A few years before starting graduate school, I worked as a counselor at a camp for adolescents with emotional and behavioral challenges and then as a caretaker for three men with autism. At ten to twelve years old, the boys in my group had already lived lives of abuse, violence, drugs, and truancy. As for the men with autism, one had difficulty speaking but could match his words to his thoughts; another had limited language capacities, using a few set phrases to communicate a range of ideas and emotions; the other did not speak. Although I did not think of myself as a teacher or rhetorician at the time, these experiences profoundly affected my basic assumptions about communication, relationality, and mentoring, assumptions that later shaped my teaching practices. Specifically, I came to think of literacies not in terms of proficiency and deficiency but rather in terms of possibilities for different modes of engagement, and pedagogy became a practice of helping students explore their singular capacities for expression and response.
My classes start with the assumption that learning and writing are grounded in exposure – exposure to different logics, attitudes, modes of identification, and technologies. This assumption motivates two trajectories in my pedagogy, the first relating to rhetoric as an art of civic discourse and the second a more experimental view of writing. While I encourage my students to see themselves as citizens contributing to public conversations, we foreground the importance of exposing ourselves to the voices and positions already in play. In both my first-year composition and my “Critical Reading and Persuasive Writing” courses, I ask students to map debates and communities before contributing their own voices to the conversation. This mapping is both figurative and literal: my students produce papers that offer conceptual maps of the positions, stakeholders, and commitments surrounding a given issue, but they also produce mindmaps, GoogleMaps, and timelines to develop a sense for the way these conversations and communities unfold in time and space. My classes thus frame argumentation and civic discourse as responsive activities that emanate not only from a student’s own ideas, values, and beliefs but from an a priori exposure that makes available the issues, relations, and encounters that call for response.
The other trajectory in my teaching practices looks beyond rhetoric as a civic art toward something more experimental, toward a mode of writing and response that cannot be reduced to the rational, hermeneutic, and discursive. My classes pursue this trajectory by asking students to negotiate the unique logics of digital technologies and writing spaces. For example, in my “Writing in Digital Environments” course, students work with Rhetorical Peaks, a pedagogical videogame I developed in the Digital Writing and Research Lab. Students play and further develop the game by creating websites, videos, and Second Life avatars/game characters that are an amalgamation of a model rhetor, the game’s narrative, and the students themselves. These assignments allow students not only to practice rhetorical analysis and production but also to reflect on the ways that their identities and the communities to which they belong are produced. By exposing themselves to these diverse conversations, communities, and technologies, my students practice writing not only as citizens but also as participants in perpetually unfolding encounters shaped by logics and forces that open new possibilities for expression.
As I pursue both of these trajectories in my pedagogy, I aim to enrich my students’ encounters with various modes of persuasion, identification, and expression by exposing them to different modes of textuality as well. My classes foreground essays and articles that contribute to civic discourse, but we also engage literature, film, music, images, and videogames as embodiments of argument and as texts that make available different rhetorical registers. For example, in my “‘I Believe in Miracles’: Rhetoric and Postmodernism” course, we read articles that illuminate the context of postmodern culture and the issues it raises related to belief, fabrication and reality, and media-saturation, and we then take up texts informed by different understandings of the term “miracle.” When students read Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – a film that refashions religious miracles in postmodern cool – alongside Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water – a novel that aligns miracles with a long tradition of Western storytelling and authority that underwrites practices of subjugation – they get a richer sense for the ways that broader cultural orientations shape discourse and processes of identification.
My pedagogical emphasis on exposure to different logics, subjectivities, and technologies frames writing as a series of encounters rather than as a final product. I adapt my methods of assessment accordingly, consistently encouraging students to engage in self-reflection and to study their own learning processes and development throughout a semester. I use the Learning Record, an online portfolio system that asks students to gather diverse evidence of their development, which they measure across specific dimensions of learning and course objectives. This assessment model allows students to take risks with their writing, as they are graded on the process and the full range of their efforts rather than simply the end product. It asks students to examine and explore their capacities for responding to different learning challenges and questions, and it opens them to the sort of inquiry and discovery that occurs in our classroom encounters with texts, conversations, and communities. The goal here is not mastery; this reflective mode asks students to expose themselves further, to new possibilities for their own development and capacities as writers. This encourages students to share – or at least to consider and engage – my assumptions about writing as a singularly responsive act that faces us with our own capacities for response.