All teaching is about relationships. When teachers seek to foster healthy relationships with their students, they establish the emotional safety necessary to encourage risk-taking and empowerment. That empowerment is what helps convince students that their voice matters, that their rhetorical choices matter, and that their thoughtful addition to circulating knowledge is a civic and professional and personal responsibility.
I have more to learn in the classroom than I have to teach, and I make sure students know that—I’m working to create a community of learning.[i] The research tells us time and time again that the key factors in facilitating knowledge that students can apply to their own lives include: strong interpersonal skills, engaging teaching style, a strong knowledge of the nature of the lives and issues of those being served, an easy rapport based in respect for the students—the rhetoric of pedagogy. The classroom, then, is not just a place where information is exchanged; rather, it’s a place where relationships are forged through community, multiliteracies[ii], adaptability, rigor, responsiveness to student goals for coursework, reflective practice for re-envisioning,[iii] and mutual respect.
Technical communication is no exception, but I’ll add that the pursuit of technical communication is deeply philosophical— as are most things at their core. While I see the value inherent in many approaches, my technical writing pedagogy is a product of social-cognitive philosophies that value empowering students to be aware of their role as thoughtful actors of social change in their design and compositional processes. This pedagogy seeks to create awareness that writing is situated within cultural, political and professional motivating contexts[iv]. For example, I challenge students to problem solve[v] the challenge of circulated mis and disinformation by users of social media platforms. Students craft the research needed to make informed and responsible rhetorical decisions, employ technologies to develop a user’s matrix for public consumption (acting as both advocacy and promotional material), and conduct a social impact analysis to stay true to ethical and conscientious communication. The context is both professional and civic, honoring that our civic responsibilities don’t end when we punch the time clock.
My pedagogy also reminds technical communicators that they are forging the relationships that matter in their own lives through their negotiation of rhetorical circumstances— that they are not invisible conduits of information, absent power and responsibility to others. They are rhetors who serve a distinct purpose, but must approach that purpose with a sense of their own agency, their own power and their own ethical heuristic.
Finally, my pedagogy is informed by Dewey who tells us that “we do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience” and I take his pragmatic advice into my daily practice. Reflective practice[vi] for students as well as my own reflective practice as a practitioner.[vii] Metacognitive awareness of self, agency, processes via reflection[viii] on succes and failure is a skill of life learners, inviting the re-envisioning that is a key feature of experienced writing processes.
My pedagogy is informed by theory in the broader field of Rhetoric and Composition as well. For example, my approach to teaching technical communication is inherently a rhetorical pursuit[ix]. I move the technical writing conversation away from one of transactional communication, focusing on solely the skills-driven “formal trappings” of genre and toward a rhetorical approach where the genre is situated in a particular discourse community in a specific situation, giving students practice with looking for rhetorical cues that help them learn to compose in any situation— even as those situations shift with employment, time, and public needs. Even an assignment like crafting instructions is about far more than genre, so I allow students to choose the media that best suits the object of instruction and their intended audience.
In a social context of constant change, we can offer no greater support that the gift of knowing how to learn. Our students will need the skill of adaptability and flexibility and rhetorical negotiation more than any other. And many of those new contexts within which they will negotiate their professional and personal identities is digital. Consequently, I approach technology in the classroom as a civic and professional necessity, promoting careful analysis of affordances and constraints, and an effort to instill a responsibility in students to develop and use technologies that reflect humanistic values[x] to invent the spaces of technology, not to be invented by others[xi]. Technology is so often the catalyst of new rhetorical opportunities, but it can also be the catalyst for social oppression and must be monitored.
“If we pretend for a minute that technical writing is objective, we have passed off a particular political ideology as privileged truth.”[xii]
Relationships are forged through a worldview of inclusivity, as well. Not only of different learners and learning styles, but different modes of expression.[xiii] For example, redefining literacies to include the multimodal methods of meaning-making is key to pedagogical design. In any given project, rather than genre anchoring the design, rhetorical negotiation is the anchor; that means that I’m prepared to ask what mode best suits the purpose and the audience rather than assign a mode.
All the readings, study groups and pedagogical adjustments and experiments I’ve engaged in have not punctuated my quest. This quest for a compass, for constructing who I am as a teacher, is not finite. I don’t imagine I’ll one day have discovered the answers and be content with a static classroom experience. I define a good teacher, in part, as one who never settles for static—rather, a strong teacher is always on a quest for the best of the research that informs classroom practices; the most engaging cultural artifacts; theories to understand writing as a heuristic design of knowledge as well as a measure of that knowledge; [xiv] technologies that challenge composing processes with new modalities and audiences; sources of energy and invigoration to provide the emotional energy I need to be fully present for my students; and, the collection of support networks of peers who are willing to share their own pedagogical experiences so that I might continue to learn the craft of teaching.
My best days— the days when I leave feeling really good about my work— are those that give me the opportunity to see students utilizing their possibilities in composing to express their own purpose and power, days where I am already excited about the ways to make the class better the next time around.
[i] Dubinsky, J.M. (2004). Introduction. In Teaching Technical Communication, Dubinsky, J.M. (Ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, p. 8.
[ii] The New London Group (1996) A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review 66 (1), p. 60-93.
[iii] Sommers, N. (1980). Revision strategies of student writers and experienced adult writers. College Composition and Communication 31(4), 378-388
[iv] Petraglia (1995). Spinning Like a Kite: A Closer Look at the Pseudotransactional Function of Writing, Journal of Advanced Composition 15; Thralls, C. and Blyler. N. (1993). The social perspective and pedagogy in technical communication. In Teaching Technical Communication, Dubinsky, J.M. (Ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, p. 117.
[v] Johnson-Eilola, J. & Selbert, S. (Eds.). (2013). Solving Problems in Technical Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[vi] Dubinsky, J.M. (2004). Introduction. In Teaching Technical Communication, Dubinsky, J.M. (Ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s
[vii] Yancey (2004). Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key. CCCC address; In a Freirean sense, our experience as a human “lies in action and reflection: it is praxis; it is transformation of the world” (p. 107).
[viii] Thralls and Blyler (1993, p. 119) and Johnson-Eilola, J. (1996). In Teaching Technical Communication, Dubinsky, J.M. (Ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, p. 591.
[ix] Miller, C. (1979). A humanistic rationale for technical writing. In Teaching Technical Communication, Dubinsky, J.M. (Ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, p. 15.
[x] Knievel, M. (2009). (Re)defining the humanistic: Making space for technology in twenty-first century english studies. In L. Ostergaard, Ludwig, J., Nugent, J. (Eds.), Transforming English Studies: new voices in an emerging genre, p. 229. West Lafayette: Indiana Parlor Press.
[xi] Yancey (2004). Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key. CCCC address; Perelman and Olbrecht-Tyteca’s theory of audience as metric for quality of rhetoric
[xii] Miller, C. R. (1979). A humanistic rationale for technical writing. College English, 40(6), 600-617.
[xiii] The New London Group (1996) A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review 66 (1), p. 60-93.
[xiv] Adler-Kassner, L. and Wardle, E. (2015). Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. University Press of Colorado.