Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Students take first-year writing in the context of a major transition in their lives and within an ambitious general education curriculum. Understanding the complexity of that first year, which my administrative work has shown me more clearly than ever before in my career, has helped me to focus my goals for students' development in first-year writing. I am presenting my philosophy here from the perspective of teaching first-year writing in particular, but I hope it becomes clear that my teaching philosophy is consistent in all the courses I teach. By the end of any of my classes, I hope that students have acquired at least these two practices: approaching writing projects as a series of drafts, and considering multiple perspectives as they form arguments.

I address these two operational goals with academic discourse in mind. David Bartholomae, in "Inventing the University," argues that

What our beginning students need to learn is to extend themselves, by successive approximations, into the commonplaces, set phrases, rituals and gestures, habits of mind, tricks of persuasion, obligatory conclusions and necessary connections that determine the 'what might be said' and constitute knowledge within the various branches of our academic community.

Certainly not everyone agrees with Bartholomae that initiation into the academic discourse community, whatever that means, should be the goal of first-year writing. Those of us in rhetoric and composition studies have debated for decades about whether we should be preparing students to write in their chosen careers, write in upper-division university courses, or write in civic settings. However, the most immediate, applicable context for students' writing in college, and the most consequential in the short term, is the academy, and I have chosen to make this my primary focus, though I also address the others.

One key implication of an academic discourse focus in my teaching practice is that conventions they may already know, but not quite, are demystified. For example, students often come to my class knowing that they are supposed to cite sources, because they'll get busted for plagiarism if they don't, and they know they're supposed to use MLA format, but they may not know what the letters "MLA" stand for. I try to contextualize the fragments that students have learned in the past, which I believe empowers them: to teach students that the purpose of citation, rather, is to establish authority and credibility for an academic audience, that it’s important to academic audiences to know who said what and to demonstrate (by citing sources) that one has read some published scholarship on the subject he or she is writing about. I want students to understand that a "research paper" is not a purposeless school requirement but is in fact a real genre: a scholarly journal article. As I continue refining my teaching philosophy, I plan to start designing writing assignments as CFPs, after introducing students to the CFP genre.

In pursuit of my first operational goal, approaching writing projects as a series of drafts, I make responding to student writing a high priority. In the tradition of scholars such as Janet Emig, Nancy Sommers, Peter Elbow, Richard Haswell, and Summer Smith, I intervene in students' writing process, starting with invention, and from the beginning of each writing project, I give students opportunities to experience that process as social, including brainstorming and draft workshops. I give students rhetorical goals for each assignment such as critical evaluation or categorical claims, and though I suggest subject matter for students to write about, I leave the possibility open to them to propose topics, and I offer comments on those early topic proposals, those phrases written on scrap paper in class. Like many other teachers, I require students to show initial drafts of work to me for comments. When commenting on first-year students' drafts, I check my work by asking myself these two questions: 1. Is the quality of my commentary comparable to the commentary I give to doctoral students on early drafts of dissertation chapters? (It should be.) 2. If I look at this draft and read only my comments, am I able to tell solely from those comments what the subject matter of the paper is? (If the answer is no, I have not yet given substantive enough feedback.) I've found that my comments are the best way to motivate students to turn in early drafts and revise. But yes, I also make revision one of the grading criteria.

To achieve the second goal, prompting students to consider multiple perspectives as they form arguments, I use some of the same techniques as the ones I use to meet the first goal: holding draft workshops in class using prompts that specifically ask students to offer opposing and divergent views to their peers when responding to drafts, and offering other perspectives myself when I comment on drafts. I also take advantage of the academic discourse focus when I explain the importance of multiple perspectives. One of my priorities, as I've said, is to demystify arbitrary rules, and one of these is length requirement. If asked why a paper should be at least five pages long, I hope a student in my class would reply with what I say in class regularly: "because it takes about that much space to develop the topic adequately. If you give substantial background information about the subject, plenty of evidence to support your argument, and if you summarize and refute counterarguments, you won't have any trouble meeting the length guideline." I emphasize multiple perspectives in every assignment, and I find that the "planting a naysayer" technique from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's textbook They Say/I Say is helpful for showing students what it looks like to explain and respond to other perspectives. I also value the Toulmin schema as a tool to discover a variety of perspectives. The Toulmin schema can be used for fun classroom discussion activities; I use it to workshop students' paper topics, but when I am introducing the terminology to students, I give them an easy topic such as the one below, which shows the power of social convention and popular belief and its role in logic.

Claim: I put on clothes this morning
Reason: because I had to go to work. [here I ask students: “This is logical, right? Every single one of us put on clothes.”]
Warrant: Nudity is a social taboo.
“Indecent exposure” is illegal and can get you arrested [To get at the power of the cultural norm, I ask students: “What if Louisiana made clothing optional?”]
Instances of streaking are shocking to people
Nursing in public can make some people uncomfortable
Controversy when professor Diana York Blaine simply posted a semi-nude photograph of herself online (taken at the Burning Man festival)
Long history of shame associated with nudity: Adam and Eve story
Conditions of Rebuttal: Grounds
Not all cultures view nudity as a social taboo
Our own culture has nudist parks
Some spaces are designated clothing-optional: nude beaches
Nudity would be more comfortable in hot weather
Nudity would be cost-effective and good for the environment: money/resources saved on clothes, laundry supplies, water
People might become more physically fit if they didn’t wear clothes. [“I know I’d be shredded!” said one guy in my class.]
Nudity is associated with privacy and intimacy
Insecurity with body image
Conditions of Rebuttal: Backing
The nudity taboo is narrow-minded, impractical, and prudish
The nudity taboo reinforces unhealthy, negative body image

I have been teaching for almost fourteen years, a variety of courses, and I have directed three dissertations to completion, and in each of these teaching situations I find myself doing the same things. In that first year of college, and really in that last year of dissertation writing, just finishing is a major accomplishment. With the main goal of helping students make sense of what seem like arbitrary rules for writing in the academic community, and the practices of reading and commenting on early drafts -- which is where I do most of my teaching, really -- and supplying other points of view, I hope I help them not only finish, but do so as more confident academic writers.