My approach to teaching is ever-evolving to fit shifting exigencies and student populations; however, while the content and specific classroom activities are under constant revision, my goal in every teaching opportunity is to inculcate within students a habit of inquiry and writerly self-awareness that enables students to take ownership of learning new and different habits, skills, and processes. I pursue this goal by centering each course on four key ideas that foster these habits: rhetorical awareness, user-centered design and accessibility, cognitive diversity, and transfer of knowledge.
Learning to compose in any medium requires students to do more than learn specific genres and rhetorical tools and tricks. It requires that they recognize how the text they are composing fits into a larger conversation and that they make decisions (both regarding content and design) to fit their work into that conversation. To emphasize this rhetorical awareness and decision-making, I focus assignments on responding to rhetorical situations that are at once authentic and flexible enough for students to tailor their work to topics of personal interest. For example, in my professional writing courses I often assign a recommendation report. For this report, I allow students to pick the topic, but I also require them to perform primary research (e.g. interviews, observations, focus groups, surveys, etc.) in order to focus and justify their chosen topics based on local concerns and exigencies. A student group from my Spring 2017 class decided to recommend ways of curbing the opioid epidemic in Tippecanoe County, IN. In doing background research for this project, they contacted and interviewed workers at a local substance abuse rehabilitation facility. In performing these interviews they were shocked to learn that their own peers, 17-25 year olds, were at high risk for substance abuse, specifically heroin. The project they had envisioned of recommending general solutions to a general problem in the county shifted to specifically recommending ways that the university could improve awareness of this problem and of the resources the university offers to those dealing with it. As students become conscious of how their work and the material taught in class fits into larger conversations with real audiences and real implications, they become more invested and engaged, as well as more intrinsically motivated to excel.
User-Centered Design and Accessibility
One specific way in which I invite students to adopt a mindset of rhetorical awareness is by framing courses – technical and professional writing courses in particular – around usability and user-centered design. While the concept of audience is often nebulous, I ask students to identify for every project – from backgrounder reports, to social media marketing campaigns to technical documentation – which user groups and communities of practice might need to use their work in professional settings. One way that I implement user-centered design requirements into my professional and technical communication courses is by making accessibility a focal point of the various multimodal genres I assign. For example, I have taught business writing students to use Adobe InDesign and Photoshop, which they then use to compose white papers and infographics intended for color blind audiences. Also, I have had technical writing students write technical procedures designed for dyslexic audiences, which they then transform into YouTube videos accessible by deaf audiences. As students identify and address the needs of specific users, I teach students to employ usability testing at all stages of the writing process to ensure that their decisions achieve the purpose they intend. By centering writing processes on the accessibility and usability needs of specific users, I demonstrate to students that they can view disability as a source of insight, rather than a deficit. Additionally, students come to see that quality writing is not a matter of kowtowing to an arbitrary set of rules, but rather is achieved as they interpret and react to contexts situated in a complex but identifiable and authentic set of user expectations.
University accommodations protocols help to accommodate the physical needs of certain students; however, there is often little help available for students with cognitive processes that make traditional classroom settings and intellectual work difficult to navigate, whether or not these students are psychologically diagnosable. This gap between accommodation and need is especially present in composition courses where students expend considerable cognitive effort outside of the classroom. To address this issue, in all of my courses I integrate readings, activities, and opportunities for practice that 1) invite all students to consider the effects (positive and negative) of external influences on their writing processes and practices and 2) empower students to consciously select practices and influences that enable their success. We discuss such influences as place/space, technological affordances and constraints, bodily states and positions, and others. I assign students to try various alternatives in seeking out what works best for them. Some examples might be writing at a makeshift standing desk, or writing in a cool/warm/noisy/silent room, or using meditation as a part of their prewriting process. In addition to discussing external influences, I also teach and demonstrate various prewriting, drafting, and revision strategies that might appeal to students with differing intelligences. For example, I teach students brainstorming strategies that focus on visualization of ideas (e.g. mind-mapping) to help visual learners, and I often ask students to try alternative composition technologies (e.g. voice-to-text) that might help kinetic learners. While these practices aren’t revolutionary, by connecting them specifically to the notion that everyone’s cognitive processes function differently, I’ve observed that students perceive such alternative composition practices as possible tools that might help them succeed rather than arbitrary options that they’ll never use because that’s not how they learned in high school. In teaching and demonstrating these ideas and practices, I ground everything in discussion and demonstration of my own unique processes. This in turn encourages students to attempt new processes and write in ways that they’ve never considered (or perhaps been allowed to consider).
Transfer of Knowledge
In every teaching opportunity – whether a semester-long course, a week-long disciplinary writing seminar, or a one-time invited talk – I emphasize that the concepts, skills, and habits we discuss represent neither the beginning nor the end of learning to write. I push students to consciously recognize what skills, habits, genres and abilities they have previously acquired in order to build upon them. Additionally, I ask students to reflect on ways that the work assigned in class will enable them to complete future writing tasks, both in academic and professional settings. In making this knowledge conscious, students are better able to recognize 1) how previous knowledge helps them successfully complete tasks, assignments and projects, and 2) that successfully completing a new project often requires adapting, repurposing, remixing, or otherwise adding to previous knowledge and experience. Ultimately, in every opportunity to teach I tell my students that they should constantly have at the front of their minds the question, “So what?” What are they learning that will actually be beneficial to them after this class? I take it upon myself to proactively demonstrate to them that learning to write and to communicate effectively and persuasively is a vital skill for everyone, no matter the field, career, or life course they choose to pursue.