My research on rhetoric as a structure of address informs my view of teaching and learning as scenes of address. I see myself along with my students as implicated in relations of power and vulnerability, and I ask my students to examine the lines of belief and force that toss us into our positions in any given conversation. Rhetoric is an art of invention, not only of discovering all the available means of persuasion, but of expanding that availability. The inventiveness of rhetoric—its vitality, playfulness, and experimental spirit—motivates what I have described as a “pedagogy of involvement,” a theoretically informed praxis that enables students to take responsibility for their own learning.
Students in my undergraduate classes are assessed using the Learning Record, a portfolio-style evidence-based evaluation method. At the midterm and at the final, students compose persuasive essays documenting their improvement by explaining both what they have learned and how they have learned it. Students’ essays incorporate as evidence their other coursework, including writing assignments, revisions, and class participation, as well as my written feedback and comments from their peers. This evidence must be explained according to the goals of the course, and it forms the basis of each student’s request for the grade they think is fair. Students see an immediate value in improving their persuasive writing when they are given a chance to persuade for their grades. The Learning Record forces students to examine the standards by which they judge their own writing and the trajectory of their learning. The Learning Record also gives students an opportunity to review the goals of the course throughout the semester as they make observations about their progress Learning Record journal. As a result, students reach the end of the semester with a clear sense of the purpose of each course.
Just as I ask students to reflect frequently on our course goals, I also ask them to identify and refine their own goals. Students of rhetoric must constantly consider their audience, and my courses center invention as a way to generate persuasive arguments appropriate to particular audiences. In my first-year writing course, topic proposals in the beginning of the semester must include an analysis of the issue’s stakeholders. Final assignments in my first-year writing course and in my Rhetoric of Failure class emphasize selecting the arguments mostly likely to persuade such stakeholders. Of course, a class is an audience, too: I use a variety of discussion formats to engage students with different strengths. For example, I sometimes begin class discussions of assigned reading with simultaneous writing in a Google doc, asking students to generate questions and insights. The Google doc discussion gives every student a chance to gather their thoughts, and it can help equalize the time that quieter and more talkative students hold the floor in class.
Because each student learns differently, not every barrier to accessing a given course is visible. When my Rhetoric and Prose Style class decided collectively to adopt the use of trigger warnings for an anonymously specified list of issues, such as eating disorders and drug abuse, the result was a discussion climate characterized by both honesty and sensitivity. Students paid attention to one another but didn’t hesitate to express disagreement, mindful of the potential to do harm. One student was forthcoming about the stability trigger warnings promoted, allowing her to prepare for personally difficult conversations in class, rather than occasioning avoidance.
Negotiating difficult and thorny issues is a key rhetorical skill. Students must acclimate to the experience of being challenged, even getting confused and feeling lost, and they must develop a habit of navigating their confusion by asking questions and posing problems, especially through writing. Writing itself is a process of discovery, and students in my courses learn to practice revision as a crucial part of their writing process. For example, students in my Rhetoric of Failure class were required to radically revise their first exposition paper of the semester. The assignment requires students to retype any phrase they think important enough to keep; everything else should be dramatically changed. Radical revision frees students to reflection on the choices they made in what they thought were final drafts, and it encourages them to experiment by making different choices. Students aim for this intensity of revision in all their subsequent papers, and they experience the recursion of the writing process in a way that prepares them to persevere through longer projects.
Students in my courses become acquainted with the inventive resources of rhetorical style through studying tropes and practicing imitation. Asking students in first-year writing, for example, to imitate the grammatical structure of a sentence or passage introduces them to discovering what to say by focusing on how to say it. In my more advanced Rhetoric and Prose Style class, students worked at this intersection between invention and style all semester. Students kept commonplace books on the social media platform Tumblr. Tumblogs make it easy to post and share multimedia content, including images, links, excerpts of texts, even songs and videos. The students used their tumblogs as a storehouse of styles to imitate, emulate, and revise. The final assignment asked students to select a writing sample they admire, identify its tropes, and explain the rhetorical effects those tropes produced. Then, students wrote imitations, putting the tropes to work in their own writing.
I’ve had the privilege of teaching the majority of my classes in computer-equipped classrooms, so I have experience incorporate digital technologies into my curriculum, from blogs and wikis to social media like Tumblr. In my capacity as Assistant Director of the Digital Writing and Research Lab, I have taught other instructors how to do the same. I have taught workshops on visualizing writing with screencasting and Photoshop, on digital workflow and productivity tools, and on building websites with both Drupal and WordPress platforms. I’ve also had to adapt my teaching to traditional classrooms, but digital literacy remains a skill set for students negotiating reading, researching, and writing online.
My pedagogical strategies are informed by my commitment to rhetoric as an art of possibility. Students thrive when they realize that they can set and pursue their own educational goals. Writing becomes a way for them to frame and explore the questions that excite their passion. But writing always takes place in a community, for an audience, even when that audience is oneself. My teaching prepares students to respond to difficult and even destabilizing challenges with improvisation, experimentation, and reflection. Learning requires risk, and as a teacher I invite my students to write through their uncertainties.