In my classroom, I am deeply committed to a number of pedagogical values that Wisconsin State Representative Chuck Wichgers would like to outlaw from public education. Drawing directly from his August 11, 2021 testimony to the state legislature, these include, but are not remotely limited to: culturally-responsive teaching, critical self awareness, educational justice, and critiquing dominant discourses and systems of power and oppression. For my teaching work during the first year and a half of the pandemic, I was honored to receive the 2021 Graduate Center Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Humanities, and doubly honored when a member of the award committee told me my essay on teaching at CUNY was the strongest he had seen in the history of the award.
At the beginning of every intro to composition class I teach, when we are discussing the concept of “academic writing,” we first read Vershawn Ashanti Young’s essay “Should Writer’s Use They Own English?” and watch linguistic anthropologist Mike Mena’s video essay on linguistic profiling. This semester, these texts led to fascinating discussions about the intersections between language, race, and place as students from different ethnicities, countries of origin, and language backgrounds compared experiences. After class, multiple students told me they had never thought about language in that way and wished they had discussed it in high school. This emphasis on language and writing as inherently social and context-specific shapes our discussions for the rest of the course.
In addition to contextualizing our object of study in this way, my courses center students as self-aware intellectuals — especially those who do not yet view themselves that way. This semester, I am most proud of my student — I’ll call him Aaron — who originally balked at the idea of writing even three pages for the first essay but turned in 12 full pages for the second. The first essay asks students to tell the story of how they came to change a belief and why. During this unit, we discuss genre features, audience expectations, and the many forms an effective writing process can take. For his paper, Aaron took the amazing risk of choosing the belief that “writing this essay will be easy.” The narrative tells the story of his own writing process: his original reaction to the prompt, his struggles to brainstorm, the resources he consulted, the process strategies he tried, and his anxieties about my reaction. “I still can’t believe you liked it,” he told me in our conference. “Your whole essay is about you grappling with the genre, anticipating your audience, and experimenting with the different writing strategies we talked about in class, and you took a brave risk as a writer,” I replied. “Why would I possibly be upset? That’s exactly what I wanted you to learn.”
Another core of my teaching philosophy is centering the diverse needs of our multicultural and predominantly working class student body, which is illustrated by the new grading policy I developed during the pandemic in response to student feedback in both asynchronous and synchronous modalities. Some of my students loved the high level of flexibility and freedom I offered in Fall 2020, while others said they longed for more structure and accountability. Since then, instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach to pandemic learning, I now ask students to choose between two different grading plans. After each unit, students submit guided reflections on their work in that unit to evaluate their own habits and achievements and can choose to switch grading plans as they learn more about their own learning needs. Some students thrive under the pressure of rigid deadlines and tight schedules, others flourish when those anxieties are removed, and few can know which type they are without opportunities to experiment and reflect.
Student feedback on this policy has been overwhelmingly positive. One said that grading choice “allows for students to figure out how they work best and how they create the best work possible,” and another said they feel it helps students take responsibility for their own learning. These quotes are representative of the overall feedback I have received from students, but my favorite piece of feedback I have received on my grading policy is this: “I feel strong and confident in this class. I am able to focus on my two jobs and school.”
Whatever else we are studying that semester, my courses are ultimately organized around the theme of “Rhetoric of Everyday Life.” In Poor Queer Studies, College of Staten Island professor Matt Brim discusses how a “poor queer studies” takes seriously the many ways queer studies can be directly applied in students’ immediate lives, rather than as purely intellectual content. I view composition and rhetorical studies the same way. For example, I frequently bring in pictures I’ve taken of ads on the MTA for us to analyze. This semester, we compared city-sponsored digital posters honoring healthcare workers with protest signs created by my healthcare worker friends. We read current news stories and discuss what different sources might be leaving out and what biases there might be in the information we receive. However, this implicit theme governs all aspects of my teaching, not just the texts we discuss. Valuing the rhetoric of everyday life also means acknowledging the realities of everyday life, just as my course policies aim to do. As the mental health resources section of my syllabus says, “Rhetoric and writing are important life skills, but having a healthy brain is more important.” More than anything, this sentence – both parts – is what I want my students to take away from my classes.