As a writing teacher, a central pedagogical goal for me is to help my students become: become thorough researchers, knowledgeable speakers, and therefore, effective writers. In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, activist and educator bell hooks offers insight into her pedagogical motivations. She states: “I entered the classroom with the conviction that it was crucial for me and every other student to be an active participant, not a passive consumer” (14). Learning is a reciprocal affair; both teacher and student must be willing to participate.
For hooks, as for me, “Learning is a place where paradise can be created,” and it is imperative for students and teachers to strive for the kind of “education that connects the will to know with the will to become.” If my students do not want to know, then it will be difficult for them to become. As a teacher, I struggle with finding ways to guide my students to want to know—to know themselves, to know the world.
Teaching is an art, one I have not yet perfected, and one that requires an inordinate amount of patience. In Quotations for Martial Artists, John David Moore calls upon French sculptor Auguste Rodin to “motivate and enlighten the modern warrior,” noting that, “Patience is also a form of action” (Moore 5). Sometimes I have to practice the art of patience in order for my students to discover just what it is they do know, and just who it is they want to become. This form of action, I hope, encourages my students to be active participants—in our class, and in their lives.
My philosophy of teaching is ever-evolving. Much like the process of writing, I revise, adjust, and adapt it to whatever a given audience or situation requires. Rhetoric shouldn't just be taught, it should be practiced. I do work to establish some core teaching goals, which come from unexpected places.
The Taming Power of the Great:
A Threefold Teaching Philosophy
Ta Ch’u: The Taming Power of the Great
One unexpected place from which I draw teaching insight is the 26th hexagram of the I Ching, or, Book of Changes. The meaning of the hexagram Ta Ch’u, or The Taming Power of the Great, has various scholarly interpretations, but the one most purposeful to me comes from poet Karen Holden’s collection, Book of Changes: Poems (1998). Here Holden describes “a trinity [that] creates stability – three ways of ‘holding firm’: holding together, holding back and holding to care for and nourish.” Holding firm is a position that, for me, takes conscious and continuous effort.
An ancient Chinese classical text may seem an unlikely place for a teacher of writing, literature, and theory to find pedagogical illumination, yet the threefold meaning of Ta Ch’u is vital in helping me navigate the challenges and privilege of teaching. Holding firm helps me cultivate a community in each class I teach, which in turn encourages students to participate in thinking critically about the texts and their own relationships to them.
Holding Together: Finding Connections to Create Unity
For me, holding together requires a clarity of self, of knowing where I came from not only academically but also personally, and how this translates into my teaching. For instance, I occupy an interesting position of trying to reconcile between the second wave feminisms in which I was schooled (and still find greatly useful, even necessary), and the third wave feminisms that, at times, seem at odds with earlier theories. In Feminist Theory: From Margins to Center, bell hooks tells us: “The ability to ‘translate’ ideas to an audience that varies in age, sex, ethnicity, degree of literacy is a skill feminist educators need to develop” (111). I believe this to be true of all skilled educators, and in my teaching, this negotiation requires a move from the high, often inaccessible, theory that informs my own scholarship, to teaching with intellectually available language and ideas while retaining their theoretical complexity. The impact of the message is the same, but access to that message needs to be easier to attain. Sometimes teaching “backwards” is useful in these scenarios. For instance, most students (and people in general) have an aversion to the idea of “political correctness” because they do not like being told what to say or think. My own aversion to the label “PC” is that it often circulates as a conservative attempt to obscure the realities and complexities of identity politics. Instead of throwing out the term “PC” or dropping the names of high theorists in class discussions, I urge students to flesh out what they actually believe rather than what they are told to believe, and then find what particular theory supports their views. Likewise, I often pair texts that academics consider high art, or high culture, with texts from popular culture and countercultures, because sometimes it’s more helpful for the students to locate their views and experiences someplace in between these discourses. According to hooks, “difficulty of access has been a problem with much of feminist theory.” I extend this to critical theory in general and to some of classical literature as well. Therefore, any medium from films, film adaptations, and websites, to music videos, video games, and blogs are all fair game for analysis in my courses.
Holding Back: Stepping Back to View the Bigger Picture
The single most resonating skill I have learned through teaching is the ability to strike a balance between extremist views without compromising the integrity of my own beliefs, and conversely, to unsettle the middle ground when it becomes too comfortably uncomplicated. My teaching has been tempered by the lifelong lesson of “you have to pick your battles.” Choosing my battles means continually recognizing that ideas, information, and experiences that may be comfortable to me may still be alienating to some students. It also means not letting “teachable moments” slip through the cracks just because the students or I fear stepping outside of our comfort zones. As Paulo Freire notes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “one does not liberate people by alienating them.” This works both ways: I cannot learn from my students if I am unable to set aside my views long enough to think critically about theirs. I also cannot learn from my students if I don’t encourage them to take the risk of voicing their ideas, even when those ideas may not be popular opinion, or even my opinion. This requires discernment in my own listening skills, and keeping a balance when my students’ views diverge. Because each class I teach differs in topics and materials, and each student differs in writing and life experiences, as well as temperament and learning styles, I need to be adaptable as well as accessible. What works for one class or one student may not work for another. It is my responsibility to find ways to reach each student, or determine if each student is even contextually reachable at that time. Ultimately, I want the students to sharpen their critical writing, thinking, and reading skills, but also to show what and how they have learned. By extension, I not only offer many extra credit opportunities, I ask them to develop their own extra credit options whenever appropriate. This isn't meant to be a panacea to unmotivated or unprepared students, rather, it is meant to add dimension to that bigger picture.
Holding to Care for and Nourish: Gathering Energy, Time for Preparation
I actively move beyond giving my students “tools for survival” in their college lives and into guiding them towards thinking critically in ways that will transform their everyday lives. Like hooks and Freire, I believe that “liberation is a praxis,” that “the action and reflection” of students “upon their world” can lead to transforming it. How much and in what ways their lives, their worlds, are transformed depends mostly on the students. Yet, it is my responsibility to urge their discovery of such skills that will allow them to look critically at their own views, to challenge what they learn and, at times, what they already know. In “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” Adrienne Rich defines revision as “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction." By the 21st century, writing with revision is a commonplace of most college composition classes, but I view revisions as more than just a heuristic exercise. Rich also tells us that “until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.” Following this, I encourage a community environment in my classes, so students can communicate comfortably with each other and with me. Class participation is a mandatory part of their final grade, and I often assign peer response groups, in-class group journal writing, and collaborative final presentations to help prepare students learn more about themselves, their peers, and different work practices. Similarly, I encourage students to contribute to what materials we use in class, and am comfortable with revising my syllabus in order to incorporate their interests when applicable.
For me, teaching accessibly requires teaching something that comes from a place of experience. My research interests stem from my own experiences with what some may consider intensely personal situations. Sharing these with my students allows them to access their own, often new, experiences and to explore them with a critical eye. For this, I like to include memoirs and autobiographic material on my syllabi whenever possible as vehicles for exploring their own identities and how they connect (and disconnect) with the world at large. We may read about disability, mental health, addiction, poverty, eating disorders, abuse, or any number of disconcerting subjects. I take this as an opportunity to engage my students in a dialogue, with me and each other, about the aspects of life that are often the impetus for highly celebrated writing and artwork, and to view these from different angles (medically, legally, historically, socially). Much of these conversations take place outside the classroom, whether in conferences with individual students or on paper through my commentary for their essay revisions. I see both kinds of conversations as particular strengths of mine as a teacher, and I dedicate as much time as possible to developing dialogues in this way with those students who are willing.