As a little girl, I begged my mother to take me to The School Box—a store with shelves lined with workbook curricula in all subjects, all grade levels. I’d spend hours flipping through K-5 science curricula, 6-8 Social Studies worksheets, 9-12 English Language Arts prompts. I’d populate my Christmas wish list with classroom items like a blackboard secured on my bedroom wall, rainbow-colored chalks, mimeographs, and red pens—the accoutrement of the best of teachers from my adolescent perspective. On Saturdays, I’d line up my stuffed animals along the pillow shams, force my sister to sit among them, and I’d issue my carefully laid out lesson plans— assigning homework, reprimanding bad behavior and often sending my sister to the principal’s office. Oddly, I expected her to return from our fictitious principal’s office, but would only later find her in front of the television, exasperated with the duty of attending school on the weekend.
School, however, was my safe place. I eagerly attended every class, took meticulous notes, chose to never step out of the classroom, in fact. I’m now a full-time instructor and Assistant Director of Composition at the University of Colorado Denver. I’ve been a faculty member at University of Colorado Denver for 16 years (part-time, then full-time for the last 10 years) teaching Rhetoric & Composition courses including: Multimedia Composition, Logic & Argumentation (formal logic), Composition I and II, Introduction to Writing Studies as our department’s QUE (Quality Undergraduate Education) liaison. I also work as part of the leadership team of the Denver Writing Project as advocacy coordinator—specifically working with Colorado legislators for competitive federal funding for professional development organizations that ensure equity in quality literacy educational opportunities for K-16 students in all disciplines. Most recently, I’ve accepted the challenge of Assistant Director of Composition, now supporting new and current teachers in the Composition program and co-crafting administrative and curricular goals.
I love what I do—all of it.
Still, it’s time to pursue my doctorate degree to stretch my teaching craft and to possibly move into positions within higher education that offer new challenges. I think Old Dominion’s PhD program with its focus on researching theories of rhetoric & composition, coupled with my long experience of enacting theory in the classroom, creates the ideal intersection to move me closer to my professional goals.
Teaching Philosophy & Leadership Experiences
Over sixteen years ago, I started in the pragmatic world of teaching—mired in schedules and the logistics of lesson planning, without even so much as an outcome to guide me. I made my own way, from scratch, buttressed by my assumptions of what students most need in the remedial reading and writing classrooms that I worked in. That rapid immersion was both a gift and a curse; I didn’t yet have the theoretical underpinnings that a doctoral program may have afforded (the curse), yet I also hadn’t cordoned off my mindset around a particular theory (the gift). Instead, I studied my students. I collected their work, not just to assess their progress, but to discover through ethnographic means what they knew, what they sought to know, what motivated them, what suppressed their motivations. I studied students and the space I created for those students vigorously. I still do.
I’m eagerly consuming the theory now, too, in order to justify and align my pedagogy with my intended outcomes. I don’t know what made 2015-2016 so special, but I’ve avidly renewed discovery into my teaching and intellectual pursuits. Maybe it’s restlessness that has me digging deeply into the controversies and phenomena of epistemologies, pedagogies and discursive contexts that both buoy and restrict my classroom practices, but I’m especially eager to consume texts to help me tune my pedagogical compass─ to test my ideas against a larger backdrop of theoretical approaches and to challenge those assumptions among my colleagues in the English department and in my field.
Much of a teacher’s paradigm of theory and practice is addressed in a teaching philosophy statement, of course. A few years after I began teaching remedial reading and writing at the Community College of Denver, I was asked to craft such a statement and now smile at my own early attempts to articulate who I am as a teacher. Below is the text of my original Teaching Philosophy Statement (composed in 2005):
I have spent my 15 years of teaching seeking better ways to facilitate the engaged learning of all my students around the topic of 21st century literacies and the thoughtful application of voice to exigent discussions. I will continue to question, challenge, affirm and reconstruct my classroom approach with each passing day. That alone, in my opinion, is the most important quality in a teacher: an earnest curiosity to be better at every turn and a desire to support students’ knowledge building. However, there are certain pedagogical understandings and beliefs that lay the groundwork for the way I conduct a college classroom and frame the activities that put the learner at the center of knowledge building as they explore the rhetorical possibilities for their passions.
