In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, Rousseau presents a model of invisible pedagogy that lets students dictate, as much as possible, their own learning. The strongest parallel within contemporary composition theory, to my knowledge, is the work of Peter Elbow, who has among other things advocated classrooms without teachers and letting students write in their own voices. Although teaching Standard Written English (SWE) may be unavoidable, I find Elbow’s statement that “linguistic and rhetorical virtues grow wild like weeds in our careless speech” (78) to be true. By this he means that students often write more elegantly, more powerfully, when permitted to use the language that comes naturally to them. My teaching persona is constructed around these ideas of invisible pedagogy and letting students speak in their own voices, and it plays out in the classroom in a number of specific ways.
My composition courses typically focus on the idea of “public writing”—writing intended not for an audience of one (i.e., a teacher) but for the wider community. One iteration of my theme asks students to select an on-line publication with which they have some familiarity, and they write an article according to that publication’s guidelines. In the past, students have picked such venues as ESPN, The Onion, National Geographic, technology review sites, gaming magazines, and others. Such an assignment opens students to issues of audience awareness, the rhetorical situation, genre conventions, modality, and even multimodality. (In more research-oriented composition classes, we reflect on the differences between academic and general audiences.) Analyzing articles and websites also gives us ample opportunity for reading instruction, since better readers make better writers. In general, I’m often impressed by the level of creativity and engagement I see—one student stands out in my memory for having done a meta-analysis of Pokémon playing cards for a gaming venue, and he later admitted that he’d never had the motivation to work so hard on an assignment before.
Yet I always prepare students for their final projects by scaffolding the assignment sequence carefully, so that skills learned in smaller, exploratory assignments can be integrated into the final (theoretically publishable) article. In keeping with de-emphasizing the teacher, peer review has a high priority in my classroom. One variety of peer review that I’ve employed successfully involves students giving a multimodal presentation of their final article topic. Not only does this reinforce the idea of audience awareness (i.e., their peers are different from the audiences of most magazines), but the students often incorporate questions or ideas from the Q&A sessions into their final papers. Although my writing instruction emphasizes process rather than product, I always remain pleasantly surprised at how strong the final products tend to be. I limit my own commentary, incidentally, to official drafts, final submissions, and personal conferences. Indeed, in order to preserve student “ownership” of their own papers, I have experimented with non-intrusive commentary methods such as Jing audio feedback and typed responses on separate sheets of paper. Likewise, I divide my assignments between “high stakes” and “low stakes” writing—the latter, graded solely for completion, allows students to experiment with form or voice, including writing in their own voice.
One of my more popular activities, which I use as a supplement to peer review, involves “grade norming” a random sample of the current assignment. This assignment simultaneously familiarizes students with the grading criteria and provides students a means to evaluate how successfully those criteria have been applied. These grade norming activities make universal class participation—a major factor in my daily classroom management—relatively easy. My classes also require frequent self-reflections, another popular activity. In addition to helping me gauge the progress of my class, these reflections give students a voice and reinforce for them the basic goals of the course.
I developed my method for teaching literature from my method for teaching composition. I employ many of the same tactics: a scaffolded assignment sequence, class discussion, reflections and self-reflections, universal participation, and small group activities geared to close reading. I even devote some time to writing instruction, since many of my students are new to literary analysis and don’t always have an intuitive understanding of how to convert their ideas about literature into a thesis-driven paper. “Invisible pedagogy,” for literature no less than for composition, plays a major factor in my teaching persona—in fact, I find it even more important when engaging literary texts with potentially explosive social, cultural, and political issues. Students are given the freedom to explore and to develop their ideas about these topics without censure. My daily classroom management encourages student-centered discussion through a list of discussion topics written on the board. By asking students to choose between these topics, the conversation becomes dictated by their interests. Lecture is limited to providing information about key historical events or literary movements. As I get to know my classes, furthermore, I even begin to tailor the discussion topics. For example, during an invited guest lecture on John Steinbeck, I was told by the primary instructor that several students were interested in Disability Studies. Thus, I geared my topics for Of Mice and Men to that theme—and, later, several students told the instructor how much they enjoyed the free-wheeling discussion. Ultimately, I wish to help my students understand and appreciate literature, letting them develop a sense of their own literary tastes and acquire an intellectual autonomy that extends beyond the classroom, initiating them into a lifetime of enjoyment.
- Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. New York & Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile: Or, On Education. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1979. Print.