The main idea that I want students to get out of my class is for them to see writing as a discipline with a body of knowledge that they can contribute to, as a skill that they can get better at over time, and as an activity that always involves multiple choices. The past ten years of teaching literacy to diverse student populations – monolingual and multilingual, traditional and non-traditional, international and multinational, from sixth grade all the way up to graduate students in Singapore, Qatar, and the US – have taught me to value student agency, students’ home cultures, and the transfer of writing knowledge.
My courses reflect how power operates at my university and in the various communities where my students come from. I recognize that students see their agency and autonomy in my classroom through the lenses of their previous educational experience, and I am particularly sensitive to the needs of students who have been explicitly or implicitly told that they are not good writers by the actions of former teachers, schools, and even systems at my own institution, like placement exams. Thus, governing all of my teaching actions are ideals of social justice, including connecting students to resources where I can, acting as their voice when I must, and amplifying or providing platforms for their voices on the issues that matter to them. I also open up students to the power over their own writing by having them orient each project around their own research question and having them design rubrics and articulate their own learning goals. I allow students to fail – not fail their papers or fail the course – but fail as in try out new ideas or directions and then revise them when they discover that they’re on an unproductive path. I do lots and lots of listening in individual conferences to show my students that they are the ones who have to use critical thinking to decide what to do about their writing. Thus, students learn (just in case they already didn’t know) that the deep learning you do in my writing courses is yours.
At every opportunity, I welcome students’ home cultures into my classroom. In addition to my personal experiences with intersectionality, my overseas teaching experience has familiarized me with even more different ways of knowing, different ways of being a student, and different ways of performing literacy. My course readings come from a variety of cultures and socioeconomic classes, and I take particular care to ensure that international and multilingual students find course texts to be relevant and challenging. I start each semester learning about the students’ goals for their education, and I encourage students to align the goal of their assignments with their own goals. My students relish being treated like adults and co-learners, and from this experience they learn that the academy, the discipline of writing studies, or their own choice of industry is a place where they belong. I also try to account for the fact that students’ dreams and perspectives change over time, so the overarching structure of my assignments encourages reflection on how students themselves have changed and how revision is inseparable from writing. By witnessing their own and their fellow students’ evolution in literacy, students learn that they can get better at writing, despite what they may have thought or been told.
I believe that these lessons are transferable to other forms of writing done during and after college, and I test out those boundaries by having students define and write to their own public audience. For some students, a public audience means reporting on what they learned to their friends or parents; I’ve learned that publics are defined in different ways across cultures, and I like to let students determine the boundaries of their work, particularly in communities that may not have been part of my own life for very long. That said, many of my courses end with a public showcase or exhibition of student work. What students learn from this technique is that writing matters to people besides their teacher and they have a voice that can be used to bring about change. I didn’t get into teaching because I liked the sound of my own voice or I liked standing in front of a classroom and feeling powerful. (I’m not a real big fan of either of those.) I teach for Hamda, for Xuexuan, for Marvin, for Mohammad, for Haiyan, for Gabby, for Xavier, for the many students who walk the halls of higher education not certain that they belong there and not certain that their ideas are welcomed by those in power.