The role I play in the classroom is that of facilitator; I create a framework that allows for open discussion and ample room for discovery, and students take responsibility for their own learning. This outcome is significant in that it tells me two things are occurring: when students begin to write with greater ease, they are demonstrating their cognizance of the rhetorical options they must consider and their ability to thoughtfully use the tools we discuss and practice in class.
If I am doing my job outside of the classroom by staying abreast of current research, and pursuing the pedagogical questions that arise in my teaching, then I will be prepared to do my best work in the classroom. And by this, I don’t mean passing on to students a few neat lessons about punctuation, paragraph structure, and reading skills. These lessons are important to their ethos as a writer, but ultimately I am successful when I have helped lead students toward constructing meaning for themselves and I am most successful when I have shown them how to read their own writing rhetorically, building and maintaining ownership of their greatest and most commonly used medium of communication—writing. My best days, the days when I leave feeling really good about my work, are those that see students utilizing their possibilities in writing to express their own purpose and power.
This wasn’t a bad philosophy statement perhaps, but it wasn’t a tested philosophy, grounded in both research and the pragmatics of andragogy and rhetoric. To this, I’d now add so much to reflect how theory winds its way around the pragmatics of my classroom. The following reflects my new perspectives on the theoretical and pedagogical underpinnings of my practice and recognizes those leadership experiences that have helped me find alignment between my pragmatics and theoretics:
To that teaching philosophy, I’d add in the theoretical frames that inform my content:
I engage students in a process-oriented pedagogy employing Janet Emig’s focus on pragmatism, focus on doing to learn. In fact, it’s Deweyan pragmatism that helps me remember to set student expectations to “reflect usefully and creatively on their [learning] experience” (Crowley, 1998, p. 17) as a key to process.
In my classes, students are asked to situate themselves as composers of text (all modes) to enact change for a democratic purpose and I am aware that writing is motivated by cultural and political and professional forces (ancient rhetorical maxim), so that the act of writing must be framed by “some motivating context” (Petraglia, 1995). For example, the capstone project in my Composition II course is a Rhetorical Advocacy Campaign where students choose the cause to which they are most invested (or would like to be invested) and after studying the genres through which activists within this cause typically share ideas, they must add to that advocacy effort themselves. Students have created Twitter campaigns to encourage girls to love their curly hair, products like candy bar wrappers that explain the deplorable conditions of child slave labor on cocoa farms, or water bottles that insist on support local bands.
Students explore their own relationship between writing and reading. My mentor, Dr. Richard VanDeWeghe, once said to me after class: “all writing problems are reading problems.” I have wrestled with that maxim for years and have settled on a classroom that embraces the pedagogy of reading as well as writing.
I approach the instruction of rhetoric not as a means of besting an opponent and not solely in service of understanding (Rogerian) one another, but in co-creating knowledge. I try to move beyond the binary of Pro/Con and enter into the world of intellectual compassion, where there are more than just “sides” to consider, but silences to examine, premises to expose and challenge. Students need time to examine those positions far more carefully, not just display hasty positions and ornate them for public consumption. In that sense, the composition classroom is just as much the critical thinking classroom. Because we all tend to be blinded by our own unchallenged assumptions of the world, I ask students to formulate opinion first via inquiry, followed with a twist: argue an opponents’ position– argue that position thoughtfully, with the best available evidence. Convince me of their position. This assignment causes some anxiety, but students overwhelmingly report that they saw something valuable. Then students are prepared to offer a position themselves by entering into an already existing conversation (situating audience and genre in authentic ways).
