Dr. Candace Epps-Robertson
Both my academic and home communities shape my vision of writing and my practices as a teacher. At home, a real world understanding of the ability of rhetoric to marginalize or empower replaced the formal higher education many of my family members were unable to obtain. As a scholar, my work is driven by an interest in examining how marginalized groups develop counter rhetorical strategies. My home communities, research, and years in the classroom have led me to believe that the teaching of writing should foster practices that encourage students to be critically engaged with the words and images that surround us. My work is supported by a belief that argument is not just verbal combat, but an art that illustrates a deeper understanding of communication. As we seek to have others understand us, we build these connections through persuasion. I see my undergraduate and graduate courses as spaces for students to develop their own rhetorical toolkits—outfitting themselves with a variety of practices that can be melded and adapted to fit their communicative needs in an ever-changing world. Three activities, each necessary components of argument and communication, guide and inform my classroom pedagogy: dialogue, analysis, and writing. These terms may appear to be obvious to any good writing classroom pedagogy, but they represent complex interrelated activities I believe to be necessary for students to be successful critical thinkers and writers.
Dialogue is fundamental to the very existence of humans and in my writing classes it is the foundation of how I both share and create knowledge with my students. As I see it, dialogue is a means by which we can practice listening, responding, and reflection, all activities central to writing and effective communication. The dialogic model provides an opportunity to work through the readings and writing activities of the course with my students as we question and complicate ideas we encounter. Creating opportunities for students to raise questions and hear the perspectives of others is central to learning. Listening to the ideas of others can provide students with more nuanced and complicated understandings of course material. I have found that creating class sessions comprised of questions that draw students into the conversation and encourage them to build from their own experiences is an invaluable method to help them feel they have something to add to the conversation. I value small and large group discussion, writing workshops, and extending conversations outside of the classroom through digital platforms.
In a first-year writing course I developed an inquiry around Cultural Rhetorics and Literacies where students investigated the diversity of America’s language practices as related to constructions of identity. I developed a heuristic to help students enact and imagine conversations among the sources we read. Dividing the class into small groups, I assigned a topic of discussion to each group; for example, one of the cards read, “increase funding for bilingual education” and included some contextual information. Each student in the group had to “play” one of the authors we’d read, showing what kinds of ideas and positions each author might represent given the assigned topic. Students were instructed to be creative with their conversations, but needed to be able to point back to specific places in the readings to support their take on the author’s position. Creating these conversations allowed students to generate new questions as the conversations unfolded and to demonstrate their understandings of the texts they read. The dialogical component of the exercise made connections (and disconnects) between sources come alive for students. Getting students to talk through their ideas helps them to exchange and build knowledge as they complicate their ideas against new ones. The dialogic model also provides students with time to practice questioning, a skill necessary for analysis.
Analysis is a critical step in the development of well-developed arguments. Many of our students are experienced rhetors who enjoy lively debate and argument but struggle with sustained analysis. The continuous bombardment of language, images, and competing discourses in our society does not make persistent focus easy. Helping students develop rigorous analytical practices means that I craft activities that help them interrogate the dynamic ideologies and power structures that operate through language. This does not mean indoctrinating students nor does it mean troubling ideas for naught. As I see it, analysis is not only about debunking but also responsibly creating meaning from the words and images around us. In my classes students learn that analysis is not an end unto itself, but rather a step in the process toward responding to and creating new knowledge. I build courses that allow students time to work closely with texts and images. My writing classes are grounded by rigorous analysis of both text and images, attention to the rhetorical situation, and exploration of the connection between, style and substance.
In my Rhetoric, Argument, and Persuasion course, students are required to develop a blog to scrapbook rhetorical artifacts. We begin the semester by listing and complicating standard definitions of rhetoric. Next, we begin to test these definitions through performing analysis on a variety of texts and images. Students are able to see how definitions of rhetoric are often tied to power; as some definitions recognize or favor certain rhetorical practices over others. Together we work to complicate these definitions and challenge our own conceptions of what “counts” as part of the rhetorical tradition. Throughout the semester students collect images, texts, or objects and use rhetorical analysis methods to analyze the artifacts on their blogs. As students analyze and contextualize their artifacts they are able to better understand how rhetoric is inextricably tied to culture and community. Developing the blog gives students an opportunity to engage with a platform that allows for ideas to be presented and shared with a one another.
It would appear to go without saying that writing should be a component of any composition course and it is best described as a complex process. Like analysis, I believe that writing is not an end, but rather a process through which students learn. My courses include a variety of written assignments and practices, each intended to help students think through ideas and arguments as they develop their own perspectives. Depending on the course, writing projects can range from informal reading journals, lists, annotations, and spontaneous reactionary responses to more formal analysis essays, researched argument papers, and projects that connect written text with digital platforms. The act of revision is one stage where this is fully illuminated. In my classes, students are encouraged to see revision as an integral component of the writing process and I often connect units so that students continuously revise essays given different parameters over the course of two or three units. I have found that asking students to experiment with writing using different mediums often affords them an opportunity to see revision as more than copy editing and reinforces how style and substance are interconnected and very much context driven.
In an Introduction to College Writing course students composed written literacy narratives at the beginning of the semester and revised their literacy narratives into imovies at the end. Students had to decide which components of the written narratives they wanted to include and how they would represent them digitally. They were also required to include readings from the class as a means of putting their experiences into conversation with the “experts.” This assignment was more than recording a story, as students mixed mediums, explored writing in both textual and digital spheres to create something new. The imovie format became a new way for students to present and think through their ideas. In reflection letters on the assignment, many students commented on how this assignment afforded them an opportunity to see technology as more than a tool, but as something that had real implications for how their message would be received.
As a compositionist, I see dialogue, analysis, and writing to be the most basic and formative elements of my pedagogy. These three techniques are also a part of my graduate courses as well. In my graduate course on Composition Studies students can expect to ask lots of questions of themselves, the field, and our texts, and to use writing as a means of creating pathways to answer these questions. The major project for this course is a “pathing” project where students first identify a question, or area of interests and then work to develop their own path into this conversation. For some students this turns into a reading project, for others it becomes a conference proposal. This project allows students to practice the skills necessary for scholarly work and to develop confidence as they begin to see what their own experiences may bring to bear on the issue. I believe that graduate education is not only about developing courses that give students content, but that also help them to develop into a profession.
As a teacher, I strive to develop pedagogical practices that provide students with an opportunity to develop writing and thinking practices that will serve them in the university and beyond, and that honor the knowledge and experiences they enter our classrooms with.