Talking points in the teaching of composition
In revising my teaching philosophy statement, I've been trying to parse out what's most important to me in my teaching. I won't be able to talk about all of these in the 1-2 page teaching philosophy statement I send out for my job applications, but I can here, just in time for the new teaching carnival. In no particular order:
Audience, rhetorical context, and kairos. In a lot of ways, I'm very much a basic paideia person, trying to produce students who take an interest in civic rhetoric and think and argue as socially responsible citizens (however the students define that term). The classes I teach (the classes in my department, I mean) are intended to be "writing in your major"-oriented, and I encourage students to avoid hackneyed, overexposed, polarized topics and seek out topics in their majors that are new and preferably local, to intervene at a point when the audience's opinions on the topic are still in a state of formation. I try to cut down on, to use Maxine Hairston's apt term, "cheerleader papers" with theses like, "Drinking and driving is dangerous" or "Teens with eating disorders need to seek help." Also, blogging and peer review really help drive home what I stress in class about being sensitive to the audience and accommodating the audience by addressing opposing views.
Genre. This is a tough one. I can appreciate the need for students to learn about, as Mike has put it, the "intellectual antecedents" of various kinds of texts, especially when the objective is to teach students "academic discourse," whatever that is. From Peter Knapp's article "Disembodied Voices: The Problem of Context and Form in Theories of Genre," pp. 290-291:
Genres are ways of using language; they should not be reduced to simply semiotic systems or codes but also need to be understood as a means of deploying language that are acted as much as they are represented, which is particularly important from a pedagogical perspective. [. . .] Results consistently demonstrate that at all levels of writing competence, students benefit from an understanding of written genres -- writing tasks range from factual texts such as information reports and instructions to creative tasks such as introductions to a narrative and literary descriptions. The fears of a genre-based pedagogy producing uniform, robotic writing have been unfounded, and if anything the opposite is being demonstrated. Competent writers are able to demonstrate an ability and enthusiasm to use generic structures and forms creatively and to great effect. Less competent writers use the boundaries and scaffolds provided by generic forms to write texts that fulfill the demands of the writing task. Without such structures these writers often struggle to know where to start.
I'll admit, I've had those fears Knapp describes. Proficiency in specific genres can come in very handy, but it's hard sometimes, at least for me, to drum up motivation and interest in mastering generic conventions. Putting a lot of emphasis on genre can, in my experience, result in a slump in motivation -- writing done for a grade. The key, I think, is to keep genre in perspective, to balance genre-heavy assignments with others that allow for more experimentation. Which leads me to my next one...
Innovation, experimentation, and creativity. Lillian Bridwell-Bowles has influenced me greatly in this area, and I'm hoping to be able to do a lot more of this in the future. In fact, I'm full of ideas. In Bridwell-Bowles' article "Discourse and Diversity: Experimental Writing Within the Academy," she describes a student who writes an essay that consists of nothing but questions: fifty-eight of them. Another takes quotations from a sampling of feminist theorists and makes a Platonic dialogue type of discussion out of them. Others experiment with interspersing academic and personal voices, like Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary.
While it's important to know how to write a literature review, an abstract, and a research paper, other kinds of texts can have a lot more explanatory and persuasive power. And they can be more FUN to write! Shouldn't writing be fun sometimes? Think about stuff like Celebrity vs. Thing, or all the aphoristic pieces on the web, like The White Privilege Checklist and the many derivative works inspired by it, like The Male Privilege Checklist, The Average-Sized Privilege Checklist, and The Straight Privilege Checklist. Then there's the brilliant post-Katrina piece Being Poor, which shows the participatory, collaborative potential of these aphoristic pieces. Not that I'm trying to say this style is new; I know aphoristic and epigrammatic essays have a pretty rich tradition.
Imagination, affect, and the personal. This one's closely tied to creativity and experimentation, obviously. These qualities have to be there in a writing course; it's essential for so many reasons: building a learning community, establishing trust between teacher and student, keeping morale and engagement up, not to mention the feminist arguments against the exclusion of the personal from academic writing. Blogging is the way I integrate these into my classes the most; I've written before about keeping the weblog as open and unregulated a space as possible, allowing for plenty of free-form, personal writing.
Authorship, intellectual property, and plagiarism. Yawn. That's on every syllabus of every writing course there is. What I want to do in future writing courses is to talk about authorship in a far more sophisticated way, bringing in everyday acts of "plagiarism" like remixing and writing action letters to congressional representatives. I'm also interested in exploring plagiarism thoughtfully in terms of ethics (see the parking tickets section here).
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