Tag Archives: composition&rhetoric

Teaching Philosophy Statement – revised edition

I haven’t read too many teaching philosophy statements, but I have to put one together for an application I’m submitting in a few days. I’ve been working on this one for a while. Suggestions/critiques welcome!


“Is this some sort of test?”

This was one reaction the first time I invited my freshmen composition students to critique my teaching and their learning and to suggest better methods for the rest of the semester. Despite some initial confusion, a half-semester of built-up trust convinced them to participate in this difficult discussion (often known as a Midterm Chat), and the class benefited from the frank self-appraisal that resulted. As a new teacher, this was a terrifying project to undertake. Now, after several years of using this method in both composition and technical communication courses, I know that periodic critiques of class progress are highly valuable. I make space for these kinds of discussions at several points—and at any point students desire—throughout every semester, and these critiques have become an important part of the proactive pedagogy I strive to enact.

By proactive, I mean that I invite students to be aware of my pedagogy and the implications of my authority in the classroom. Others have used the term transparent to this end, but I believe proactive is a more accurate term because true transparency is impossible to achieve; using the term proactive acknowledges this without sacrificing the goals of transparency. This distinction is often helpful to students who are unsure what I’m asking of them. I want students to see the underlying structures by which the class is governed, and I want them to understand why those structures exist and what they mean. This proactive approach dovetails nicely with my research and investment in feminist and decolonial theories, which I use to enrich my classroom practices.

Universities set up the teacher as the ultimate authority, which runs against the grain for some feminist and decolonial scholars who wish to promote a common movement among their students. However, this provides an excellent text for students’ perusal. In order for them to see the authority-based structure they are working within in a critical light, I try to break through their “trained incapacity,” which is to submit wordlessly to the configuration of the traditional classroom (Burke). As the oppressed parties, they “have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed, and have become resigned to it,” and thus “are inhibited from waging the struggle for freedom so long as they feel incapable of running the risks it requires” (Freire 29). My goal is to show students that there is a struggle for freedom that can be waged—by being rhetorically informed, they can influence how they are perceived, addressed, and even assessed—and to provide as many opportunities for them to engage in this manner as I can.

As the semester progresses, students begin to understand why I call such an approach critical and proactive. This method serves as an ideal vehicle for introducing feminist, decolonial, and other critical methodologies to students who might otherwise be intimidated by or resistant to such terms. Specifically, I model feminist approaches by using the classroom structure as a meta-text for students’ investigation. Not only does this help demystify feminism for students in ways that often are highly productive, but it also makes for an organic transition when I invite students to perform similar critical research on their chosen subjects. Having learned what a critical approach looks like first-hand through my critique of traditional classroom structures, students then find it much easier to apply critical theory to the subjects of their own research. The importance of a transition to this sort of practical application is paramount for undergraduate students.

I have learned to use this sort of practical approach based on enthusiastic response from students when they see that they can choose their own texts and can interact with the world outside academe; I often encourage students to do this sort of critique through social media as a means to also engage technology. We then develop together a deeper understanding of societal and technological influences on composing and communication processes. In the same vein, I encourage community involvement as a means to promote citizenship and social awareness. In my experience, successful community-oriented classrooms provide new experiences for students as well as promoting goodwill, increased learning, and enthusiasm for future studies.
In one recent course, I asked students to study the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and to enter some sort of public discourse about that text. Many of them posted questions on their Facebook profiles, several of which sparked heated debates. My students were excited to share these debates in class, and they spontaneously began to critically analyze the political perspectives of the debaters.

This successful lesson for my students also was a learning experience for me.  My pedagogy now consistently incorporates spaces for this sort of application, and these spaces come with their own set of goals. By utilizing such methods, I encourage students to use their critical awareness to become savvier citizens, to develop enthusiasm for social learning, and to apply their learning to their lives through public discourse.

This lesson also lead my students (and me) to a deeper understanding of societal influences on the composing process. This same group of students later undertook a class project in which they studied social media outlets and how users’ communications were shaped by those outlets. Besides being intensely interesting in terms of content, this project reinforced the value of community work for my students. Although students often groan at the introduction of group work, class members in this case told me that the social media project was an unusual, educational, and enjoyable experience.

These are a just a few of the lessons my students have taught me over the years. I now begin each semester with an explanation of my proactive, practical, critical, community-oriented pedagogy. Whether or not students care about this presentation on the first day of class is hard to judge, but they seem to be invested in it once they start working within it. I believe my students benefit greatly from this model, and I continue to learn from their successes.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. Third ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Tran. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1968. Print.


