When I teach literature and composition classes my goals are to help students learn to analyze texts, to think critically about what they mean, and then to express that understanding in writing and speech. I want students to think about how we use words to create meaning and how words affect our readers and listeners. I want students to learn the shapes of English sentences, and the ways syntax influences meaning and understanding. These are teachable skills.
I am severely dyslexic and so I understand how difficult it can be to grasp concepts and to retain information when you do not learn through conventional instructional methods. I use audio and visual aids in addition to text in almost any class I teach. My approach towards teaching is very much affected by my own difficulties as a dyslexic writer. I understand the need for under-prepared or otherwise struggling writers and readers to find coping strategies, and am quite willing to say “If I can produce academic prose, so can you.”
I create a community in the classroom because I know that students are typically very good at helping each other learn. I’m likely to call on students, frequently, whether or not they have a hand raised; with care, most students will attempt a response, and, more often than not, a classmate will come to a peer’s rescue. For students who really and truly are not comfortable responding orally, I provide other opportunities for response, including in and out of class writing, quizzes, and online tools like blogs and discussion boards, in addition to office hours.
I tend to follow my syllabus fairly closely, and have specific concepts and goals for each class. While I guide discussion to fit the goals of a particular session, in many cases, I find it effective to allocate time and opportunity for students to determine what they need to discuss and explore in order to for them to understand a text or an idea or solve a shared writing problem. Although I am quite capable of delivering a formal lecture for a large survey course, in smaller classes and in writing classes, I prefer to interact with students and to encourage them to be active participants, in person or online.
My teaching and philosophy are very strongly influenced by a number of mentors. At UNH, my faculty mentors Thomas Carnicelli and Donald Murray concentrated on one-on-one conferences and small group peer review as revision tools. In a few minutes of discussion and modeling of revision, using a student’s own writing, students can very quickly understand how someone else reads their words, learn to spot their own patterns of error, and revise to make their writing more effective. From Richard Lanham at UCLA, I learned not only that rhetoric is an art, but that all prose benefits from close rhetorical analysis, and that revision is teachable.
I use the same classroom techniques teachers have always used: engaging students’ minds and encouraging students to think for themselves by asking provocative questions, and thereby engaging them in thoughtful analysis and discussion between themselves. For me, technology, whether in the form of a blackboard and chalk or a digital whiteboard and projection system, is just another way to encourage students to engage with texts, to think about texts, to write about texts, and to engage with each other and examine their assumptions. I also routinely use the Web and multimedia to supplement lectures and to spur class discussion.
Undergraduates entering college have been using computers at school if not at home. They are surrounded by technology; they swim in a sea of digital text and live much of their lives online. I’m very comfortable with the digital realm as a professional technologist and as a teacher. I believe strongly that writing and reading and thinking critically are more important now than they were in the ages of the pen, the scroll and the book.