Teaching a Bit of Everything
a long and winding road to the classroom
Teaching is the one of the most important professions in any society. For a democratic republic to function, citizens must be informed and capable of reasoned deliberation. Also, in an increasingly global economy, our graduates need the best possible preparation to enter the job market.
I am convinced that my work experiences and personal journey make me a better instructor. Because I have worked in industry, and am still an entrepreneur, I have a better idea of what my students might experience in various jobs and what skills employers value. The challenge is encouraging students to think beyond employment skills.
Though I have been interested in literacy education throughout my life, the desire to become a professor specializing in language arts pedagogy took root while I was the co-owner of a children’s bookstore, Magic Dragon Books & More, which catered to teachers and school sites. From 2000 to 2002, I immersed myself in issues of childhood literacy, drawing from my undergraduate education in English education. If a parent, teacher, or librarian had a question about California’s language arts framework, I wanted to know the answer. Learning about the framework led to an interest in the underlying research that supported the state standards.
As a result of these efforts, I was invited to speak at local colleges and conducted seminars for new teachers. It was exciting to be helping teachers learn about current theories and trends within literacy education. Speaking to groups reminded me how much I enjoyed teaching.
The path I took into, through, and beyond academia was unexpected.
During my undergraduate studies, I was planning to be a high school teacher, specializing in journalism and photography. I was a teaching assistant, observer, and student-teacher from 1988 through 1990. I taught both high school science and English while working towards a preliminary teaching credential. Because California requires subject-area credentials, I completed a degree in English education. I took the National Teacher Examinations in science because there is a persistent need for science and math instructors and I thought this would expand my career opportunities.
To help pay for college, I worked as an employee of the University of Southern California’s Computing Services. One of my responsibilities was to conduct training seminars for students and faculty. This gave me the opportunity to teach a range of topics, from using email to database programming. I would later teach similar short-term courses at a community college.
Teaching High School
After graduating from USC, I entered a master’s in education program intending to earn a “clear credential” while teaching part-time. During 1991, I worked as a long-term substitute teacher. I taught journalism, yearbook, and photography at the high school from which I had graduated.
I accepted a post at another district, which was in the midst of a difficult transition. Though I regret leaving teaching before earning my clear credential, a deepening recession and a struggling school district made the choice for me. While student teaching in Los Angeles, I saw how difficult a strike is on teachers and students. Departing teaching was a precaution—and wise for a new teacher with a temporary credential. The recession of 1992 resulted in cutbacks throughout California.
For three years, I was a partner and general manager of a retail computer store, EveryBit Computers & Software. Our retail space included a small classroom area, where we offered training on various software packages. I taught classes on DOS, Windows, WordPerfect, and Lotus 1-2-3. Windows was gaining in popularity, but most classes were still on DOS-based applications.
After closing our retail operations, we continued to offer training at customer sites. In addition, I worked part-time as the training coordinator for a mortgage title company. I taught employees and clients specialized applications, as well as general computing skills. Though I was released following a merger and staffing cuts, this position led directly to my return to the traditional classroom.
Return to the Classroom
While I was offering on-site training for corporate clients, one of those clients mentioned my work to local community college. The College of the Sequoias asked if I would develop technical courses for the Business and Community Education Center. The BCEC offers short-term, non-transferable courses on a variety of topics, from business English to photography.
The BCEC gave me the opportunity to teach numerous computer courses, computer hardware repair, and several writing courses. The mix of courses meant I might teach a database programming class one week and a business English course the next. I enjoyed the variety a great deal.
In addition to working at the BCEC, I renewed my California teaching credential to work as a substitute school teacher. I accepted several medium-term positions and found myself wanting to work more with the local schools. That is why I decided to become a partner in the local children’s bookstore. It was a great way to serve children, and it guided me towards graduate school.
In 2004, I enrolled at California State University, Fresno, as a graduate student in English. For the next six years, I would teach undergraduate courses while working towards my doctorate degree. It was an interesting journey.
Teaching at Fresno State
My two years at Fresno State exposed me to a variety of teaching strategies and philosophies. The university was migrating towards a universal first-year composition requirement while also attempting to meet the needs of a broad spectrum of students.
During the fall of 2004, I was an English lab instructor. Unlike a traditional “writing lab,” Fresno State created “lab sections” for students needing to improve basic skills. Each section of twelve students met twice a week, for an hour. The first weekly meeting often was a presentation on a specific skill and the second meeting featured peer editing and discussion groups.
