Teaching with Mirrors
This semester has been dominated by an at-times overwhelming need for balance: balance between coursework and teaching, between video-making and lesson-planning, between writing and grading. Ultimately, the choice (a false one, as I’ll detail in a moment) seemed to be between success in my own classes or success teaching my students. This difficult negotiation is in no way unusual or atypical for a PhD student, especially a new one at a new institution. As with any major transition, it must be approached gradually, gingerly, gently and deliberately. There are always those that will tell a new doctoral students that, no matter what, personal and academic research must come first, and teaching and anything else second. I do not agree, though I see the point: the life of a graduate teaching assistant will forever be one of negotiation between dual roles as teachers and as students. My hope coming into the semester was that I would find a balance between the two, that I would be able to translate my strong interests in rhetorical theory and multimedia making into my first passion, which is and always has been teaching. What I found was that not only did the two coalesce naturally and organically, but that in addition they informed each other, helped one another, nourished one another.
Our semester was a successful one. I experienced the classic and clicheéd situation of finding one of my classes to be active, lively and robust in discussion right from the onset, and my other class timid and tired, needing to be drawn into a space where conversation could occur. I want my classes, and especially our discussions, to be as decentered as possible. I believe firmly in a “trickle-up” pedagogy that encourages students to transfer what they walk into the classroom with each day into assignments, projects and discussions in which they learn collaboratively from other students. I want students to teach each other. I want students to learn from each other. I want to design situations in which this might occur, to nurture and cultivate an atmosphere in which the stakes are low and risks can be taken. I want students to feel comfortable pushing their own ways of thinking, reading, writing and collaborating. Ant his all sounds nice, but it’s a real test to enact it each day. Every class session is different, in the end.
Coming into the semester, I was unsure how hands-on to be with my own syllabus and class plans. I’ve taught for two years or so, three sections of first-year composition each fall and spring at my former institution. My pedagogy has evolved over time. It has grown and matured and developed in nuance and complexity. My FYC course that I taught last spring isn’t all that different from the standard template-course the Clemson writing program supplies to its instructors. Painting with a broad brush, we begin with a unit on introducing rhetoric followed by a unit on research and argument and then end the semester by composing in multimedia. This is the same general format I followed last year, and though there were many small changes along the way (a new textbook, for instance, which I loved), my course content and focus remained relatively stable. I want to be clear here, though: stability in a course does not mean that course did not evolve and progress: mine certainly did both of these. For the first time, I taught an annotated bibliography assignment. I was unsure in the beginning how valuable it would end up being to my students, but I was pleasantly surprised with its ability to challenge my students to situate themselves within a body of information and within a scholarly conversation, which is oftentimes difficult to achieve. I’m actually expanding the project for next semester. It’s going to be a centerpiece of my course.
I set out in late August to leave more time for “learning by making” than I ever had previously, and I believe myself to have been successful with this. My students explored visual rhetoric through creating their own New Yorker magazine covers that convey a social, cultural or political argument visually. They made “mind maps” using software to visualize their arguments and organizational structures. They made “reframes” of their writing projects, and they made literacy autobiographies that we collected into an anthology for the class to read. Lastly, we made “The Untold Histories of Clemson,” our collaborative documentary film project that revives some neglected histories of race and gender in Clemson’s history (check it out here: https://untoldhistoriesofclemson.home.blog). (Wow, my students are talented).
To close, a thought: I stress to my students that they should always be “writing with mirrors,” meaning that they should always be looking back, looking inward, and looking toward seeing and understanding through their writing. I very much buy in to the “affective turn” in composition, and I try to convey these practices to to my students through everyday practice. Part of being cognizant of the emotional and affective aspects of writing is expanding our understandings of emotions and affect in the teaching of writing, hence the title for this reflection: teaching with mirrors (this is a written reflection, after all). When I write about the semester, I’m reminded of the discussions we had after reading about borders and about disability, and I’m reminded of how proud I was of my students’ documentaries during our film festival, and I’m reminded of helping particular students practically every week in office hours, and I smile.