Authorship Narrative: Relying on Patterns of Reading and Writing

What is authorship?

In order to return to the first time I thought of myself as an author, I first have to return to the first time I thought of myself as a reader—an event I remember distinctly. I first thought of myself as a reader when I found myself about halfway through Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest, my first chapter book, and I knew I was going to be able to read the whole thing all on my own. Between my own joy in reading and the obvious pride of my parents, self-identifying as a reader quickly became an important part of my identity. I read every Ramona book I could get my hands on and then began reading anything else Beverly Cleary had ever written. My first-grade teacher thought I was anti-social; I just liked books better than other kids.

I picked up on the fact that books had authors pretty early on, although I have no explicit memory of suddenly understanding this concept. However, attention to authorship has always been my first choice in coordinating my reading. After leaving Beverly Cleary behind, I moved on to other reading materials that were sure bets: the Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner never disappointed me, and after that it was on to the Nancy Drew series, written by Carolyn Keene. Because these books were written by the same people about the same characters, I knew I could read them and I knew I would like them. At the time I didn’t know that Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym for several authors, but I did read every Nancy Drew book the local library could get me. At some point during that phase, someone told me that Carolyn Keene also wrote The Hardy Boys series under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon. While this was not the case (although it turned out not to be so far from the truth, either), it nevertheless began my interest in The Hardy Boys and I read hundreds of those titles in my late elementary-school years.

By seventh grade, I’d figured out the truth about Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon. Not surprisingly, then, I’d also begun to invest in the idea of collective authorship. Some friends introduced me to Star Wars, and as I became more a part of their group, I began to read extensively in the Star Wars Extended Universe. Although written by numerous authors, these books all maintain similar writing styles and hold true to a single, cohesive plotline. At some point, I made the connection that authors, too, have preferred writing and reading styles, and I learned to look up the authors of books that I liked to find out who they were reading. This led me to interests in Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, and Robert Jordan, among others. My continuing interest in the bodies of authors’ works and my tendency to prefer series, where plotlines are complicated and character development is of vital importance, meant that I began to conceptualize an author as someone capable of building extremely complex fantasy worlds. Obviously, this set me up to fall hard for classics like Brave New World and 1984 as well as for recent cult crazes that manifest as book series, such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.

This ability to construct entire fictional worlds that go beyond the scope of a single book has often been the defining difference between a writer and an author in my mind. The term author has always struck me as having a more deep-reaching and independent connotation, while the term writer perhaps indicates more of an ability to reflect familiar contexts for short durations. Writers reflect; authors create. This distinction, which is certainly one I would like to problematize, seems to suggest that scholars are most often writers and fantasy/fiction creators are most often authors. Interestingly, I also associate the image of the isolated genius with the term writer rather than with author, which contradicts my previous understanding of a writer as a reflective person and an author as an isolated creator. Perhaps the real issue is one of hierarchy; I seem to invest more social capital with the term writer: Writers, to me, are isolated geniuses who do important cultural work, while authors are the creators of the escapist works that were a huge influence on my young life.

This analysis begs the question: How do I situate myself between these terms? The answer comes surprisingly easily. I’m a writer, not an author. Initially, this realization embarrassed me. Who am I to call myself a writer, right after I’ve determined that writers are more socially responsible than authors? But if I could choose to call myself an author, instead, I would. The reason I don’t—the reason I can’t—is because to be an author seems to require some creative spark and some sustained talent that I don’t feel comfortable claiming. I’ve written lots of things—newspaper articles, columns, and editorials, term papers, technical pieces, brochures, and more—but I haven’t authored anything. I haven’t produced anything that required serious consideration of continuity over a long work. I haven’t produced anything independent or terribly deep in a literary sense. I have been a writer, but I have not yet achieved the things that would let me lay claim to the title of author. In this, then, I have to figure out how to theorize a sort of reversal. If the terms writer and author are indicative of a hierarchy, how is that hierarchy really situated?

Perhaps hierarchy is the wrong way to be thinking of the relationship between these two words. After all, writing/authoring is all about relationships; maybe a superior/inferior relationship is not the way to theorize a difference between an author and a writer. Perhaps the difference between the terms is really about relationships with audiences. But suggesting that popular works are authored and academic works are written doesn’t seem right, either. For one thing, I’ve certainly felt like an author at times when constructing scholarly texts. Most often, the texts that made me feel like an author are the texts that I’ve invested the most time and (metaphorical) blood and sweat in. But feeling like an author doesn’t necessarily negate my feeling like a writer, which leads me to believe that writer is simply the broader term. As the subject I really want to explore is contested authorship, perhaps examples of contested authorship might elaborate this point.

