In one of the most remarkable books on education I have ever read, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, he presents the image of a teacher who is almost an absent-presence within the education of the student. Among the many takeaways offered by that subtle book, Rousseau’s image of the teacher may be most meaningful for me—only when teaching is invisible can students feel free to explore their own ideas and intuitions without an ever-present watching eye. Such freedom, I feel, becomes ever more important thanks to an ever diversifying student demographic, one possibly unfamiliar with (or even resistant to) institutionally-sanctioned modes of learning, yet nonetheless rich in personal experiences.
The importance of being unobtrusive informs my teaching in composition and literature both. In composition, though exposing students to Standard Written English cannot and should not be ignored, I also find quite wise the remark by composition theorist Peter Elbow that “linguistic and rhetorical virtues grow wild like weeds in our careless [unplanned] speech” (78). By this he means that students often write more elegantly, more powerfully, when permitted to use the language that comes naturally to them. Correspondingly, in order to encourage students to experiment with writing in their own voices, I divide my assignments into “low stakes” writing, graded solely for completion, and “high stakes” writing, usually the major assignments, where a full range of grades is possible. In terms of feedback, in the past I have used a mix of audio feedback or global-level feedback written on a separate sheet of paper; both practices are designed to let students maintain “ownership” of their own writing. These methods not only allow more extensive commentary (I type fast), they also allow me to couch my feedback in a rhetoric designed to allay the natural anxieties of receiving commentary—as if I were addressing a friend or a peer who had asked me for “a second set of eyes.” I then usually have the students reflect in writing on these comments and their own writing process.
Although I tailor my course goals to the particular course (my current institution has a variety of freshman composition classes), I generally emphasize genre analysis, critical thinking, audience awareness, context, and responding to claims. In addition, “invisibility teaching” also suggests a number of student-centered activities which my students generally like—peer review, for example, as well as workshopping, freewriting, or having students annotate a difficult text in small groups. (Such annotation falls under the category of reading instruction, an important part of my pedagogy—better readers make better writers.) Multimodality and New Media also play an important part in my practice. I strive to introduce “public writing” in a variety of modes: wiki entries, blogging, on-line magazine articles, and the like. Ultimately, I want students not only to write but also to think about writing—writing as an art, a honed talent, a skill that takes a lifetime to master, where first one thing may be tried and then another, whatever fulfills the needs of the moment, whatever accomplishes the writer’s long-term rhetorical goals.
Many of the practices successful for me in teaching composition also work when teaching literature. Indeed, the idea of “invisible teaching” becomes even more important when we deal with literary texts that contain potentially explosive social, cultural, and political issues. Typically, early in the semester, I focus on imparting strategies for approaching literary texts. As the semester progresses, the students ideally take over more of the class as they internalize those strategies. They will tackle tough passages in small groups or debate interpretative cruxes in a text among themselves. Overall, though I enjoy highlighting popular culture (or even everyday student life) as a gateway into the more foreign experiences literature has to offer, I also believe that part of encouraging critical thinking is never to let the “teacher” interpretation overwhelm the student interpretation. My favorite types of class discussion, in fact, are those in which I say very little. As students become more comfortable with both me and with their classmates, another tactic I love employing is the “structure-less” discussion. For example, when dealing with a new text, I will write several topics on the board. These topics usually concern the most likely areas of academic debate but, as I get to know my students, I also tailor the topics to individual interests and personalities. One volunteer student will pick a topic, and class discussion proceeds—though we might touch upon several topics over the course of the class, the general flow is always dictated by the students themselves (with perhaps some occasional but inconspicuous nudging from me). We’ll then end the class period, in order to help those taking notes, with students giving brief overviews of major points discussed.
But I try to be aware of the different learning styles of my students in other ways as well—although many students quickly become comfortable speaking in my classes, others either never lose their reticence about expressing themselves before their peers or, for whatever reason, simply feel uncomfortable speaking their ideas at all. Accordingly, I attempt to bolster the self-confidence of all students about their own ideas by requiring written responses, whether through blogging, discussion board posts, or other means. Depending on time constraints or the strength of class discussion, these responses might be distributed—with proper warning, of course—among the class and discussed. The student response to this activity is usually overwhelmingly positive—only their peers comment on such writing, and the commentary is almost always highly encouraging. (My own commentary is generally reserved for the drafts and major papers.) Such a careful balance of active teaching and invisible teaching strikes me, not only as a fine way to meet course objectives, but also as a fine way of addressing our students’ own natural amour de soi.
- 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.