“Do you think it’s done?” Miss Stremikis queried. I had asked if she thought my artwork was complete. She resisted, turning the question back on me. I was perturbed: she was the authority, the grade-giver, the answerer. Our “standoff” occurred over a decade ago, yet it survives among a few clear memories (mostly various gym class debacles) of my high school years. Why? By forcing me to question and evaluate my own work, Miss Stremikis jolted me out of my routine deference to rubrics and instructor approval. Although I found her resistance frustrating, it demanded self-reflexivity and even a reframing of my assumptions about learning, making student into teacher. Today, I try to do the same for my students: to jolt them out of familiar composition habits into an alert outlook on human communication and their own rhetoric. Struggle is necessary for learning—this is an insight I gained from my 2013 study, “Stepping into Academia: First-Year Students’ Experiences of Writing at Mount Holyoke College.” I aim to enable productive struggle for my students by furnishing both challenges and reliable support, a combination rooted in respect and care.
For each learner, a college composition course forms one segment of a lifelong path of communication. This path starts at infancy with language acquisition, and it unfurls for the entire lifespan. No two learners enter the composition class at identical points in their paths; no two will finish the semester at the same point, either. Forward movement over our 15 weeks together is my objective for each student. Each major composition project serves as a hurdle along the path, surmountable through a heightening of rhetorical agility. Lectures and readings provide models for the moves required by each genre; I offer these models in multiple formats—oral, written, and visual (enabled by my art training)—since learning styles differ. I tailor the activities and smaller projects before each big composition to encourage students to practice the genre’s moves. Every hurdle should be purposeful and productive, so I try to keep the paths clear of tripping hazards—the common distractions of unclear feedback, mysterious grades, and technological glitches. To foreground composition, administration must flow openly and smoothly in the background, and I use just about every tool Canvas offers to this end.
Constant practice and consistent feedback are fundamental to writers’ growth—another finding from my 2013 study. Students write in nearly every class session, and I regularly evaluate their short responses. Proposals and journal assignments function as additional testing grounds for rhetorical strategies. I prioritize efficient grading so that students will have a steady stream of feedback to coach them as they gear up for the next hurdle. For short assignments, I post comments and scores within 24 hours of submission, and for longer ones, within several days.
Individuals’ movement is supported by their embedment in a community, which functions as a dwelling-place, a stable academic home. To feel genuinely embedded in the class, a student must feel an ethical commitment to not only her own learning, but also to that of her peers. I attempt to facilitate such commitment by motivating students to learn each other’s names, assigning them to collaborate on activities both in and out of class, and instilling accountability for peer review by assessing their feedback myself. The community’s success ultimately depends on students’ active engagement, their “class citizenship.” To make explicit the significance of attitude and verbal contributions, I provide frequent citizenship evaluations, which prompt reticent students to speak up and join the community discourse. In addition to a community, the class is an audience. Acknowledging the shared goals and values of the classroom community primes students to envision the rhetorical audiences of their projects as living, breathing interlocutors.
A decade ago, I first engaged with pedagogy as a volunteer tutor. Though I have been learning and progressing since then, my ultimate purpose for choosing a career in education persists: to enhance students’ critical cosmopolitanism. By “critical,” I refer to an inquisitive disposition toward social discourse; by “cosmopolitanism,” I mean recognition of how an individual’s communication interflows with local and global networks and touches differing audiences. I hope that my daily efforts as a teacher ultimately result in my students fashioning communication paths that intersect with the great human project of learning to live together.