The first that sprang to mind is the example of James Frey and A Million Little Pieces, and I found myself trying to remember if news reports referred to him as an author or a writer before he was named a fraud. Lacking that kind of memory, I turned to another repository of public knowledge—the oft-demonized (based on collective, contested authorship) Wikipedia. And the results are fascinating. Wikipedia tells me that Frey is a writer. But a search on Anne McCaffrey designates her as an author. And Suzanne Collins is a “television writer and author.” Perhaps, then, my feelings on authors and writers are the subconscious result of social cues; the title of writer is one that is easier to retain, while the title of author implies some sort of elite status and maybe even some level of social approval.

Another example of contested authorship that is dear to my heart lies in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Although it’s been years since I’ve read extensively in this series, I still check out fan sites from time to time. Recently, I’ve become interested in the development of the franchise, and that’s when I discovered the difference between George Lucas’s Star Wars Universe and the Expanded Universe. Apparently, George Lucas (through LucasFilm Ltd) authorizes books published in the Expanded Universe, but he maintains the right to continue to publish his own storyline. This means that the adventures of the well-known characters of Lucas’s original Star Wars could eventually be described in two different, conflicting storylines. Essentially, this relegates authors in the Expanded Universe to secondary status—much like fan fiction writers/authors—as any plot that Lucas publishes will be labeled the true story by the true author. Nevertheless, this reality hasn’t kept fans—or LucasFilm officials—from labeling Expanded Universe producers as authors. Although their authorship is clearly secondary, they do retain that authorship.

These examples lead me to my new theory on authorship, and this is likely the theory that I will interrogate throughout this course: Authorship is about recognition of something larger; it’s about adhering to cultural patterns and expectations that go beyond oneself or one single work. The fact that authorship is so invested in cultural patterns and expectations—that fact that it depends on relationships to other works and other people—means that it effects the world in a very direct way. It changes the way people think and act. This great power is why people invest so much energy in elevating authors to an almost mystical level; it’s also why people are so eager to be—and so emotionally invested in being—gatekeepers for authorship.

The anger directed at those who violate the conventions of authorship makes something else apparent, and it’s something unsurprising given authorship’s reliance on relationships, cultural expectations, and gatekeeping functions: Authorship creates community. Although my initial reaction, brought about from years of experience as a reader, was that authorship is about creating and sustaining complex fictional worlds, I have often overlooked the real-world effects of my own participation in those fictional places. Even over the course of this narrative, I have mentioned several spaces in which authorship takes on the complexities associated with a community of people with like interests: fan fiction, wikis as sources of knowledge, even cliques in junior high. Authorship creates and sustains these opportunities.

With the rise of such a community, authorship undergoes some transformations. In some ways, it is diluted as people who were not the original authors of the work step forward to take different sorts of responsibilities for the work’s life as it extends beyond the original author. Examples of this include fan clubs, book clubs, fan fiction, themed websites, and so on. But at the same time, the authorship of the original creator of the work is reaffirmed and sustained as the author is cast as a sort of isolated genius, and often this status is solidified as fans anticipate future works by the author. In a very real way, then, an author who is successful in recognizing larger cultural patterns and expectations and creating a work that resonates with them creates not only a written work but also a variety of real communities.

The contestation of authorship after such communities are created is so fascinating and provoking because these communities retain a place of reverence for the author. If an author is contested in some way, that place of reverence may become either a subject of strife or a very real void. The basis for the community—a place that has been the object of much love and commitment—has been yanked away, leaving readers/fans/community members feeling cheated. In this way, the much-theorized death of the author remains a myth. If the author did not matter beyond the production of the text, then contested authorship would not engender the anger and outrage that we have seen it cause time and again. The strife resulting from cases of contested authorship also reaffirms the idea that authorship is about recognition of something larger than oneself; when someone invested with authorship—someone who has proven themselves aware of cultural patterns and expectations in a big way—violates the rules of authorship, that violation ruptures the fabric of the community that authorship created. This, then, is a final difference between a writer and an author: An author has a responsibility to sustain the communities that his or her works have generated.

Comp/Rhet blogs

Sometimes listservs give us the most valuable stuff. And this particular jewel doesn’t need a lengthy post to be valuable. It’s simply a link to a list of blogs related to composition and rhetoric. Enjoy!