I have been teaching writing and literature at the college level for nearly 20 years. My overall goal for my teaching is to make my role as the authority figure and arbiter of quality unnecessary. Reliance on authority figures for validation, while it’s an established element of our educational system and our culture, is dangerous. I want my students to leave my courses, and their education in general, feeling confident in their voices and abilities, and also aware of the responsibility they have to be active, self-aware participants in their communities, nation, and the world.
I believe that all courses, no matter what information or skills they teach, should:
- Provide students with access to skills and knowledge and the support that they need, no matter their educational background, to engage with those skills and knowledge areas
- Encourage students to examine their own experiences and insights, and help them develop a sense of those experiences and insights as legitimate elements of a larger cultural discourse
- Help students establish ownership of and reasonable confidence in their own skills and knowledge
- Allow students opportunities to practice critical thinking skills and work on writing skills
I try to achieve these goals in a variety of ways in the courses I teach. One of the most important strategies I use is to frame writing guidelines not as rules to be followed, but instead as a series of choices to be made about how to present ideas to a specific audience. This helps students to understand why they get much of the writing advice that they do, which in turn helps them to make their own decisions about what is necessary and what is not when they’re writing independently. When giving feedback in this mode, I reflect back to students how particular choices they’ve made in their writing are coming across to me as their reader, asking questions like “Is this the kind of response you were looking for?” and including notes that help students to understand readers’ likely perceptions: “readers may not see you as having ethos on this topic, so it might be a good idea to establish your authority by citing a source to back up this claim.” That puts the ball back in the writer’s court, and makes clear that it’s their choice about how to proceed in a way that lets them preserve their own voice but also achieve their aims for the piece of writing.
This sense of choice helps students to understand that their voice, as a writer, is legitimate and worth listening to, that their ideas have validity, and that they can be the authority when it comes to their own writing. What they want to say is what’s important in their writing; they should not be writing what they think I, the teacher, want to hear, but rather be expressing their own ideas and taking on the role of the authority. I further this sense of their own ability to act as authorities by helping them see that they can also be authorities on writing, using peer review and other collaborative activities to let them practice exercising their writing evaluation skills.
In my eight years of teaching for an open enrollment institution, I have also internalized how critical it is to accurately assess students’ prior knowledge and skills so that I can tailor the support I give them appropriately. I always hold my students to high standards, but I don’t expect them all to make progress to those standards at exactly the same pace, or with the exact same level of support. Students who are already strong writers will get feedback tailored toward helping them push their arguments toward professional levels, but students who are just learning how to write a thesis will get just as much support as they learn how to develop debatable claims to guide their essays.
The other critical element of appropriate support is listening to students to make sure that I’m not only providing them with the support and feedback that I think they need, but also with the support and feedback that they know they need and want. As a rule, I end all my feedback to students with “if you have questions or concerns, please get in touch so we can talk,” and in cases where students seem to be having particular trouble, I usually follow up by contacting them directly. This has had wonderful results in both my face to face and my online teaching; in my current position, students have told me that my accessibility and genuine desire to help has actually prevented them from dropping the class, and sometimes, even prevented them from giving up on their college work altogether.
In my teaching, my responsibility is to act as a guide and a support, not a dictator. Students should leave my classrooms ready to take on new challenges, and feeling less reliant on me to sanction their confidence in their abilities. I teach to try and give my students access to the same sort of support I was lucky enough to have from my family and my teachers, and my goal is for them to stand on their own just as I learned to do.