagogical and theoretical ideas behind the task. I believe that the theoretical components of a composition course are very important, but without a clear connection to practical composing situations, students often struggle to see the relevancy of their assignments. In a course I designed, Writing for Social Media, I used an early class discussion to teach students basic rhetorical theory through analyzing social media posts. I asked students to first participate in an in-class assignment in analyzing a few of their own social media posts. After working individually for a moment, I opened up whole group discussion and asked students to share some of their observations. I grouped similar observations together on the board then I introduced rhetorical concepts and explained them through the lens of their own compositions. Through this lesson, students learned about audience, purpose, exigence, kairos, constraints, and audience appeals within embedded writing situations. I believe that it is most helpful for student success if composing elements are not taught in a vacuum, but rather are connected, as much as possible, to real-life composing situations.
I value students’ diverse experiences.
No one of my students is alike, and I keep in mind that each student I teach brings with them unique experiences, values, and ideas. I make it a priority to understand how each of these experiences has shaped students’ lives, and especially their ideas about writing and communication. I’ve had students who miss class when the weather is cool enough to farm work, students who need to bring their children to class, students who believe their creative writing does not align with academic writing, and students who are active or former military. I try to get to know my students so that I understand where they are coming from, and so that I might find a way to guide them to use their varied experiences in their course writing. In my Technical and Report Writing course, one of my students had to miss two weeks of class early in the semester because of her child’s heart surgery. As a way of both using those experiences and catching up in the course, I encouraged her, for her first major assignment, to analyze technical documents from her son’s doctor, a process with which she was already very familiar. This eased the burden of the analysis assignment while also allowing the student to use her own experiences for the coursework.
No matter a student’s background and experiences, I see it as my responsibility to make apparent the connection of the writing and communication that students do now and the writing that students will do in both their continuing academics and in the workplace. I strive to reassure students that all their compositions “count” and can have value personally, professionally, and academically.
I incorporate multimodal composing practices.
Using technology in the classroom is no new concept, though it is met with criticism for its tendency to distract students or distract from course goals. I do not use new technologies and multimodal composition because it’s the “hot new thing.” I use these technologies because the very face of “composition” is changing. To prepare students to compose in their future workplaces, they need more than just text-based composition skills; they need to know how the skills that they’ve learned can translate to a variety of modes.
In my courses, it’s not unlikely to see a student or a group of students working on a video, podcast, brochure, instruction packet, infographic, website, or social media plan. In my Technical Composition and Technical and Report Writing courses, I assigned students the task of creating infographics, which has quickly become one of my favorite activities. Throughout this assignment, I ask students to use multiple modes to brainstorm, draft, and create their infographic. First, I ask students to analyze professionally created infographics, and from their analyses, we discuss moves that the creators have made and the rhetorical implications of those moves. Before actually creating their computerized infographics, I ask students to write out descriptions and then create hand-drawn drafts. I reassure students that I do not grade their drawing skills, but I believe that sketching out the infographic is a vital step in the drafting process because it gives students times to plot their infographics. Students must then translate their drawings into computerized graphics, which provides avenue for discussions about the constraints of certain media.
I encourage conversation and collaboration.
I am a proponent of using collaborative pedagogies in my classes, whether that be class-wide discussion, small group discussion, co-authored projects, or client-based projects. For collaborative components to be successful at all, however, students need to feel comfortable speaking with and working with their classmates. I try to use the first few minutes before and after class to chat with students about shared interests. Usually this works to both humanize me as an instruction and to encourage students to speak to each other. Even when, in group activities, students lapse into conversations about their weekend activities, I allow these conversations to continue for just a little while before coaxing students back to their work. Ease of conversation is pedagogically relevant to me as it provides a springboard for more collaborative learning.
Collaboration goes beyond chit chat, of course. I often incorporate group projects into my courses, particularly in advanced composition and technical writing courses. While I usually give students the option to complete an assignment alone, I design the assignment in such a way that students would likely benefit from working together. At my institution, our Technical Composition course serves engineering and business majors. I encouraged engineering students and business students to work together, mimicking common processes in firms and organizations. Engineering students often created a project plan and timeline, while business students took the lead in developing budgets and incorporating persuasive elements to the proposal introduction. Both majors worked together in formatting the document, creating graphics, and incorporating multimodal elements. When their group knowledge was lacking, they began contacting their professors, local contractors, and more. Collaboration that began in the classroom evolved into something more, and the final proposals reflected the value of these multiple points of collaboration.
Above all, I am a collaborator with my students; we are all still learning. I built a rapport with my students based on mutual respect for each other’s experiences, strengths, and flaws. I strive to relate to and connect with each of my students as individuals, and I try to offer them the right amount of support so that they are challenged, but do not feel abandoned. For more information on my teaching, including course descriptions, visit saraofthewest.com/teaching.