My teaching philosophy spins out from three rhetorically-informed principles. These principles manifest themselves in the composition of course syllabi, the production of the course materials, and the construction of course projects. Each facet of my pedagogy is designed to foster student engagement (with themselves, each other, and the world at large), to promote quality work by expecting the best work from each student, and to endorse rhetoric as vital to public and private life. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, I continually work to examine the ethical implications of my pedagogy, acknowledging that if education is more than objective knowledge-banking, then it is certainly more personal, more participatory, and thus much more ethically precarious.
The video below was shot in my ENGL 043: Rhetoric of New Media course (Spring 2011) at Georgetown University. The students were tasked with composing—collaboratively but silently—a short paragraph extolling the benefits of attending Georgetown University. This exercise coincided with a discussion of The Wisdom of Crowds.
A Sustained Ethos of Engagement
For persuasive pedagogy to take place in the classroom it must foster engagement on the part students: with their own perspectives, attitudes, and predispositions; with one another; with course readings; with the instructor; and with the larger, rhetoric-infused world around them. Courses in rhetoric and composition are uniquely placed to promote and benefit from more robust student engagement. Most, if not all, of my assignments require reflections that afford students the opportunity to describe and assess the choices they made in producing texts.
Taking advantage of the many technologies available to teachers, my courses always include some kind of online interaction. Most engaging are online forums that allow students to discuss course readings and principles. Students often unwilling or less able to participate in classroom discussions develop a strong voice in online forums. In-class activities in wired and non-wired settings also afford students opportunities to engage one another. Many of my in-class assignments are designed to produce scenarios that require students to successfully negotiate with one another. It is not just that they complete assignments as groups, but that the group dynamic itself becomes integral to the assignment.
Additionally, moving the course outside the confines of the course space (physical and virtual) allows students to engage the spaces, people, and institutions around them. Having students compose documents with “real” consequences and “real” audiences and constituents allows the principles of rhetoric, the lessons of rhetorical instruction, to more strongly resonate with students. Students in my Organizational Rhetoric and Writing course pitch, organize, and enact projects that extend their reach beyond the classroom. A bulk of their work for the course is completed in the communities surrounding the university. Students in all of my courses, from freshman composition to technical writing, are asked to engage those affected by or included within the ecology of their documents. Such engagement adds relevance to student experiences and advances rhetorical education in doing so.
A Generative Kairos of High Standards
In addition to the need for meaningful engagement, educational experiences must thoroughly challenge students. Students must be challenged not only by the unfamiliar material that they engage, but also by suitably complex projects held to appropriately high standards. In my experience, students are able to meet clearly articulated standards for their work. Indeed, students are often quite skilled at perceiving where the expectations are and either rising, or lowering, to meet them. Set the bar high and students can learn to clear it.
Following the basic definition of kairos as the right moment and measure, I develop project guidelines and expectations for student work that are designed to push students to achieve more. In a section of freshman composition focused on the history and purposes of education (a topic itself whose complexity placed students in unfamiliar territory) students were required to read selections from Plato and Kant along with contemporary figures such as Bill Readings and Martha Nussbaum. Given the challenging task of surveying an agonistic history of education, many students rose to the occasion, genuinely attempting to engage complex readings.
Complex projects that push students to think and problem solve in new ways are also vital to meaningful educational experiences. In my introduction to technical writing course for majors, students are asked to visually map a campus issue or space in a way that allows audiences, as users, to negotiate the issue or space. Students are thus required to visualize an issue (such as whether or not to have a part time job as a student) so that users can make informed decisions. This project is not about the simple transmission of data, but the use of visual information to shape user perception and action.
Finally, student work is done (as all school work is done) under the shadow of grades. Seizing on the importance of grades to students, I create rubrics that effectively challenge students to produce their best work. In my technical writing courses, I drive home the meaning of “high stakes” documents by awarding “A” grades only to those documents that are ready for “real world” use. For example instructions or documentation that skips a step or mislabels a key component puts users and/or their property in harm's way. Such a standard results not in the absence of “As,” but in the delivery of documents which students have devoted care and attention to across a range of rhetorical concerns.
A Strong Endorsement of Rhetoric as Vital to Public and Private Life
Infused with all other principles and throughout my pedagogy is a strong endorsement of rhetoric. Following scholars like Richard Lanham, Kenneth Burke, James Berlin, and Jim Corder and their emphasis on the productive and creative power of rhetoric, all of my courses endorse rhetoric as an activity at the center of my students’ private and public lives. From how they form and maintain relationships, make important life-decisions, or create themselves as professionals, rhetoric is at the heart of their activity.
Richard Lanham, describing what he calls the Strong Defense of Rhetoric (as a response to the “Q” question in reference to Quintilian’s “the good man speaking well”), argues that rhetoric, far from being merely ornamental, “is determinative [and] essentially creative.” That is, rather than mere cookery or cosmetics, rhetoric is at the heart of human social dramas, or as James Berlin argues, rhetoric is “the center of a culture’s activities.” In light of this, I do not treat rhetoric as an expression of thought, or as a style of argumentation, but as the basis of human activity.
When teaching technical writing, I begin with an instructions project because what many students assume to be a simple task of communicating knowledge (ornamenting facts with “fancy design”) quickly becomes a complex and sophisticated attempt to shape the actions and attitudes of users. Students, after first engaging their own expertise (which frequently causes them to ignore their audience’s needs) enact rhetoric as creative and central in their professional lives and in the lives technology users, and do so in a way that highlights the ethical implications of their work: what does it do for and to people?
All of my courses endorse rhetoric as vital to public as well as private life. In an extensive public rhetoric campaign, students in my first-year composition courses propose a specific change at their university or other familiar location and produce a variety of documents for several distinct audiences. Students compose a formal proposal to a university official, create a flyer for the larger university community, record a podcast for fellow students, and write letters to the editor to either the school paper or the local city paper. The course also includes analyses of public rhetoric as well. Such an extended engagement introduces rhetoric as omnipresent in public life. Social institutions, such as universities, are created, maintained, and reshaped by constant rhetorical interaction. Projects (large and small) that have students proactively participate in such interactions highlight the importance and creative potential of rhetoric.
In addition to stressing the public value of rhetoric, my course also stress the vitality of rhetoric in my students' private lives. Jim Corder argues in ”Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love” (an essay that has become the center piece of all my first-year composition courses) that “we are always, the rhetorician might say, inventing the narratives that are our lives." His point is that argument is less a presentation of a stable self than it is the situated invention of contingent selves. Treating argument as the emergence of a self towards another necessarily, for Corder, implies an ethical framework--hence, rhetoric as love. By having students examine their arguments as constructions of identity not only adds relevance to rhetoric, but hopefully compels responsible engagements with others.