In Radical Presence: Teaching Contemplative Practice, Mary O’Reilley states, “Our most productive comments can do no more than hold open a space into which the student may in time grow.” Regardless the academic setting, it is my responsibility as an instructor to create a community in the classroom—a student-centered environment that encourages students to take charge of their education, think critically, ask questions, be curious and creative. All this is so they can find success and fulfillment in future classes and their professional and personal lives. College is an opportunity for students to not only find themselves, but to grow as intellectual, civil human beings who are pursuing their passions and careers; the humanities especially have the privilege (if not the obligation) to assist students in this journey.
Critical writing, reading, and research are universal skills that a student will use for the rest of his or her life. In teaching writing, I find it rewarding when students discover their own individual voices and that they have something worth saying, regardless their background. Every writer is different and I want to help each develop his or her own identity and successful writing habits.
When I teach first semester composition, I always begin by assigning a “writing biography,” a blend of personal narrative, ethnography, and rhetorical analysis. Students must collect any writing they do—homework, class notes, texts, emails, social media posts, etc—for two weeks. As they do so they catalog when they wrote, who their audience was, and what type of language and tone they used. Afterward they must use the data they’ve collected to support who they believe they are as writers; meanwhile they reflect on their relationship with writing and how they came to where they are now. Often, students have one or two defining experiences that made them love or hate writing, whether it be winning a contest or a teacher that told them they were bad writers. They must also consider what sort of writers they would like to become.
Not only does this assignment help me get to know my students and where their strengths, weakness, and insecurities lie, but it helps them become more self-aware. Most students come into the class thinking they’re not writers, which often means they either think it doesn’t matter what/how they write, or that no matter what they do they’re going to fail. During the unit we look at and discuss their work (with names stripped away) as a group; some students realize how unprofessional they sound with excessive typos and the lingo, while others discover they actually have an audience in mind and take more care in their writing than previously thought. My favorite part of this assignment is when I when I read their papers and at least one student mentions that he or she feels that he or she can start viewing him or herself as a writer.
Most recently while teaching a night class, I had a nontraditional student whose educational background was limited. He was initially intimidated by my class because of his insecurities with grammar and spelling. But when his draft came in, he put his soul onto the page, explaining that for the first time he felt he could write as himself and that discovering this mode of self-expression was liberating. Not every student will grow and progress in the same way, but it’s important that each has access to individualized attention and feedback—that each has an experience they can take away something they didn’t know before, as was the case here.
I have spent the last six years professionally developing myself as a writer and editor. My poetry has appeared in over 30 publications around the globe, and I was recently elected as Editor of Haiku Society of America’s literary journal Frogpond. I bring these writing and editorial experiences to the classroom because it helps students understand the interconnected and multifaceted nature of writing and research. For example in my research courses, I supplement the main project and lessons with collaborative Japanese poetry to teach students the importance of strong word choice, brevity, editing, listening, and creative expression. Because it is a class-wide effort, students have to pay attention to what their classmates are saying in order to write a stanza that would appeal to their sensibilities and win their vote. Equally, they have the opportunity to persuade classmates to vote for a certain stanza—thus practicing argument with supporting evidence—and discuss editing options. In the process, they are able to edit each other’s work constructively, which is transferred into research paper workshops where they work in groups from brainstorming to final drafts. Students have left the course stating in their reflections that they feel more confident and empowered because what they have wanted to express is finally, coherently on the page for others to read.
In creating a space for growth and development, I can’t think of anything more rewarding than a student leaving my class being able to communicate clearly and effectively.