Theories and Methods
foundations of a personal pedagogy
pedagogy: the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept
Working towards skill and subject mastery should be the goal of education. As an instructor and researcher interested in the rhetoric of narratives, I appreciate that the skills required to create persuasive stories involve artistic creativity and practiced technique. Mastery of the art and technique of storytelling takes years, far more time than a single class provides to students. Constructing narratives requires synthesizing skills and knowledge from past experiences as an audience member. We learn to compose stories by seeing, hearing, and reading great stories. Sustained practice offers the best path towards mastery.
This philosophy leads me to allow and even encourage revisions and additional work on assignments if a student chooses. My syllabi set strict rules for revising and resubmitting work, including final deadlines that allow me time to offer meaningful feedback and submit final grades. Making minor corrections to a work does not constitute serious revision. Students include a short reflection on what they revised and why, to demonstrate how they used the opportunity to deepen their understandings of the course contents. In my experience, few students take advantage of such flexible policies, but those who do so learn and retain more from the courses. Because I recognize expertise requires more than a semester, I remain available to students as a mentor and coach long after they complete a course.
Unlike courses with multiple choice exams and objective correct answers, the courses I teach culminate with subjective analyses. The highest grades reflect the students’ abilities to demonstrate processes of evaluation; I explain in class that conclusions from those evaluations might differ. Scientists reach different conclusions on similar evidence, yet they practice rigorous evaluative methodologies. Likewise, scholars in the humanities reach conflicting conclusions through thoughtful evaluation. The humanities teach the processes of critical thinking. We cannot teach “proper” conclusions.
Connecting Diverse Topics
Every course I teach reflects my interest in rhetoric. I have taught creative writing, academic composition, technical communication, public speaking, philosophy, computing, and digital media courses. Connecting each of these is the need to appeal to an audience, often through narrative techniques, to motivate that audience to take a desired action. Whether students write an essay or create a video to explain climate change, evaluation of the course assignment depends on the effectiveness of rhetorical choices. Even an Excel graph must be designed to captivate and persuade an audience of the value inherent within the data depicted. An essay, a video, and a chart all tell stories and seek to persuade.
Technology and Learning
University courses assume a level of technical literacy, with many courses online and far more supplemented with learning management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle. Colleges seem to assume students enter our courses with word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation skills, though few students demonstrate intermediate or expert understandings of business applications. I set aside at least one class session in every course to verify and review word processing skills to help students compose and revise efficiently. When teaching any technology-centered unit, such as website design or video production, I review general concepts apart from the software.
Unless a course title or syllabus suggests the outcomes include mastery of a particular set of applications, I prefer to focus on general concepts that outlast technology trends. The computing platforms, applications, and programming languages I learned as a student no longer exist. Contrary to some assertions, the skills learned to navigate WordStar did not transfer to Microsoft Word. The editing skills I learned with Avid Media Composer and Newtek Video Toaster conflict with the floating magnetic timeline of Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Only when applications reflect similar philosophies and design choices do the practical skills transfer easily. However, underlying concepts do transfer.
With a focus on final projects and the creativity reflected in those, I seek to demystify technologies as tools to complete tasks. The tools will change, but the overall goal of reaching an audience to inform and persuade remains constant. Technology fails when it hinders the creation, revision, or distribution of ideas.
Collaborating to Understand
I want my students to appreciate that traditional barriers between disciplines are counterproductive. Solving major challenges facing our world requires collaboration. Today’s careers require collaboration and engagement with diverse audiences. Effective collaboration produces efficiency and innovation. Ineffective collaboration wastes time, money, and takes an emotional toll on individuals.
The “Community of Inquiry” model for writing courses proposed by D. R. Garrison and Norman Vaughan in their book Blended Learning in Higher Education offers one framework for collaborative pedagogies. Such a constructivist pedagogy empowers student creation of meaning, and values social-epistemic learning towards social change. Teaching with collaborative authorship challenges students to question traditional notions of authorship and ownership.
Collaborative assignments improve problem-solving skills and encourage the development of social skills a community-based pedagogy embraces. Collaboration forces students to confront disagreements, cultural differences, and other social dynamics important in our society. When navigating these joint authorship projects with minimal teacher guidance, students take responsibility for discovery and learning.
In an online universe of blogs, wikis, podcasts, and videos, students enter our courses with a basic ability to guide their own information acquisition outside the classroom. Our responsibilities include helping students appreciate what collaborative forms of creation imply. Technology makes editing and revising works easier in all digital forms. A text becomes a living and evolving document, while a video becomes part of a mashup or montage. Revising digital work requires minimal effort, but careful thought. Ideally, teachers encourage critically aware revisions.
I integrate technologies that support collaboration and deep revision into my classes. Each class I teach includes an online discussion forum and document sharing. I emphasize that sharing ideas leads to new insights. Students need teachers who moderate and facilitate collaborative efforts, ensuring a productive and positive experience. Students in such courses develop the skills supporting success beyond the university.
Projects with Value
Scholars including James Dubinsky and Jeffrey Grabill propose activist, service learning pedagogies within writing and rhetoric courses. Working with non-profit organizations gives students a sense of ownership of and obligation to the success of their compositions. Genuine audiences exhibit needs and expectations a teacher cannot predict, which enhances the authenticity of assignments.
As globalization and technology change the economy, students need to understand the value of social connections. Technology invites social pedagogies and service projects. Rhetoric and media instructors can point towards influential political blogs, social networks, and video sharing to demonstrate the social value of media projects. Collaborating with non-profit organizations offers one approach to assigning media projects with social and professional value. Non-profit organizations need digital compositions, from new website content to informative videos. Students working with these organizations develop a sense of ownership of their compositions—and they come to appreciate the social responsibility that should accompany their university educations.
Departmental course objectives establish constraints on the nature of assignments. However, only the creativity of instructors and students limits the possibilities for service learning. A technical writing course might emphasize preparing grants, instructions, or formal reports for organizations. A new media course might emphasize Web design or video production for community organizations. As students complete projects with social value, they discover the skills for future success.
Some Skills Must be Taught
No matter how much we value discovery and experiential forms of learning, the reality is that some basics skills are best delivered via directed teaching: the old-fashioned lecture and demonstration methods. The obvious candidates for directed teaching are subjects such as chemistry or industrial arts, where we have to protect students. However, every subject includes basic information and skills that should be delivered quickly and efficiently.
I admit that I enjoy activities more than lectures. I want my students to be engaged and “active learners” during my classes. But, researchers have found that being active in a classroom and learning are not the same.
Despite earlier research in support of “manipulatives,” such as blocks in the teaching of mathematics, recent research suggests self-reported success might be something else: teachers found activities more “fun,” according to a 2006 Georgetown University study. Several other reports found students taught with a mix of lectures and worksheets did better in math. A 2001 study by the University of Chicago reached a similar conclusion, studying at-risk students placed in an “innovative” math program with hands-on activities. The students fell even further behind their peers. The teachers thought things were going great.
While a variety of explanations might be offered as to why activities did not result in greater student achievement, the key point is that sometimes a lecture is effective. I now demonstrate basic software skills, instead of encouraging experimentation. In the past, I assumed students would eventually read the online help or ask questions. Instead, they became frustrated with the software. As one student reminded me, she learned to cook by watching her mother, not by trial and error. Experimenting came after the basic skills were acquired.
I want to get my students to the exploration stage as smoothly as possible. They still need some basic skills to get there.