[T]he man who wishes to persuade people will not be negligent as to the matter of character; no, on the contrary, he will apply himself above all to establish a most honourable name among his fellow-citizens. (Isocrates, Antidosis, 278).
[NB: Attachments to PDFs are integrated directly into the text, embedded in their own explanations.]
There is a pervasive belief that the scholarly activity most accurately characterizing the work done in the English department is that of the study of the Great Works of literature: Shakespeare, Milton, and Joyce are studied semester after semester, year after year with the goal of training readers to think and write well by exposure to the best writing our histories have to offer. To a certain extent, this is true, but it is not the whole picture. English departments, specifically with branches studying and teaching rhetoric and writing, are more concerned with having students move beyond just interpretation of a static text and toward the study of how texts are composed and why some are effective and some are not. It is from this branch of the English department from which I hail and, as such, I see my goal as a teacher of rhetoric and writing to have students be not passive recipients but critical producers of effective communication.
To achieve this goal, I create courses and projects that allow students the opportunity to create texts, both print and digital, that have immediate import for themselves and the community:
For what, in channeling the spirit of John Dewey, is the purpose of studying document design or paragraph structure if you cannot apply the concepts to real-world scenarios? My style of teaching then could be described best using words not typically heard within the walls of an English department: pragmatic and utilitarian.
To frame each and every course I teach in professional writing, I begin by having students complete an employment package. This “package” encompasses the résumé and cover letter, yes, but it goes beyond that, taking into consideration the workplace standards that are or will be in place when students hit the job market. Students are asked to find a real job ad relevant to their field or industry; students then use this job ad to carefully craft a specific cover letter and résumé tailored for that position:
This way, students learn the important rhetorical concept of adjusting the message for the audience while also learning the technical components of writing workplace documents, from how to create a bulleted list to what font to use in professional correspondence. Yet, if I were to stop there, at the basic two documents, I would be shirking my responsibilities as a teacher of writing who is given the responsibility of preparing students for the workplace, for the NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Higher Education Edition has indicated that social media is an integral part of many learning and workplace environments. The ability to not only craft a résumé but also create an online version
to make students more accessible to a wider variety of employers as well as join and participate in online networking and discussion groups (e.g., Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Monster, to name a few) is an increasingly desirable skill that employers in all industries are looking for.
My project asks students to think beyond just crafting a résumé and cover letter and has them engage in online document creation and networking that will prove just as beneficial in their efforts at becoming employed. Students, whether through impromptu emails,
or from reflective, Blackboard prompts from online sections
have found this project — and the course as a whole — to have immediate, pragmatic in their own lives.
Technology and Writing
To be honest, I hesitate a little bit to even draw a distinction between writing and technology, because, like Dennis Baron, I believe that all writing is and has always been a form of technology. A pencil, like a word processor, is a human technological artifact that facilitates communication. The printing press was no less technological than the internet, and a stone used to carve into walls is no less technological than an iPad. This is how writing is depicted in my classrooms, not only because it reinforces the material, pragmatic nature of communication but also because it facilitates a more critical practice with writing technologies that matter to students. This means not adopting a positivistic view of technology (“Technology is good because it is new and fun.”) but rather adopting a critical view (“What does this technology afford me that the other one did not?”).
As I argued in my published webtext on the teaching of writing (and as you will read more about later on), I believe blogs to be an under-utilized writing tool. Not in the sense that few people use blogs, but in the sense that few people use them to the extent that they are capable. Just as any good technician finds as many uses as possible for an object, say a paperclip or a rope, so too should writing teachers challenge the typical and default uses of a writing tool, particularly digital ones. Blogs fall into this category, and it is my consistent expanding of blog use that characterizes my teaching style when it comes to technology. Not satisfied with the notion that blogs are best used for highly individualized modes of
self “public” expression, I have created multiple projects (four, to be exact) that disrupt the traditional exigence for blog writing.
- Blogging as Social Action (Project Description): In this first-year composition project, students were asked to choose a social issue of importance to them and act upon it. Then, students used a blog to delineate their experience and produce arguments and counterarguments on their topic of choice.
- Blog for a Small Nonprofit (Project Description): In this professional writing project, students were asked to create an online presence for a local nonprofit organization. Operating a service-based project, students gathered information about the organization from the website and used the blog to help promote the organization’s mission by blogging about relevant topics.
- Blogging for Professionalization (Project Description): In this face-to-face and online professional writing project, students were asked to use the WordPress blogging software to create a web space that would serve as a mode of professionalization for their careers. Students chose an industry relevant to them and blogged about current issues in that industry in the attempt of gaining an ethos in the field.
- Tips, Techniques, and Tutorials (Project Description): In this collaborative effort between my face-to-face and online sections of professional writing, students were asked to choose a concept or practice relevant to professional writers and type up a brief tutorial explaining said concept or practice. The goal of this blog (PWs at USF) was to hone the students’ sense of authority by positioning them as experts on a given topic who are simply and accurately communicating a “how-to” to working professionals searching the web in need of assistance (e.g., “How to Insert Graphs into Document,” “How to Merge PDF Files,” and “How to Write a Professional Email Signature”).
As you can see, students have really taken to these endeavors, and the feedback I have received consistently affirms that students are learning to really see the value of expanding the way we think about hitherto simplistic writing technologies:
I find the term “distance education” to be misleading simply because, when done right, an online education can provide opportunities for students to be just as connected as face-to-face student bodies. Naturally, it is the teacher’s responsibility to create just such opportunities. While the content explicated above translates rather organically to both face-to-face and online courses, smaller assignments, such as peer review, can be the most difficult to enact in online environments.
Because students don’t see each other on a regular basis, if at all, it is of utmost importance that students feel as though they are engaging with their classmates. To address this concern, I assign peer review groups using the Blackboard “Groups” feature so that students can provide concrete feedback to their classmates on an assignment. Too often, online students feel disconnected from the educational experience, expecting to not interact with their classmates and just submit some modular work before the Sunday night deadline. To guard against this, teachers must disrupt this pattern by including in the learning experience consistent interactions among students.
Once the groups are assigned, students then email their group members a copy of their draft. Once received, students fill out the peer review forms (two of which are included below) to concretely provide feedback to their group members.
Groups members, throughout the course of this experience, can email, Skype, or use the group interaction features in Blackboard to help with this process. In doing so, students in online sections not only get to see something they are not accustomed to (each others’ work) but they also experience a sense of connectedness and grounding that otherwise would been lacking.
Regardless if a student is a face-to-face first-year composition student sitting ten feet in front of me or an online professional writing student sitting half way across the world, they will leave my class with a set of skills and documents that will allow them the opportunity to succeed in whatever personal, professional, or political goals they see fit. And while students and outsiders are consistently surprised by the level of utility interwoven into each project and course, there is no doubt that the students walking through my doors or logging into my course website are appreciative and find value in the type of written, rhetorical work being asked of them.