As an instructor of first-year rhetoric and composition courses, I aim to empower students not only to succeed in their respective disciplines, but, moreover, to help them become engaged participants in a public culture of debate. This ambition has grown out of my own practice as a student and instructor in the humanities. Indeed, what my studies in philosophy and literature have taught me is the value of self-cultivation, known as “Bildung” in the humanist educational tradition. What is often perceived to be a weakness of this tradition—namely, the alleged vagueness of the humanities by contrast to the certainty of the so-called hard sciences—I take to be a strength, because it acknowledges the fact that our complex reality always exceeds the models we create to negotiate it. I aim to help my students become critical readers and writers who engage with this uncertainty by learning to formulate an opinion in the absence of absolute proof. This exercise, I believe, is a valuable lesson in how to grow into the responsibilities of adulthood in a pluralistic world. My role in this process, as I understand it, can be summarized under three central categories: mentorship in enabling students to find their voice in academia, facilitation of critical thinking skills, and adaptability as a key aspect of keeping teaching student-centered.
For most of my students, the university is an unfamiliar institution, involving unknown codes of behavior and often intimidating expectations. This insight points to the need for helping students meet the challenges of a new institutional setting. I regard the first-year writing classroom as an ideal space for this introduction to academia and its role in society at large. For the introduction to succeed, however, the writing instructor has to function as a mentor. To my mind, such mentorship involves a student-centered approach that features materials and media that are relevant for today’s generation of students. In my understanding of education, then, a student’s personal and intellectual growth begins with the teacher’s selection of appropriate materials based on their own consummate reading and viewing practices. Over the last few years, I have built up a comprehensive library of contemporary materials (e.g., film clips from social media, late night comedy, political debates, as well as recent movies and documentaries) for use across all the different components of my writing classes. Both my students and faculty peer reviewers have approvingly noted this use of modern media as a way of jumpstarting discussion about theoretical topics.
For such discussions to occur, there must be a respectful culture in the classroom that allows students to work through challenges to their conceptions of the world. In order to foster this kind of space, I aim at a balance of support and gentle nudging toward personal and intellectual growth. As one of my former students has observed, this practice makes students feel “welcome to a brand-new institution that [they] had never experienced before.” As part of fostering this kind of community, I take my students’ mental health very seriously. I believe that the importance of this issue for young people who live away from home for the first time cannot be overstated. A particularly vulnerable population among my students are EAL learners, who have to negotiate an unfamiliar culture and language in addition to a new institutional landscape. As a former international student myself, I sympathize with their situation and pay particular attention to their needs, for instance by integrating questions about their home cultures into class discussion and by making myself available outside of class for further writing instruction.
It is in this kind of educational climate, I believe, that students can become empowered to find their unique “voice” as writers and thinkers. In pursuing this goal, I am guided by the assumption that students are young people with rich social lives who already have the respective argumentative skills—an idea I emphasize by continuously drawing comparisons between their daily “argument cultures” and academia. Indeed, this link between familiar and unfamiliar “argument cultures” runs like a thread through my writing classes. Based on this form of empowerment, I emphasize the self-directed nature of writing projects by structuring the course’s major assignments such that they result in written responses to research questions posed by the students themselves. In my experience, encouraging students to pursue their own interests in a way that meets the formal requirements of academia leads to both improved learning and better writing on the side of the students.
In such a balance of direct instruction and the careful creation of spaces for individual thinking, the process of reading and writing becomes a model for the Socratic examined life, a reflected way of being in the world. Part of such a life involves the development of rhetorical skills for the purposes of analysis and production of arguments, a key literacy in today’s media-dominated world. I bring considerable expertise and enthusiasm to the teaching of rhetoric. I have worked as a translator in the field of argumentation theory (most recently, the monograph The Concept of Argument: A Philosophical Foundation, vol. 4 in Springer’s series on “Logic, Argumentation and Reasoning”) and attended major conferences in the discipline (most recently, the 2016 meeting of OSSA, the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation, at the University of Windsor). This specialized knowledge has allowed me to develop a curriculum that combines cutting edge disciplinary insights with accessible lesson materials.
Yet I also take a cue from Plato’s critique of sophistry and emphasize the need to complement the teaching of rhetoric with reflections on the ethics of the art of persuasion. For this purpose, I have been teaching Plato’s Gorgias for the last few years, a dialogue which explicitly addresses the use of rhetoric based on an understanding of the Socratic ‘good life.’ The corresponding lesson has been refined into a primer on the history of rhetoric that introduces students to a classical text of the western canon. Plato’s philosophical focus on viewing the ‘good life’ as one of examination and reflection has also encouraged me to add a critical thinking lens to my introductory writing courses. This manifests not only in a practice of critical questioning that I model in class discussions but also, even more directly, in the teaching of logical fallacies that can impede reasoning. I have been able to draw from my familiarity with argumentation theory in designing four concise presentations (on circular reasoning, straw man fallacies, arguments from analogy, and slippery slope fallacies) that are integrated into my lesson plans at appropriate moments in the semester. Following these presentations, students begin to notice and point out the corresponding flaws in reasoning in the texts they read and analyze, often even on the final exam.
To be sure, the design of such ambitious lesson plans has to be paired with a commitment to the student. To ensure this emphasis, I engage in a practice of adaptability to student needs, both in terms of lesson materials and class protocols. As such, I continuously reflect on the outcomes of certain pedagogical approaches and make changes accordingly. For example, in teaching the Gorgias, I significantly reduced the length of an excerpt from the dialogue after my initial selection proved to be too ambitious and I added further explanations of its unfamiliar historical context.
Even more far-reaching, in terms of their impact on course and classroom management, have been some changes I made to my practices as an instructor. For example, I have developed a technique of encouraging quiet students to speak that has been adopted by other instructors. This technique is informed by the observation that it becomes increasingly difficult for students to speak up in class if they have not done so at an early point in the term. Thus I ensure that every student hears their own voice in the classroom by reading handouts with the whole group, going around the room and asking everyone to read at least one sentence out loud. This is particularly empowering for EAL students, who can overcome their initial discomfort in a foreign language by moving past the “silent stage” right away, but it also makes the classroom more inclusive overall. I take this practice to be a good complement for my method of Socratic questioning, which can end up relying on the more active and confident students in a group.
This goal of breaking down barriers that impede communication and learning in the writing classroom also informs a change I have made to my practice of providing students with prerecorded audio feedback on assignments. In my experience, pairing annotations in student papers with a few minutes of recorded oral feedback makes my suggestions more detailed and comprehensive. Students have also reported that this way of delivering feedback is more personal, with one student commenting that this “unique marking style […] is liked by all [my] students.”
In sum, these pedagogical goals that guide my teaching (mentorship, facilitation of critical thinking, adaptability) show how I conceptualize a first-year writing classroom that helps students develop the skills necessary to become both first-rate practitioners in their future careers and engaged citizens who can communicate and think clearly and critically about matters of public concern.