Theories and Methods
foundations of a personal pedagogy
pedagogy: the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept
Effective college writing courses help students develop skills to succeed academically and professionally, while encouraging the critical thinking we expect of engaged citizens. If we effectively defend the value of academic practices and guide students towards a richer understanding of rhetoric, our students leave courses ready to advance their own arguments. In my courses, students master genre conventions while questioning how and why those conventions are privileged.
The ability to synthesize and evaluate arguments retains social and economic value, even during this time of economic uncertainty. New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman warned us before the economic downturn that The World Is Flat. Private and public employers seek to automate, simplify, export, or eliminate jobs in the name of efficiency. Critical thinking skills partially explain the growing income gap between college graduates and other citizens. The importance of composition and rhetoric courses increases as the job market continues to change.
Our students will change not only jobs, but also careers, several times during their lives. The traditional focus on vocation-specific skills and knowledge impedes future success. An ideal composition pedagogy develops curiosity and social responsibility, enabling members of a community to support each other during difficult transitions.
It is impossible to describe the pedagogy of any instructor in a thousand words, give or takes, but I am going to do my best to address the major foundations of my practices. I believe five personal guidelines reflect my approach to any course:
- Technology is not a magical elixir.
- Distinctions and binaries limit insights.
- Discussions lead to better understanding.
- Projects with genuine value motivate students.
- Skills-based instruction is sometimes useful.
Rhetoric has been described as a discipline that studies everything. When I study online education, I consider research in technology, communications, design, usability, and many other fields. When an online course is developed, everything from the choice of platform to cultural expectations affects the learning outcomes.
Technology Needs a Purpose
I am a geek in the truest sense of the label. I love to experiment with operating systems, programming languages, and given a chance I’ll tear apart anything to see what’s inside. But simply because I love computers and gadgets is not a reason to use technology in my classes. Technology must have a pedagogical purpose or it can impede learning. Though most of us would agree that technology should enhance education, too often I have witnessed spectacular failures of technology in the classroom.
When I was an undergraduate, I witnessed teachers using Apple IIe computers to deliver the equivalent of worksheets. Solving dozens of math problems on a screen instead of on paper provided no benefit to the students. Worse, one teacher had not provided “scratch paper” to students, something a worksheet offers by its very nature. Watching students struggle to solve “two-digit multiplication” with sheer mental will was disheartening.
Computer programming is a specialized form of composition, in which symbolic languages are used to create meaning.
Teaching database programming, I found that students did better when I asked them to plan on paper. If they immediately worked at a computer, even in teams, students would struggle to develop solutions to problems. What I observed was that away from the computer, students discussed the problem and reached solutions faster. The computer screen demanded their attention — at a cost to collaboration.
Technology can make collaboration easier, especially if the teacher is an active moderator and facilitator within online spaces. A teacher must help students develop wise technology habits. Our students believe that simultaneously chatting, downloading music, updating online profiles, and doing homework does not affect their performance or ability to retain information. Students need to develop the ability to decide when focus is required and how to achieve that focus online.
Software makes editing and revising works much easier. This is true of texts composed in word processors, art composed with digital tablets, and music composed with MIDI devices. Every form of digital work can be revised with minimal effort. The challenge for teachers is to encourage serious revisions, beyond basic editing.
Because I believe so strongly in collaboration and deep revision, technologies that support these practices are integrated tightly into my classes. Every class I teach includes an online discussion forum and document sharing. I emphasize that sharing ideas leads to new insights.
I use a programming editor that allows a dozen people modify a document or source code file simultaneously. Changes and additions appear immediately on every screen. A chat window with video allows contributors to discuss their work, regardless of where people might be. Such applications will be common in the future. This editor improves on the shared composing exemplified by wikis and blogs, making writing a truly communal experience.
Challenging Disciplinary Distinctions
Academic institutions are divided by disciplines, physically and administratively. From having dedicated times for topics in elementary schools to entering specific departmental buildings at the university, we convey a sense that topics are somehow disconnected. Language arts and science quite literally occupy different spaces.
Educators need to challenge disciplinary distinctions. For this to occur, we need to resist distinctions even with our own broad fields. Unfortunately, academic careers traditionally have required specialization. We need to lead by example, demonstrating to our students that artificial barriers between subjects should be confronted.
Composition and Rhetoric
As a discipline, composition and rhetoric should be defined broadly so our studies include all forms of expression. My personal interests vary widely, ranging from how computer programming languages shape the thinking of developers to how visual design affects the interpretations of information. We adjust the techniques of rhetorical analysis to study any communication.
Composition refers to any deliberately created communication. Rhetorical analysis can be applied to any composition.
