I have been fortunate over the last five years to teach an economically, ethnically, and racially
diverse student body at a public urban research university in Detroit. The chief lessons I have taken
from this experience are to, first, value my students’ prior knowledge as well as the history and resources
of the community in which I teach, and, second, to demonstrate to my students the value of discovering and researching new, unfamiliar content areas. I have brought this basic philosophy to my design and instruction of a wide range of in-person and on-line composition and literature courses—including first-year writing, Introduction to Comics and Graphic Novels, African American literature, and a post-1865 American Literature survey course.
For example, I designed an “Introduction to Comics and Graphic Novels” course for a small cache of innovative courses developed by the Wayne State University English Department in a broad general education curricular reform, and piloted the course on-line. Especially given the on-line platform, I aimed to create an active learning community, as well as use the on-line platform to stage encounters between the texts and the outside world. Students began by thinking through their own relationship to newspaper and superhero comics, finding cherished, older issues from their childhood and developing early theories about why these particular stories were so captivating and affecting. Then, after structured learning about methods of reading comics and the broader historical context of the superhero genre, students consulted and interviewed local comic bookshop owners about which new superheroes align with their interests and made an independent selection for their first project—a pedagogical method of “jigsawing” I often use early in a semester to expand the pool of texts to which students can be exposed by their peers. Then, students composed a public, digital video literary analysis on YouTube—a common mode of communication within the comics community. In this public format, I ask students to view their peers’ videos and engage in a critical, scholarly discussion on the content of their peers’ close readings, providing additional support or complicating these arguments with evidence from their own book selections. In terms of composition, I have found that students, with guidance, have familiarity with and can demarcate the structural and tonal features of a successful YouTube video. Moreover, the work required composing those features in their own video literary analyses scaffolds well for the final project—a more traditional literary analysis of an assigned graphic novel—as students learn to see the importance of focus and efficiency in composition. In this way, students develop confident and thorough scholarship that directly contributes to broader, pre-existing conversations of a previously unfamiliar discourse community, employing the required, unique vocabulary of that community.
Using course content to de-familiarize what students think they already know is a crucial element to my course design. One method I have found productive has been to tap into relevant community resources that students may be surprised to discover. For example, as part of my “Introduction to African American Literature” course, I coordinated with an archivist at the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library to allow my students to see and touch rare slave narratives, African American newspapers, and bills of sale for slaves—part of Michigan history many students are surprised to discover. The ways in which the course content could be brought to life to challenge students’ expectations energized the students and altered their approach to the remaining readings and lessons. I believe blending this commitment to the local community resources with the course content and areas of instructor expertise creates an engaging learning experience for both students and teachers. The productive confrontation between student’s prior knowledge and experience within the community with evocative and surprising fields of inquiry is, to me, central to the promise that higher education offers.
Teaching With Technology
I find that teaching "with technology" is as much about having students grow their literacy of and facilitaty with digital genres of composition. I often use technology as a pedagogical tool in the classroom, such as creating video lectures that allow me to "flip" the classroom experience, in other words having students view the lectures at home and using in-class time to collaborate with other students and build their own projects with live teacher support. As I stated in my teaching philosophy, I aim to position my students as experts in whatever field in which they are composing. Therefore, I also make it so that my own digital content functions as a model for my students to create their own pedagogical tools, putting them in positions to use their compositions to teach and guide others. For example, in my Intro to Composition course based in the discourse community of Comics studies, I have students create a "video blog," based on a model I used in class. In my Am. Lit Survey, I have students create a digital map of three works we read in class. I felt that by having students creatively articulate these relationships, they would, 1.) have to closely analyze the texts, 2.) make original connections that were latent in class discussion, and 3.) remember these works in chunks rather than forget them as individual units. Below are the teacher models and student samples of each.
I developed a course for online teaching for the summer semester. One of the more difficult aspects of an online class is how to translate a teacher's classroom personality to a digital classroom. In addition to my regular lectures (on literature and on writing) I like to include more quirky videos like this "trailer" that I send out to students before the class begins (left) as well as a sample of a literature lecture in which I introduce an assignment and discuss early writing strategies (right).
Online classrooms also offer a great opportunity to illustrate to students that their writing, particularly as they develop expertise in a field, will have a broader audience than simply their instructor. Beyond just their blogs, I actually "publish" their final projects on this website, where they can see their work alongside their peers. This was actually an idea one of my students had because she was really excited to read her peers' work, as well as have her own work read by them. This type of excitement that composing with shared content knowledge produces is precisely an outcome I seek in my courses. However, working towards this happens incrementally. I have my students publish blogs weekly, like this one. This is a requirement that I have found offers students a place to discuss and enjoy the literature with lower stakes. They also begin to construct a digital self that is academic and professional in character. It incorporates both reading reflection and writing reflection. In tandem, I believe that this process produces conditions for optimal transfer. One student, after constructing her digital self, began following a number of literary and feminist blogs and re-blogging them to other students with whom she became close in the course of the class. This type of activity really allows students to explore freely their multiple curiosities and discover the significance of their own writing practices.