My work in the classroom explicitly reflects my commitments to feminist and disability-influenced pedagogy. My classes thrive on the disability values of inter-reliance, self-determination, and respect for diversity. For example, having studied issues of learning disability in the writing classroom, I understand the ways technology-enhanced assignments and multimodal teaching practices can help these students succeed as writers. I do not, however, see disability in the classroom as a problem to be solved. Disability is an asset—a lesson I model for my students every time I acknowledge my own experiences as a graduate student with learning disabilities. Many of my best innovations as a teacher and a writer, I believe, emerge from the necessity that I work around my weaknesses and utilize my strengths, even when those strengths don’t fit the profile of typical academic abilities. I believe my classrooms allow students to do the same, to learn about their weaknesses and capitalize on their diverse and often unexpected strengths.
Over the past five years of teaching writing courses in the City University of New York system, I have developed an approach that allows students of all levels to gain confidence as writers within technology-rich, structured learning environments. I have applied my method to community college first-year-writing courses, honors writing workshops, high-intensity summer workshops, and advanced Writing in the Disciplines courses. All of my courses bear the same hallmarks. Students learn to use the writer’s tools, which include practices like freewriting, visual idea-mapping, peer collaboration, and revision. Students also learn to conduct meaningful long-form projects through action-oriented genres such as project proposals, field notes, reports, presentations, and ultimately, self-assessments of their own labors. Finally, students learn to be conscientious users of technology, gaining mastery at both digesting and producing interactive digital texts. This three-part practice has proved successful and empowering in classrooms where students run a wide range of abilities, language backgrounds, confidence levels, and amounts of technological proficiency.
My writing classes begin with a focus on the writer’s tools. Through structured in-class experiments, students learn to use freewriting to explore ideas and develop drafts. They then contrast this approach with more formal, audience-centered composing styles, such as Gerald Graff and Kathy Birkenstein’s They Say / I Say template method. Working in stable, collaborative writing groups, students learn to evaluate their personal experiments with multiple writing styles, while at the same time learning about one another’s strengths and weaknesses. As students engage in informal, self-reflective writing assignments on our course wiki, they learn from experience that writers use a complex array of tools, techniques, and technologies in order to do their work. Vitally, they learn that the most important resource, for any writer, is interpersonal collaboration, especially with thoughtfully engaged peers.
My role as instructor is to serve as mentor, coach, and facilitator. I am present in the space to provide a responsive but stable structure: to set tasks and to provide the resources students need to perform well. One way I provide structure is by using grading contracts tailored to the work of each course. These contracts allow me to give students credit for persistent effort and development across the entire semester, rather than privileging one-off products. I also provide my students with a technology-rich structure for engaging with the course. By using a responsive wiki platform for my course sites, I am able to engineer new online structures on the fly, which can support many functionalities, including blogs, multi-page web projects, and private digital workspaces for small group project development. Because the wiki is entirely editable by all members of the class, students are able to contribute actively to notetaking in the lesson plans. This format allows students to exert considerable autonomy in designing our class’s online workspace, and it has allowed us to create large, collaborative projects such as searchable course-developed annotated bibliographies.
I base my models for large-scale assignment projects on both critical pedagogy and Writing about Writing (WAW) practices. For instance, in an assignment I adapted from the WAW approach, students use John Swales’s model of discourse community analysis to conduct primary ethnographic research to examine the role writing plays in real world work environments. One student in my advanced Writing for Engineers course, for example, proposed to study how language, collaboration, and social hierarchy are used in an extracurricular engineering club that builds concrete canoes for regional competitions. The student produced excellent, original findings from his study; but more than that, conducting the research allowed him to grow more invested in his own community of engineers and helped him gather concrete evidence about how to be a more successful team member in an organization that had direct relevance to his career ambitions.
One way I help students choose ambitious projects is by confronting them with impressive but approachable models. For this reason, I retain a portfolio of previous student projects that often serve as the basis for work in future classes. This practice of working from real models helps students see that high-quality products take time and multiple steps to develop. I also share models from my own writing life, putting myself as much as possible within their proximity as a peer—if a very experienced peer. I keep multiple drafts of my own writing, modeling my approach to project development, revision, and collaboration. Indeed, I pull them into my own writing process throughout the semester, sharing drafts of assignment sheets and in-progress assessment tools I am developing for the course. This practice does more than earn their trust; by providing feedback on the official documents that scaffold their course-sponsored writing, students gain valuable experience setting goals for their writing projects and figuring out how to assess their success. By the end of the semester, not only do my students have a clear picture of their abilities as writers, they also have the capacity to metacognatively direct and assess their own development as learners.
This general pedagogical method has allowed me to successfully teach courses across a range of skill levels and disciplinary foci. I have developed curricula for both mixed-major introductory writing courses and advanced discipline-specific courses. In an advanced Writing for the Humanities courses, for instance, I help students develop digital, multimodal literacy studies based on the genre experiments of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home. By pushing students to experiment with digital tools, we are able to explore the kinds of knowledge-making central to all humanities disciplines, tapping the connection between personal experience and engaged, audience-focused argument. My mixed-major courses tend to focus on projects that help students to explore their professional and academic interests. For example, a computer science student in one first-year writing classroom, unhappy with how John Swales’s model of discourse community analysis didn’t work well for studying the online community Reddit, designed her own alterations to the ethnographic method to allow her to describe not only online language, but also the social semantics of upvoting, commenting, and online clout. In cases like these, I rely on my strong grasp of technology and a flexible approach to assessment in order to respond to my students’ creative ambition.
I believe that with the proper personal support and technology-enhanced structure, students of any skill level can grow as college-level writers. I have shared various aspects of my approach at faculty development workshops, national conferences, and in a forthcoming chapter in an edited collection New Directions in/for Writing about Writing (Utah State University Press). My key challenge in spreading my pedagogical values to others is to demonstrate that not only is my approach effective to help students succeed, it is also more efficient and rewarding for instructors. By using peer commenting and more flexible grading tools, instructors can both encourage student autonomy and lessen the labor of course management. Likewise, by focusing the course on students’ own interests and personal goals, instructors share the burden of providing the motivating energy for lectures and discussions. Ultimately, I hope to apply my approach to progressive literacy instruction at the programmatic level, where I can build curriculum and engage faculty to develop entire writing programs where students of all backgrounds and abilities can succeed.