There are multiple theoretical approaches to teaching composition that are necessary to crafting consistent coursework. And since most issues within the classroom are a product of mindlessness, not maliciousness (Silberman, 1970), I’ve sought out a more mindful approach that helps align my lesson plans, my feedback, my assignment design, etc… I carefully considered expressivists like Peter Elbow and Donald Murray who value creativity and individuality and cognitivists, like Linda Flowers and John Hayes, who argue that there are concrete skills that can be identified and taught. I’ve considered James Berlin’s social theorist approach, by choosing an issue of social significance to teach towards. I’ve come to appreciate, however, the social-process hybrid design of McComiskey who privileges an epistemic process, offering that “social-process composition pedagogies treat critical writing as rhetorical inquiry and political intervention… where composing is always situated within particular socio-political contexts rather than within autonomous individuals or structured minds.” My coursework most closely aligns with the social forces as the context within which students compose, coupled with the process orientation of how to thoughtfully negotiate that context and I find that my own version of this social-process paradigm helps me envision the liberal arts educational mission with its eye towards the public benefit or innovative culture and private benefit of “enriched understanding and enlarged selfhood” (American Academy of Arts & Sciences).
My First Year Composition (FYC) courses are a space for intensive focus on writing studies, a subject of serious intellectual endeavor, a content course that “enhances students’ awareness of writing principles and practices as always linked to disciplinary content” (Dew, 2003) to avoid the “mutt genres” (Wardle, 2009) that don’t yield transferable skills.
I’d also add pedagogical/andragogical underpinnings to my teaching philosophy:
Writing doesn’t just measure knowledge; rather, it is a heuristic for the design of that knowledge. That means that we don’t just write in my classroom to reflect that we know something. We write to learn something, as well (Adler-Kassner, 2015; Wardle, 2009).
Based on social science research into the conditions upon which learning happens, relationships matter most. What that research tells us time and time again is that the key factor in students walking away with knowledge they can apply to their own lives: strong interpersonal skills, engaging teaching style, and a strong knowledge of the nature of the lives and issues of those being served, an easy rapport based in respect for the students. In addition, good leaders must be structured, active, reinforcing and be able to instill hope for positive change. So, the classroom is not just a place where information is exchanged; rather, it’s a place where relationships are forged, risk-taking is encouraged, and mutual respect is always given.
A clear concept of what writing is and what we can actively do to improve our writing is necessary to crafting course outcomes and lessons. In this case, I ascribe good writing to thoughtful revision. My Master’s research on “Facilitative and Directive Commentary: The effort on student revision” reflects my deep interest in revision strategies and the ways to bring students from novice writers where we see little ability to re-envision text, to expert writers, where revision strategies include a re-seeing of the core of the argument, an acknowledging that writing is an act of discovery, “a repeated process of beginning over again, starting out new” and seeing stylistic and grammatical concerns as relevant only in the later stages of revision (Sommers, 1980, p. 387).
My experience at the Digital Media and Composition (DMAC) Institute hosted by scholars in the field of Rhetoric & Composition at The Ohio State University this past summer reminded me that: Nurture + Rigor= Learning, a quote rattled off unrehearsed by Dr. Cynthia Selfe. I wrote it down and knew immediately I’d come back to those words. I have, many times.
“The ethics of generosity” said Margaret Price, a leading disabilities scholar who co-facilitated at DMAC, “should guide our pedagogy.” Dr. Cynthia Selfe added, “good teaching is the art of catching your students doing something right and telling them; it’s learning how to be kind to people who think they don’t know.” I think both have helped me make sense of the non-assessable, yet no less important, qualities of an effective classroom.
Strong teaching is taking on the role of coach and facilitator, and the STAR model for good coaching (Structured, Active, Thoughtful and Reinforcing) in Markman & Ritchie (2015) helps offer structure to what good coaching involves. To that, I’d add that I adhere to Bruffee’s assertions that we use collaborative learning to access established knowledge, but also to get students to be an agent of challenge and change to that establishment.