We teach students rhetorical analysis and critical thinking skills that have practical applications in every field. These skills are also important to participatory democracy. It is essential that we escape the notion that composition is limited to academic writing, a discipline of term papers and journal articles.
Academic vs. Creative Writing
Composition, in my mind, includes a mix of what we often label as creative and academic genres. What matters to me is the composing process, regardless of how we might categorize the product at a specific moment. Though composition and rhetoric are perceived as limited to the study of academic genres, I cannot limit my research or teaching to genres that I want to challenge and reshape.
Though I see value in traditional forms, I also hope to influence their evolution to exploit technology. A serious academic work is creative. I hope to extend ways to express that creativity using technology, drawing from methods employed in creative composition.
The rhetoric of fiction and rhetoric of theatre are topics I hope to teach in the future, from a technological and collaborative perspective. We know that creative works can, and often do, address serious topics debated within academic fields.
It is my sincere belief that students who struggle with academic genre norms might excel with alternative approaches. Collaborative, multimedia composition has been studied for years, but we still employ traditional forms in most composition courses. I advocate for change, ideally a radical shift towards collaborative compositions across the curriculum.
Scientists vs. Artists
Before the twentieth century it was rare to separate scientists from artists. I believe the current impulse to label disciplines and individuals as either a “soft” or “hard” is a mistake. We know that scientists are creative; they are masters of metaphors. Artists apply scientific and technical knowledge; they help us experience science.
As a writing instructor, I want my students to realize that traditional barriers between disciplines are counterproductive. There is no reason a great computer programmer cannot also be a master poet. The dancer employs physics and geometry. Distinctions only serve to distance us from potential solutions to social problems.
Collaborating to Understand
Today’s careers require collaboration and constant engagement with various audiences. Effective collaboration produces efficiency and innovation. Ineffective collaboration wastes time, money, and takes an emotional toll on individuals. Friedman’s research finds that collaborative skills, underpinned by the ability to synthesize social knowledge, resist outsourcing and automation. Composition courses foster the ability to communicate and comprehend information, leading to knowledge creation.
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 a framework for collaborative pedagogies. Such a constructivist pedagogy empowers student creation of meaning, and value social-epistemic learning towards social change. Teaching with collaborative authorship in our writing courses challenges 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. Navigating these joint authorship projects with minimal teacher guidance, students take responsibility for discovery and learning.
In an online universe of blogs, wikis, and other collaborative forms of authorship, students demonstrate a basic ability to guide their own information acquisition outside the classroom. Our responsibilities include helping students appreciate what collaborative forms of composition imply. Technology makes editing and revising works easier, so a text becomes a living and evolving document. This is true of texts composed in word processors, art composed with digital tablets, and music composed with MIDI devices. Revising any form of digital work requires minimal effort. Composition teachers must encourage critically aware revisions, beyond the basic editing common among students.
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 a teacher who moderates and facilitates collaborative efforts, ensuring a productive and positive experience. Students in such courses develop the skills supporting success beyond the university.
Projects with Value
As globalization and technology change the economy, we should remind our students to value social connections. Technology invites social pedagogies and service. As composition and rhetoric instructors, we can point towards influential political blogs, social networks, and video sharing to demonstrate the social value of composition. In my experience, non-profit organizations want digital compositions, from website content and design to the production of informative podcasts. Students working with non-profit organizations develop a genuine sense of ownership of their compositions—and they come to appreciate the social responsibility that should accompany their university educations.
The desire for authentic writing situations corresponds to research finding that students perceive the classroom audience as artificial. Even projects meant to mirror the workplace are perceived as teacher-oriented, according to several studies. Scholars including James Dubinsky and Jeffrey Grabill propose activist, service learning pedagogies within writing courses. In my experiences, 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.
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 will discover the skills for future success.
Working with non-profit organizations gives students a sense their compositions have real audiences. These genuine audiences have needs and expectations a teacher cannot always predict, which also adds to the authenticity of the assignments.
Of course, service learning and client projects remain artificial, since the instructor serves as both an adviser and potential mediator. There is a safety net, since the writing instructor wants to ensure some level of success on these projects.
Service learning within a composition course can range from document creation to organizing oral histories. Only the creativity of instructors and students limits the possibilities. The specific composition course also establishes some constraints on the nature of assignments. A technical writing course might emphasize preparing grants, instructions, or formal reports. A new media course might emphasize websites or video production.
Technology invites social pedagogies. As composition and rhetoric instructors, we can point towards influential political blogs, social networks, and video sharing. In fact, most non-profit organizations have a great need for digital compositions, from website content and design to the production of informative podcasts.
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.