“The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.”–Simone Weil
I began teaching at the college level at Penn State University. My first course assignment was a section of English 015, a required first-year course in rhetoric and composition. I walked into class on my first day excited, but also slightly terrified. I came to the teaching of writing instinctively, and I worried that I would have trouble translating my own process into practical tools for my students. However, over the course of my first few weeks of teaching, as I became more comfortable with my class and the subject matter we covered together, I began to enjoy myself more and more. I have since enjoyed teaching a variety of courses in composition, creative writing, poetry, American Studies, and beyond. But it was those early days in the classroom with my twenty-four first-year students—as we explored questions of identity, communication, and the negotiation of power inside and outside the classroom—that laid the foundation for my teaching style and philosophy.
In my courses, I focus on the idea of discourse communities. I try to help my students understand how to enter academic discourse– primarily through the form of the essay, but also through spoken and visual forms of communication– and what it might mean to engage in this community. Through assignments like journaling, blogging, and narrative projects, I try to help my students articulate a sense of who they are and what they value.
My first objective in the classroom is not simply to transmit information, but to persuade students that the process of learning can be transformative and even enjoyable. In addition, I set out several practical objectives for my courses:
To teach strategies of critical engagement with written, visual, and other forms of communication.
To guide students in the practices and vocabularies of the academic community.
To help students master new technology as it facilitates learning and exploration.
To encourage conscious choices, self-awareness, and respect in speech and writing. This includes an awareness of assumptions about identity and cultural values.
In the classroom, I utilize a combination of lecture, discussion, small-group work, and workshop. I recognize that my role as instructor means that I have information to impart to my students, but I want the classroom to be a place where they can work through new concepts, testing them against their own values and experiences. I enter the classroom with the expectation that my students have the power to transform me, just I as can transform them through critical engagement with texts and ideas.
One important aspect to all of my teaching is the integration of digital resources. Today’s college graduates are expected not only to communicate well, but to have technological literacy and the ability to adapt quickly to new technologies. As a result, I require students to work with content management systems (including university-wide systems like Angel and Blackboard, as well as wiki and blog software), digital media (including MP3s, podcasts, and film), and offer them the chance to pursue projects that involve music, film, and web design. By requiring the use of some technologies—and encouraging experimentation with others—I also provide spaces where students who feel less comfortable speaking in class can make valuable contributions to our classroom community, and also allow students to explore learning styles and skills beyond traditional essay writing.
I emphasize peer review and lively discussion in the classroom, regardless of the course content. This helps students to understand that thinking and writing are at once a deeply personal project, but one that also always requires a public dimension. Rather than see academic writing as a mysterious transmission from the student to the professor, which is then judged and returned, I create spaces where students can read and comment on one another’s writing, and encourage them to meet with me one-on-one or in small groups to discuss class content and writing assignments. In student evaluations, both my course content and teaching have been consistently rated above average, and I believe this is a direct result of my willingness to engage students as serious thinkers inside and outside the classroom.
Writing, I tell my students, is not simply a technique for regurgitating information. It is also a form of active inquiry, a way to examine ideas and address problems in new contexts and forms. No matter what kind of course I’m teaching, I stress to my students the importance of understanding who they are communicating with, what they are trying to communicate, and what kind of forms and vocabulary they need in order to get their message across. I encourage them to think critically and reflectively about the texts and media they encounter in their everyday lives, in the classroom, and ultimately in their personal and professional lives beyond the university.