Unearthing Classroom Ecologies: A Pedagogy of Locations
Teaching and learning are deeply ecological performances in the sense that all classroom participants work to represent themselves within a complex environment of interrelated cultural, social, and economic systems. That these systems are racialized, sexualized, classed, and gendered is central to the inquiry I pursue with students, and my pedagogy—feminist and critical—attempts to unearth the relationships among these systems, making them available for critique and revision. My goal as a teacher is to help students think ecologically about relationships among knowledge production, composition, and design: What counts as knowledge, and who decides? How is my voice connected to others, and how might I use it to respond to the needs of my communities? To this end, I practice a “local” pedagogy—a pedagogy that meets students where they are.
And where are they? The spatiality of our experiences necessarily means that we engage the world from our own subject positions. The simultaneity of spatial existence means we are different, multiple, and yet connected in the world. With this difference in mind, I greet students each semester with the understanding that I cannot take a pre-packaged course and simply apply it to any classroom I encounter. Each classroom space offers a new group of people with different needs, desires, challenges, and aspirations. As a teacher, my goal is to bring what I know about composition research and, through sound pedagogy, make it accessible and challenging for students whose lives are different and complex. In this pursuit, I am always trying to make sense of what will work for the whole and what will work for the individual—global and local, difference and similarity. The tensions that arise along these spectra offer potentially transformative educational experiences, and I try to facilitate this learning by honoring two agreements:
Learning requires curiosity and imagination.
I see the classrooms I enter as spaces for practicing invention and engaging our imaginations in the service of problem-solving through curious, playful rhetorical inquiry. Treating composition, design, and research as imaginative and curious processes can help students see them as not only ways to think critically about issues they care about through the consideration of multiple perspectives, but also as ways to build community and effect change. One way I emphasize imagination and curiosity is through my work with zines and public argument in first-year composition courses. Since 2010, I have been working on an approach to zine pedagogy that asks students to research an issue of local concern, engage multiple perspectives on the issue, and craft their own positions in response to this process of critical inquiry. Students then have the opportunity to think through the material, visual, and spatial affordances and limitations of the zine format as they work to convey their argument through both alphabetic and non-alphabetic modes of expression—image, material, texture, shape, spatiality.
Students confront similar multimodal challenges in the Documented Argument Remix project I teach during Composition II. In this context, I invite students to move beyond more formal or traditional presentations of academic research and communication by crafting a multimodal remix of a research-based essay composed earlier in the semester. In the movement from linear, alphabetic writing to other potentially less linear multimodal forms (e.g., a video, a poster, a brochure, a photo essay), I encourage students to embrace multiple forms of knowledge and knowledge production. As students move among genres and modes of expression, their arguments often become curious and imaginative landscapes populated with multiple ways of seeing and multiple ways of knowing.
Learning works best with respect and friendship.
Because critical thinking can sometimes unearth controversial or provocative topics, I ask all students to consider how showing respect and consideration for others is but one way to cultivate and inspire respect and consideration for themselves. We are friends to the extent that we challenge and trust each other to take academic risks that, whether they “succeed,” move us closer to becoming our best academic selves. For example, in all the courses I teach—from Composition I to more advanced courses like Digital Narrative and Document Design—I begin each new assignment with a series of low-stakes discovery drafts in which I invite students to brainstorm and share as many topic ideas and sketches as they can, knowing they can trust me to listen and offer constructive, critical feedback. The goal of these ungraded exchanges is to encourage them not to settle for the first idea they come across, but to be genuinely open to the pursuit of new ideas. This process, I find, works best if I can comment with respect and friendship grounded in a commitment to engage all ideas openly and constructively.
Respect and friendship also shape my approach to revision and assessment. Those who know me well are not surprised when they look at my course materials and see precise assignment sheets and meticulous scoring guides. I am a Type A person, and I want details. There is deep respect in these details. I respect student needs and learning enough to offer a clear, outcome-oriented vision of assignment goals and why they matter. Yet, the assignment is not the center of our vision. That is reserved for our creative works, the things we make. Throughout the semester, I invite students to share their writing with each other and showcase their work during peer response workshops. Our writing is something we discuss and craft together, and the rhetorical concepts we are learning about come alive in the direct context of their work, where instruction can be most memorable.
At every step in the composition and design process, I want students to see their work at the center of our classroom exchanges, and I want them to have a meaningful sense of where we are going and why we are going there, so they can mark change and growth along the way. The road bends and turns, and certainly there are detours and scenic byways, but I want them to know that we do have a map and that off-roading is sometimes encouraged.