Preparing students to be critical questioners of how writing works in any rhetorical situation dovetails with my interests in developing a project-based pedagogy and incorporating digital media assignments that require students to go beyond the classroom to investigate and write within authentic rhetorical situations.
Much of my motivation as a teacher and researcher of writing has been a result of my successes and failures as a writer. I struggled in my first literature course while I excelled in creative writing. Why was I failing in one writing situation but succeeding in another? The disparity between these experiences is how my interest in Writing Studies began.
The simple answer was that I wasn’t aware of the discursive conventions used to write about literature. The conventions of writing narratives, of course, differed from those in a literary analysis essay; however, I had spent my lifetime reading and writing narratives, but I hadn’t read literary criticism or been asked to analyze literature. High school had prepared me to summarize and memorize facts for multiple choice tests.
My creative writing courses included explicit instruction in generic conventions (something Wolff and Wilder’s research demonstrates to be successful in a redesigned introductory “Writing About Literature” course). What I needed was the knowledge of how to meet the demands of this particular genre and rhetorical situation. I needed to know how one thought-spoke-wrote about literature and participated within this discourse community.
During this experience I came to see my previous undergraduate work as a visual artist and filmmaker in a new light. Working with different technologies, media, and genres required learning about the technical skills, design choices, and discourse conventions within a specific community of practice. Visual, aural, and gestural modes might not matter so much in the print-centric writing we typically ask students to do in English Studies, but other concepts do apply, e.g., purpose, audience, emphasis, contrast.
So when it came to my students’ success in a required course such as first-year composition, I explored ways in which I could construct opportunities for students to investigate writing within particular communities. My initial answers are found in my Master’s thesis study of academic service-learning (AS-L) in first-year composition. In these courses, my students chose to work with one of roughly a dozen non-profit community agencies and organizations. My intention was to juxtapose the academic writing they did in our course with that they did for the non-profits would help them see how writing was organized and valued within particular contexts; in class we could discuss differences in exigences, audiences, and genre and media. For example, what were the similarities and differences between writing a literacy narrative in school and the journal writing women did within a domestic violence support group? The hope is that this rhetorical genre studies approach might lead to the acquisition of a transferrable meta-level knowledge of writing and rhetoric.
This focus on preparing students to be critical questioners of how writing works in any rhetorical situation dovetails with my interests in developing a project-based pedagogy and incorporating digital media assignments that require students to go beyond the classroom to investigate and write within more authentic rhetorical situations. For example, in my Writing Beyond the Academy course, I design assignments that ask students to apply both rhetorical and design knowledge to create materials of use to on- and off-campus community partners. For one semester, students’ designed home pages for the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and African American Museum and Concert Hall. For this project, students met with the Bessie’s President, Dionne Jennings, and learned about the Bessie’s many community functions and audiences. In the end, she expressed that her central concern was the need for a new website design that would reflected the many ways the Bessie serves the community and its aim to be the leading cultural center in the Southeast.
This partnership presented us with challenges associated with communicating the Bessie’s mission to multiple real-world audiences with a variety of motivations and needs in a single text. For example, Ms. Jennings reported that most people thought of the Bessie as simply a museum about the singer Bessie Smith or one focused on African American history. We explored writing and designs that would deemphasize the focus on Bessie Smith and instead emphasize the Bessie’s hosting of diverse cultural and entertainment events as well as its rental facilities and membership program and benefits.
Students’ reactions have been positive.
Many students have responded along the following lines regarding our multimodal projects: “I enjoyed this course and am glad to have taken it. In my opinion, it has helped me to learn more real, usable skills than any other that I have had throughout my college experience.” “I have a whole new perspective about writing.” “He still taught us about writing and had us write, but it was in a way that was actually fun and made me think deeper about my writing.” “[This was] a project that could easily be seen in any number of professional industry projects.”
My goals as a writing teacher, then, has been, and continues to be, for my students to learn how writing works—how it shapes and is shaped by culture, how literate practices evolve over time and within and through communities and institutions.