The question that animates my teaching practice is: does this course continually and consistently answer the “so what?” question for my students? By “so what?” I mean that question about the wider significance of an argument or claim. I strive to connect my answers back to students’ own lives and experiences, to show how rhetorical and communicative practices help produce, and can help transform, how we think, talk, and act in the world. Broadly speaking, I think of my syllabi as arguments about how students might use the course to identify and critically assess the rhetorics and practices that shape them — and all of us — as individuals and communities. I approach these abilities as practical as well as theoretical skills, ones that can be “scaffolded,” or cumulatively built through course assignments and activities. In turn, I encourage students to use their own experiences to reflect back on course material and my own theoretical biases – to generate different, or even contrary, “so whats” to the ones I have offered.
I believe the fields of Rhetoric and Communication Studies provide particularly strong foundations for making these arguments and fostering reflective and analytical skills that apply both in and out of the classroom. First, I aim to show students how these fields are defined by their various modes of analysis, the way they help us challenge and celebrate forms of social life, rather than by a strictly defined and limited set of objects. With this in mind, I try to toggle back and forth between abstract course concepts and students’ everyday experience. Asking students to relate their own lives, beliefs, and values to course content in class discussion, reading reflections, and writing assignments helps students find different ways to connect with or contest course material. It also opens up opportunities to highlight the complex relationship between students’ diverse positionality and their perspectives, to show that what counts as being a “good student” or a “good citizen” can vary dramatically in ways that have social, economic, and political origins and consequences.
While these goals animate my teaching philosophy overall, I vary my “scaffolding” strategies for introductory and advanced courses. For introductory courses, I focus on basic skills like crafting a thesis statement, organizing arguments, and writing and speaking to specific audiences. Students have opportunities to see these skills modeled, to practice them, and to receive feedback before they are assessed. At the same time, the low-stakes writing and speaking activities that help students build these practical skills also give them the opportunity to grapple with complex theoretical issues. For example, in my Public Speaking courses, students watch videos of persuasive speeches, pair-up to identify appeals to particular audiences, and then discuss with the class how these strategies constitute audiences in particular ways—say as “Latino teenagers” or “middle-class consumers.” In later reflective essays, students account for the audience appeals in their own performances, justifying their choices but also identifying how their appeals may be connected to classed, raced, and gendered assumptions.
For upper-level seminars, I also pair practical and theoretical skills-building exercises, but with an aim to helping students master more advanced material and build more complex arguments. Students create “building block” elements of a research paper throughout the quarter, including project proposals, close-readings, contextual analyses, and literature reviews. On a practical level, this allows students to develop and adjust core elements of their final papers gradually (and so more thoughtfully), and also helps me to better assess and address students’ various skill levels. But it also emphasizes the interconnectedness of language, practice, and social and historical context. It helps students to do the work required to analyze a text or object at these various levels, and also to understand why they’re doing it as they see their arguments evolve through this process. As students identify the components of a discourse, and the historical and social conditions that produced that discourse, they can learn to question those discourses and institutions that seem most “natural.” This approach can then become a portable and flexible toolkit that students can apply to other academic work – and, more importantly, can inform their perspective of the world outside my class.
Finally, my work with graduate students as both the coordinator of graduate instruction for Public Speaking courses and as a Graduate Writing Fellow have reinforced my approach to teaching and learning as intertwined and ongoing endeavors. In crafting professional development workshops for graduate instructors, I balance structure with flexibility, identifying topics of focus but also leaving significant time for instructors to voice their own experiences and concerns. This helps me use meetings and workshops as opportunities to identify areas of concern and best practices, and subsequently develop or solicit resources that build on what instructors are doing well and fill in weaker areas. Similarly, as a Writing Fellow, I learned that asking questions without anticipating answers helped me better address the writing needs and concerns of individual graduate students, and helped me build a deeper repertoire of writing genres and strategies. Ultimately, my experience with both graduates and undergraduates has taught me that expanding and even loosening my pedagogical agenda—basically, being open to learning from students – makes me a better teacher, and so better able to answer the “so what” question in the immediate “teachable moment” as well as in the long-term.