My teaching philosophy aligns with Voltaire’s quote that, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” My classroom approach changes frequently, sometimes between classes on the same day. If I’m not continually reflecting upon and changing my pedagogical approach, I’m not growing as a teacher. Cultivating doubt is not a comfortable way to work, but settling on certainty in teaching does a disservice to my students, to me, and to society. I also push my students into the realm of inquiry and doubt. They do not like this. In an age of convergent thinking, imagine the fear and, thus, the freedom that exists when students are not given a correct answer for the path to follow. My job is not to give answers but to encourage questions. “You can’t find your way unless you’ve lost your way,” I tell them.
On the first day, I name my class, “Studies in Advanced Curiosity and Deliberate Thinking.” It sounds sexier than “Writing and Inquiry in Academic Contexts II.” “Writing” is left out of the title, not because it isn’t central to everything we do—it is—but because I want to diminish preconceived notions about writing that students often have. I explain that our goal is to develop their innate curiosity and to translate that into deliberate thinking, which—to my eye—is what writing produces.
I endorse Bonnie Friedman’s belief that “writing teaches writing,” and so we write. A lot. From ten-minute freewrites at the start of every class to in-depth weekly blog posts in response to thought-provoking written or multimodal prompts, writing dominates my curriculum. In class, I write with students, as well as keep a blog. When appropriate, I share excerpts of my personal or professional work to reinforce that writing is hard, takes practice, and can be sloppy. For example, we may pull up my most recent blog post, and I’ll visibly cringe at some of my writing. Together, we look for areas that need revision: more elaboration, perhaps, or the reorganization of my thoughts. This helps demystify the writing process.
We also practice close, critical reading and discuss the daily reading assignments so students get accustomed to keeping up with the work. I select diverse readings that apply to their lives. For example, recent articles focused on why students should or shouldn’t stay in school, why their generation is plagued with anxiety, and how our educational system crushes creativity.
Of course, writing is a recursive process involving transitions between pre-writing, writing, revising and receiving feedback. My students work through multiple drafts, meet in groups for peer-review workshops, reflect on their choices as writers, and work toward producing an ePortfolio that archives selections of their work. My process-based pedagogy de-emphasizes “one-and-done” compositions.
Students choose their assignment topics. This engenders ownership of their work. Through research and thinking critically about issues important to them, students learn how careful reading, invention, drafting, reflection, and revision reveal multiple perspectives inherent in most issues. For example, a student may begin with a broad topic like alternative energy and think their job is simply to report how important it is to our future. As they research, reflect, write and revise, they begin to understand that alternative energy can be expensive and many forms of it are in early stages of development. They discover that big-oil lobbyists wield enormous legislative influence, and that, even amongst proponents of clean energy, there’s contentious debate about the best ways to move forward. Confusion sets in, and they’re forced to sit with uncertainty until the process eventually helps them discover what they think and what they want to say.
By writing for various purposes and audiences, students learn that writing is socially constructed, existing in many contexts with different vernaculars, and that writing is one means of participating in ongoing conversations that challenge and expand their thinking. They also discover that writing can be a terribly lonely, solitary practice. I imagine them sometimes, the only ones up late in their dorm, at work on a paper. This is writing, too.
I emphasize the importance of function over form. I assign genre-based papers—literacy narratives, annotated bibliographies, research-based expository and argumentative essays, and various types of reflective genres such as letters to me and daybook entries. For every rhetorical situation, I urge students to ask, “How can I best reach my audience and achieve my purpose?” Ideally they learn that breaking the genre conventions—which they must know—is sometimes more effective than following them. In short, I teach rhetorical flexibility.
We practice reflection in our daybooks during different types of freewrites and following each major assignment. This metacognitive thinking culminates in their five-page-plus, end-of-semester reflective letter. I’m always pleased when I receive comments like, “I was discussing my topic with my parents. They wanted to know why I’m opposed to the phrase ‘All Lives Matter.’ I explained that there’s still subtle, inherent racism in that statement.” That discussion is learning outside the classroom and is a valuable means of providing them with a practice that will transfer into success in college and beyond.
Teaching is a career that calls on my innate abilities, experience, and long-standing interests. The finest teachers I had fostered a passion for learning that transcended their subjects; they taught me that a love of learning is fundamental for living a fulfilling, contented life. I want to give back that lesson to my students. Teaching is a way to be open to the many possibilities inherent in a curious mind. At 50 years of age, I am glad to continue learning this.