I have developed what I call a ‘writers-first’ principle in my approach to teaching.
My experiences as a student of creative writing, inform my teaching practice as a composition instructor. As an active publishing and performing poet, being a writer alongside my students – in any of the classes I teach (basic writing, first-year writing, advanced composition, technical and professional communication, creative writing) – greatly informs my own teaching of writing. While I tailor my approaches to different writing courses, I do uniformly adapt this ‘writers-first’ principle in my teaching, course and assignment design, and assessment practices.
To me, this approach resists a ‘readers-first principle,’ where students are regarded as readers first and then, using texts they have read as models to emulate, writers-second. The writers-first principle is a disposition that asks me to regard students as writers, not as student-writers (and the pejorative baggage the ‘student-’ title may carry), and not as readers-first.
I view students already as practitioners of writing; my goal in teaching, then, is not to impart the wisdom of writing so much as create occasions for students to reflect on their own identities and practices as writers. From this perspective of agency over their own craft, students in my classes explore contexts with an awareness of exigence and audience, are critical of genre conventions, and cognizant of the different rhetorical situations they may encounter.
Viewing students as writers-first insists that their perspectives be valued, and that as writers-first, students are empowered by a platform to communicate within their own academic discourses, and the discourses of their lives beyond the institution.
In the context of courses, students embody the role of writer-first in their responsibility to co-create the curriculum they engage with. I develop assignments and projects that allow students to engage with topics and genres that are meaningful to them, to locate readings that will meaningfully contribute to conversations and ideas they are writing about and rely on groupwork and discussion in-class to solidify classroom community. For example, in a recent first-year writing course I taught, one essay tasked students with self-selecting an opinion article on a topic of their choice to rhetorically analyze and submit a position-statement reflecting on why they chose the text they did, and how that choice weighed on their analysis. To me, this collaboration with students to generate the content of their learning is a key in demonstrating first, that I regard their ideas as worthy of discussion and second, that their ideas are in of themselves meaningful to bring into the classroom setting. Focusing on popular culture as a locus for discussing rhetoric (particularly in basic and first-year writing) is another opportunity to allow students to be writers-first in the co-authorship of their learning experience. Allowing self-selection of texts is a more inclusive practice that also generates opportunities for better reflection on writing-to-transfer. I also believe in creating opportunities for students to participate in the construction of course architecture: activities like collaborative rubric-design, self-assessment, and opportunities to create their own assignments all figure prominently into my teaching. In a recent course, students performed a “peer review” of an assignment text, and collectively rewrote the parameters of the assignment in order to better reflect their values alongside the goals of the project.
Having been forced to teach online as a response to the pandemic (as opposed to online teaching by choice/design) I am less interested in trying to port the classroom experience to online spaces than I am considering affordances of virtual teaching and online learning management platforms’ features as new pedagogical opportunities. In my most recent technical communications course, for example, instead of submitting links to recorded oral presentations, I challenged students to select and master a piece of virtual presentation technology as part of the learning objective for the project. Similarly, in basic writing, instead of letting a discussion forum take the place of conversation in the classroom, students curated virtual shared documents where they could not only dialogue, but also embed hyperlinks, access quick tools like dictionaries, and share recourses like the writing center.
On the first day of a semester, I often begin courses by asking students: “are you a writer?” and with no irony, they all write back: “no.” I am always hopeful to see students meet learning objectives, do well on assignments and projects, do well on their own terms, but, my main goal in teaching writing is that by the end of the term, students perceive themselves the way I perceive them: as writers.
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