“From the Outside, Feeling my Way In” was the title of my presentation at the Conference on College Communication and Composition a few years ago. I joined fellow colleague Dr. Amy Vidali—a rhetorics and disabilities scholar— in a presentation on making the classroom an accessible space for people of all abilities. To prepare for this presentation, I applied a disabilities model approach to applying feedback to all of my students’ papers and tested their reactions to that universal design approach to commentary, concluding that the universal design approach, while still controversial in theory, is a sound means of pedagogical design. This conversation has been echoed in my current Multimodal Study Group efforts with 8 English faculty colleagues as we explore the implications of multimodality as it embodies the Universal Design Learning principles (Glass, Meyer & Rose, 2013).
At Writing the Range, the University of Denver’s annual Rhetoric & Composition Conference, I added to my field’s growing multimodality dialogue by presenting my own close examination of privacy and digital spaces as perceived by my own students, acknowledging the responsibility I have to invite (and allow alternative outlets for) students into conversations around intended and unintended audiences, virtual identities and their participation in big data mining inherent in freeware.
I’d also add to my teaching philosophy the leadership experiences that have shaped my scholarship:
I recently sought out grant money to attend the Digital Media and Composition Institute at The Ohio State University this past Summer, hosted by leading scholars in the Rhetoric & Composition field, and bring that learning back to CU Denver English faculty. During this Fall 2016 semester, I am hosting a Multimodal Study Group for my English Language & Literature faculty colleagues. This effort is being captured via my blog report. This study group is funded jointly by College of Liberal Arts and Science ACT and Center for Faculty Development ($7000 total in grant funding), but my focus is on supporting these faculty members through a re-envisioning of an assignment to include a multimodal element and to compose a multimodal text in order to experience the generative process first-hand. We will discuss issues of disability and universal design for equity and access, assessment of multimodal projects, privacy, functional and rhetorical literacies involved in multimodal teaching, the value of reflection on the technical and rhetorical literacy practices of multimodal composing.
Professional development is a staple of my own professional responsibilities and, as such, I was asked by Dr. Margaret Wood, Director of the CU Denver Center for Faculty Development, to take part in ACUE Pilot Program. After engaging in three modules, applying those pedagogical tools to our own classrooms and reflecting on that experience, we are assessing the viability of this online professional development program for university faculty at large.
As Advocacy Coordinator for the Denver Writing Project, I visit Colorado legislators in their D.C. offices every Spring to advocate for federal professional development funds to support equity-based literacy instruction at all levels, in all disciplines. Education is informed and impacted by the examples set in our own federal government and I take an active role in staying tuned in to the latest rhetoric and funding decisions and impacting those decisions by engaging Colorado legislator’s personally each year.
I’ve hosted a number of professional development workshops on topics like grading philosophies, norming sessions and feedback/commentary best practices for my English faculty colleagues.
This past year has offered a new challenge as Assistant Director of Composition, where chief among my efforts is co-facilitating the Teaching Assistant (TA) training over the summer and attending the Fall Practicum to help new teachers transition from the theory of teaching to the practical application of that theory in the classroom. Topics such as evaluation, rubrics, assessment, feedback best practices, plagiarism, gender roles, labor, attrition, reflection and transfer, etc… are discussed in theoretical and pragmatic terms.
In response to a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant (of over $100,000) awarded to the Denver Writing Project, our team has developed professional development workshops for Denver-area K-12 teachers to enact the Common Core Initiative and develop strategies for the development College Ready Writers. This work is ongoing.
Another important part of being an effective writing teacher is maintaining a focus on my own craft. I’ve re-invigorating my own writing by joining a creative writing group of several published authors and attending multiple Lighthouse sessions, even playing with the self-publication affordances of designing my own personal blog.