Lab instructors met regularly to discuss their experiences and identify any trends within the student population. Many of our students were non-native speakers of English, adding to the challenges they faced as university students. In many ways, the lab spaces were support communities for the students.
Leading lab sections prepared me to teach first-year composition within the guided curriculum of Fresno State. Students in a lab section were enrolled in various composition courses, so having a loosely standardized curriculum meant students were working on similar assignments at the same time. Assignment topics varied by composition instructor, but the assignment types were consistent.
I taught three first-year composition sections during my second year at Fresno State. The themes of my courses were “Rhetoric and Art” and “Art in the Digital Age.” Having a unified theme helped students expand on assignments throughout the semester. Also, many of the students were interested in art and digital media, so the themes were appealing to their passions.
Because I am interested in creative writing, I encouraged students to experiment. Beyond the guided curriculum, my students assembled artistic portfolios and delivered presentations on their projects. Artistic projects ranged from photography to original music compositions. I sought to blur distinctions between “academic” and “creative” writing so students could appreciate the creative nature of academic writing and the rhetorical natures of creative works.
My composition courses made extensive use of the Blackboard online learning system. Students participated in threaded discussion forums and live online chats in addition to attending traditional class sessions. The students had a clear preference for traditional classroom settings, in part because many had limited exposure to technology. My master’s thesis focused on Blackboard and the potential obstacles created by technology in writing courses.
University of Minnesota
After completing my master’s degree in English composition and rhetoric, I accepted a generous fellowship offer to pursue my doctoral degree at the University of Minnesota. The shift from a teaching-centered university to a research university enabled me to concentrate on research while teaching fewer courses.
I volunteered to teach a public speaking course during my first semester. It was a great experience and reminded me of my student-teaching experiences many years earlier. I have always thought that oral presentations help students focus. Whether in an art class or science class, having a “real” audience of their peers helps students shape their arguments. I would teach public speaking again, without hesitation.
During the second and third years of my studies, I taught a junior-senior writing intensive course each semester. This course, Professional and Technical Writing, focused on workplace writing, such as reports and studies. All instructors used the same text and followed roughly the same assignment schedule. Again, as at Fresno State, instructors met during the semester to discuss the course content.
I used Blackboard’s WebCT extensively with all courses. The student population at the University of Minnesota differed from that of Fresno State in dramatic ways. My students in Minnesota were more likely to bring laptop computers to class and none had an issue with access to technology. In fact, many of the students had used online content during their high school educations.
During the spring of 2009, I taught a “hybrid” technical writing course that was balanced between a weekly traditional meeting and online content. I created audio and video content for the course section. Content was delivered via the university’s iTunesU portal. Students could listen to podcasts or watch screencasts at their convenience.
Each section of technical writing I taught included a service-learning requirement. Working with a local non-profit organization to create a report or study, the students had a genuine audience and their efforts directly affected the community. Projects ranged from preparing safety manuals to creating bilingual marketing materials. Despite some initial resistance, most students developed a strong connection to a local cause.
Becoming a Professor
My first “real” teaching post as a professor was at a small non-profit university. I taught literature, philosophy, public speaking, writing, and editing courses. It was an interesting variety. During my first year, however, the university decided to reevaluate degree programs based on student enrollment and growth potential.
After I compiled a lengthy report analyzing similar degree programs at other institutions, my conclusion was that the degree program did not align with the needs of our student population. That is a difficult admission, but it was also obvious to administrators because several of my classes had five students or less. One or two students in a course cannot cover the costs of a degree program. Tuition-reliant colleges and universities lack the resources to subsidize small programs.
I learned at least as much as my students from this experience. Though I received positive teaching evaluations and was awarded a research grant, the institution was not an academic “home” for me or my research interests. I might have remained, accepting a reassignment and other duties, but I would not have been happy. At the end of the 2011–12 academic year, I informed the dean of my school that I would return for the next year, but 2012–13 would be my last at the university. She agreed that it moving forward was a wise decision.
This is an important subject for other aspiring professors. Current economic conditions are forcing colleges and universities to make painful decisions. Some of the choices do result in faculty reassignments, layoffs, or separation. It is an unpleasant reality that financial pressures must be considered when a program fails to meet enrollment goals.
There are many reasons I decided against remaining at the university until I found the right academic post. It was a difficult choice to not renew a contract, but you cannot renew the contract (which is done in November) and pursue another academic post. Of course, not renewing so you can enter the job market is also very scary.