Complete Teaching Philosophy
Writing is more than just thinking on the page: it’s also problem solving. Most students who decide to attend college are good at some kind of problem solving – indeed, that is often what prompts them to pursue higher education. The trouble is that, as a whole, students think about problems differently and come equipped with different strategies for tackling them. The writing classroom can serve as a place to experiment with and expand that toolkit by offering ways to diagnose and respond to particular sets of intellectual and practical concerns. Writing well is not magic; it results from following steps towards solving a problem, whether that problem arises from a school assignment, a gap in the academic field, or a request from a workplace supervisor.
One of the most useful things that writing can teach students comes when, not if, the problem-solving process breaks down. It is at that point that the writer must look to a set of troubleshooting techniques in order to get herself back on track. This is where college-level composition can play an important role – in imparting and modeling practical solutions for everyday challenges that involve language and communication. I try to keep this in mind and to structure my writing classes in a way that trains writers to respond to and engage with the chain of communication that exists between them and their many audiences. This chain includes both people (authors, editors, copyeditors, coworkers, and managers) and structures (digital platforms, the publishing industry, corporations, and institutions).
Writing as a process of self-discovery is surely beneficial, but writing with a specific audience and market in mind is even better. To that end, I employ project-based learned strategies in all of my classes. The most comprehensive example of my investment in this kind of teaching is represented by the book that I co-edited with students in my ENGL 334 Practicum in Writing, Editing, and Publishing (WEP) course commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Red River flood of 1997. At the start of that project, I encouraged students to think of our class as a small publishing house: in order to work together to make something worth reading, we would each have to perform a variety of interconnected tasks, ranging from archival research, to digital design, to copyediting, to writing press releases, and more. And since the book, Haunted By Waters, had a strict deadline (the actual date marking the twentieth anniversary of the flood), students needed to accomplish their work on time – not just because it was the deadline imposed by their instructor, but because we all had promises to keep. Looking back, I think that the trust I put in those students, combined with an emphasis on collaborative production strategies, helped them thrive under the pressure. The project itself turned out to be a great success, and for the following few reasons: 1) it required students to discover the history of the community in which they now live; 2) it required students to learn about components of the publishing process through completing each and every step of that process; and 3) it demanded that students develop techniques for troubleshooting a variety of technical, social, and practical problems (we encountered plenty of all three).
Worthwhile projects of this kind cannot function without teacher-student and student-student collaboration. My other experiences teaching at UND have served to reiterate this point and have strengthened my commitment to collaborative, practical learning. I serve as the Director of Editorial Content and Strategy for the Digital Press @ The University of North Dakota and have used this position to integrate student assignments and press projects. In addition to the Haunted By Waters book, I guided students in the ENGL 234: Introduction to WEP course through multiple copyediting projects. For instance, ENGL 234 students copyedited the manuscripts for Codex, a book of critical essays and art photographs by Micah Bloom, an artist from Minot, ND; they also copyedited a book of poetry by Eliot Glassheim, a longtime North Dakota personality and politician. These projects challenged students to apply the best practices of professional copyediting – practices that we had explored in our class reading through texts like Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copyeditor – and to furthermore consider how reading strategies employed in other English courses could apply to these kinds of creative writing projects. These assignments required extra legwork on my part, but the increased student investment made that work well worth it: I now make a habit of incorporating these kinds of experiential assignments in the majority of my classes, regardless of the subject matter.
We live in a world that is rightly obsessed with productivity, but too often reading and its kindred practices (like revision and editing) are viewed as secondary or incidental. Indeed, seeing writing as chain of communication reinforces how this problem can be addressed in the classroom. For instance, in my Fall 2017 ENGL 428 Digital Humanities course at UND, I offered students the option of assembling a critical edition of the Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as a creative final project. This project encouraged students to see critical reflection and creative production as essentially related practices, and it offered students important tangible outcomes: they learned to work with industry-standard Adobe InDesign software. Too, each student had to write a short critical introduction that went beyond simple interpretations of Whitman’s poems in addition to selecting and arranging them, a process that required them to making an argumentative case for the value of each poem and for its inclusion in a new, digital edition. Each student thus ended the semester by bringing something new into the world. Their creations, though, required them to place their own work as students within the wider marketplaces of academic and literary publishing.
Even with all the different tactics I have devised for explaining and modeling the process of writing and editing, I still find that teaching is an exceedingly difficult and uniquely rewarding vocation. Simply put, knowledge takes a lot of work. And the glut of information available online does not necessarily make that process easier. Douglas Rushkoff, for instance, warns that search engines render “all knowledge the same distance away:” instead of pursuing difficult investigations, he laments, “we put a search term in a box get back more results than we can possibly read.” Living in a world where a quick, smartphone search returns more information than any one person could possibly acquire in all their years of education would appear to make certain parts of writing instruction obsolete. But rather than despair about this technological situation, aspiring writers, editors, and problem solvers can and must learn more about the process that delivers writing and other forms of content to the screens of their prospective readers. Approaching written communication from this perspective, as students do in all of my classes, offers strategies not just for producing good writing, but for successful the conveyance of good writing to its intended audience. Viewing writing as another data point amongst other does not inherently undermine its value; rather, it asks those who hope to communicate effectively in the twenty-first century to understand the overlapping processes that facilitate all of these forms of interconnection.