Maybe I’d conclude my new teaching philosophy with the most important point: 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 and what my classroom looks like, is not finite. I don’t imagine I’ll one day have discovered the answers and from that point on, my classroom will remain static. I’d define a good teacher 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, namely texts engaging in all modalities to use as examples or discussion-starters; the processes that work in my own creative and academic writing; sources of energy and invigoration to remind me why I love being in the classroom and to provide the strength and 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 experiences with students so that I might continue to learn the craft of teaching.
Reasons for Applying to the Program
Among my professional goals, classroom practice intrigues me most—the place where theory is tested against the rigor of pragmatism. Once I discovered the field of Rhetoric and Composition during graduate school, and made the leap from literature to the Rhetoric & Teaching of Writing Program, I began to notice an identity crisis in our students’ experiences with composition in higher education.
It’s the crisis of the compasslessness of composition instruction that has held my attention for years, a crisis that Silberman attributed back in the early 70s, to mindlessness, not maliciousness. There are so many factors to this absence of a compass, but today I see chief among them: the de-professionalization of teachers at all levels; the demonizing of the Humanities in a world in financial crisis, and the shifting ground of jobs created by ever-changing technologies; the dissonance in the need for students to have a strong foundation in writing (as illustrated by corporations and professors in all disciplines), but without support for the theories of composition that we know produce that sort of strong writing capability; our unwillingness, partially because of the territorial nature of the separate disciplines in higher education, to integrate writing instruction vertically as well as horizontally and ask all disciplines to see writing and reading as their job to teach (as they do in K-12, although with resistance); as well as the highly recursive and non-assessable nature of strong, complex writing that engages in critical thinking. Factor in the challenges that at-risk students face (particularly significant on a campus like my own, where over 50% of incoming freshman are first-generation, with an attrition rate of 25% after the first year of college, costing our university $7.3 million according to the hearing of the Joint Budget on Higher Education in Colorado) and we can see how much is at stake if we fail to tune our compass.
Part of the crisis rests in the hands of higher education leadership: in using only the least experienced, most transient population to teach such a critical subject (composition) at such a critical moment in their educational experience (the freshman and sophomore years) when we know that the task of teaching composition and reading and critical thinking and connecting students to the larger university community becomes a task most suitable to the most seasoned, tested, and well-supported teachers. The experienced teachers— those who have had the time to think through their own philosophies and sync their classroom decisions with those philosophies— often give up teaching those important classes.
The crisis is clearly complex, but so is the opportunity. We know that First Year Composition (FYC) is a strong indicator of future success with our students earning their degree (Brunk-Chavez & Fredericksen, 2008). Few courses are afforded the opportunity to see all students— regardless of interest, major, background— and even fewer courses are granted the opportunity to engage students on a 24:1 ratio. First Year Composition (FYC) courses are critical way stations—opportunities to reach each and every student, measure their interests, connect them to wrap-around services for success, show them how to be proactive consumers and composers of information—adding their opinions to the issues that empassion them most within authentic rhetorical contexts.
We FYC instructors also have the privilege of a strong sense of purpose to guide the way. Every student needs to be able to write critically. They need these skills to be successful with their degree, with their profession— today, unlike 40 years ago, 50% of jobs demand a degree and proficiency in non-automated, highly analytical tasks (things a computer can’t do) like problem solving, communication, intuition, technical and creative tasks (Autor & Dorn, 2013). Maybe most importantly, beyond their chosen profession, students need to be critical consumers and creators of the civic communities they inhabit. Clearly, our opportunities to serve every student during a time of great transition as FYC instructors are unique, but the barrier to realizing those unique opportunities that I hope to examine closely is the misalignment of department situatedness, classroom practice and curricular goals.
The misalignment of the place composition plays in the university culture and the compasslessness of its goals manifest in so many myriad ways that it’s impossible to tackle them all, but specifically, one area that I’d like to study is the disproportionate time that composition teachers spend offering written feedback on student drafts compared with the well-substantiated poor outcomes of that feedback— that students can’t transfer that knowledge; students don’t read the feedback; students don’t understand what’s been written; the feedback is capricious and unhelpful (Hedgcock & Leftkowitz, 1996; Ferris & Hedgcock, 1998; Delpit, 1988; Newkirk, 1995; Sperling, 1991). This paradox is one pragmatic area that we need to examine to fine tune our compositional compass— to align instruction with the philosophies of composition and the epistemologies that we know yield the most inclusive, more engaging results.
Research has focused on patterns of teacher commentary, classroom context and commentary, even surveying students’ general response to commentary, but there is a void in researching the connections made by students themselves to the feedback they receive and the revisions they make. One of my initial proposals is to employ a large scale think-aloud protocol study that records what students are thinking as they read teacher feedback and asks them to discuss what they’re prepared to do with the draft in front of them, if anything, as a result of the feedback. Collecting that kind of in-depth data is unprecedented, and is likely to yield powerful results that build on the work of Nancy Sommers (1980), who so elegantly explains what genuine revision looks like in advanced writers. My research could help us draw the connections between how our feedback does or does not engender that expert revision.
Dr. Liz Bryant, in a recent post to the Writing Program Administrators (WPA) listserv, exclaimed “our job is to make students into writers not to always make better papers.” She reminds me that written feedback on student drafts—while still the primary means of communicating to students about their writing— dialogues with a paper, not with a student. A study like the one I propose (one that takes my earlier MA thesis to much-needed new levels of sophistication) can breathe renewable energy into a debate never settled and can also combine my appreciation for the pedagogical theory with my desire to generate pragmatic strategies that respect teachers’ time and fully engage students in useful composition practices in meaningful ways.
Additionally, the compasslessness of First Year Composition programs can benefit from a stronger alliance between research in Education and Rhetoric/Composition. Frankly, I’m surprised at how little attention the subject of how learners best learn comes up in an institution of higher learning. I want to combine the pedagogy of Education with the content of Rhetoric & Composition theory to craft the classroom that acknowledges the importance of both content and delivery— crafting a meaningful experience that honors varied means of accessing information inherent in every student in the room. Ultimately, I’d love to be in the kind of role that can create more equitable educational opportunities, especially working to open academic access for our underserved, most at-risk undergraduate populations.
Finally, a large component of crafting a clear intersection between Education & Rhetoric/Composition is improving my work with new teachers, as a thinking partner and mentor. I suspect all teachers— like me—are eager to see the alignment of our efforts with student improvement. The recursive nature of writing offers few discernible pay off moments and the workload feels disproportionately set up to fail. New teachers need some guidance, some help seeking out best practices that align with their goals/philosophies/strengths. Student attrition is not the only costly consequence to a compassless classroom; the cost of teacher attrition is outrageous (Borman & Dowling, 2008; Phillips, 2015) and those early years are the most tenuous. I can’t affect all the factors that contribute to that reality, but I can help new teachers tap into their own strengths, give them a voice and a mentor, offer classroom management tips that circumvent student disengagement, align their actions with their goals, treat their students and peers with respect and demand the same in return. My experience with the National Writing Project has taught me that the best professional development is teacher-led and students most benefit from the chance to work with teachers who have been empowered with knowledge, compensation, the time to share expertise, all buttressed by the respectful support of their institution.
With the knowledge that Old Dominion’s PhD program can offer, I think that much of the way we like to imagine quality, equitable education can be accomplished by creating thoughtful opportunities to align efforts with outcomes in an environment that honors both the students’ needs and the teachers’ expertise. Furthermore, thoughtful academic alignment can help recognize the valuable role that First Year Composition plays in the larger university, valuing the diverse ways learners make sense of the materials presented while also supporting teachers to be the professionals that we know they are.
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