When I tell others that I teach writing, they often either comment on how they’ll watch their grammar or they assume I’ve read every piece of great literature. The simplistic view of the field of writing that many hold is in total odds with the beautiful reality: writing studies is as varied as it is rich. And I love covering it all—be it going over business writing expectations, analyzing meaning in viral videos, teaching the traditional essay, finding meaning in popular culture, analyzing technical comics, reading images, analyzing music, studying infographics, dissecting lab reports, or even doing writing mechanics and literature analysis. However, a one-method-fits-all teaching approach to covering everything does not cut it. My teaching strategy is rooted in the same philosophies but my approach can vary by the class, subject, and genre.
Although I use different techniques for teaching composition than I do for teaching professional and scientific communication, combining them into a style that flows between the different topics keeps my persona consistent. This realization took root when I began my first year as a PhD candidate. I had just spent a full calendar year playing the freeway-flying adjunct game, with upwards of a 20-credit hour workload per semester, and I imagined myself as a “seasoned” teacher. I soon realized that basing seasoned teaching’s meaning on quantity or quality leads to heartache because seasoned teaching is embracing an openness to change in both theory and practice. I hunger to learn every effective teaching approach. Despite being open to the ever-evolving teaching approaches in our fields, I fall back on three constants: using music and popular culture as a springboard; combining carnivalesque and jester models with the happenings movement; and incorporating visual literacy (especially multimodal composition via comics).
Music in the Classroom
Complex ideas become approachable through metaphor and music offers a hub of metaphors (as Brock Dethier notes). Melodies and lyrics offer hundreds of possible lessons in relation to writing from composition, rhetoric, and technical to creative, critical, and scientific. Using music in the classroom can range from playing songs with drastic transitions to teach writing transitions, to playing covers or remakes to teach revision, or something as simple as choosing appropriate background music to set the right mood for freewriting.
For example, to teach audience and the rhetorical triangle I’ll play Atmosphere’s “Little Man,” a song that consists of three written letters (one to the artist’s son, one to his dad, and the last to himself) that cover the spectrum of audience expectations. We then tie this into rhetorical audience expectations as a class through analysis and discussion. This activity spans from rhetoric and composition to business and science communication.
Another example is Sufjan Stevens “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” or Brand New’s “Limousine” (the former is a beautiful piece that discusses the life of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. and the latter discusses a crash where a limousine carrying a mom, dad, and little girl was demolished by a drunk driver). Both songs are cryptic and without knowing their backgrounds, students usually can’t piece together their meanings. I have them first guess the meaning. Sometimes students know the background or they figure it out through the internet, and other times I fill them in. I then relate this to them having to be aware of their rhetorical situations and understanding context and audience. This too can be used in any genre of writing studies.
Using music in the classroom is a huge element of my teaching and one that I use whether I’m teaching technical communication, business correspondence, analysis, arguments, reflections, creative writing, literature analysis, science communication, or any other genre. Music often carries a bonus lesson in that it leads to spontaneous analysis. Students feel as if they’re getting a break from work, when in reality they are learning complex rhetorical points. This topsy-turvy approach to teaching leads into my next constant: using happenings pedagogy and taking on the jester role.
Happenings and Becoming a Jester
Geoffrey Sirc’s Happenings pedagogy suggests that much of the creative and intellectual veins in the classroom can emerge from the students themselves. He bases this off the spontaneous art movement of the same name popular in the mid twentieth-century. Similar to a student-centered classroom, this approach accommodates the varying needs of students on a daily basis. In order to rely on students’ abilities to carry part of the discussion—as well as leaving elbowroom for improvisational moments—the instructor has to master class topics.
Even though thorough preparation is required to use this approach, it inevitably leads to a few students who believe this fluid approach is a cover for the instructor being unprepared for class. This isn’t the case of course; instead I’m relying on their discussion to dictate what the class’s needs are. As a backup plan, I always have two or three set activities ready to use on a moment’s notice. In composition courses, these activities may not occur as frequently as in professional communication classrooms due to the structure and expectations. A professional classroom often needs professional examples whereas a composition course can rely more on the spontaneous discussion points generated by students. This is the interplay between expectations and genres that makes up the core of my persona and rhetoric: catering the message to the audience by all available means.
In business and technical communication, I combine my persona of being flexible with the more rigid authority they’re expecting from a professional-centered approach. If the class needs a free-flowing discussion, then I encourage it, but if I sense a need for structure I’ll transition into a pre-planned activity. These activities range from extremely structured (in-class work on grammar expectations of the workplace), slightly structured (an analysis of Craigslist ads and how they can sell themselves or their product more efficiently), to group-oriented (either with a set group working toward an assignment goal or spontaneous groups to fulfill the needs for the day), and creative (musical or multimodal examples). While useful in whatever I’m teaching, the more structured courses thrive on these activities and they improve the student’s confidence in both my authority and in the class’s ethos. Yet the key of using happenings is always being ready to completely change the entire class structure and improvise activities based on the student’s needs and not on my expectations. I have to trust in the students’ abilities to carry their part of the discussion and I find I’m rarely disappointed in their talents.
Part of this fluid approach to teaching means I take on the role of the jester in a sense. As I mentioned in discussing songs in the classroom, students often believe that they’re getting away with something and are more apt to participate; being a jester means relying on this sensation and encouraging it for appropriate ends. The instructor can then tap into student insights that they may have otherwise been reluctant to share. For example, I often engage in small talk with students where we share seemingly random anecdotes and stories. This makes the class relax and many begin to participate that might not have normally. During this process, at the crucial moment I’ll transition into the day’s topic. The transition often happens in a way that students continue their participation and discussion level, not entirely realizing we went from being “off-topic” to discussing class materials.
I don’t mean I’m being dishonest as a jester, but instead that I’m drawing on its historical connotation. This is keeping the class in line by mocking the authority, which in turn makes them more loyal to the topic and to the institution. It establishes a sense of we’re-in-this-togetherness. Just as humor was a key in the jester’s bag of tricks, so is it in my classroom. Keeping a playful tone in the classroom encourages critical thought to emerge. Joking and allowing elements of play theory to occur naturally creates a comfortable atmosphere, which in turn encourages students to participate and share their insight. This same sense of getting-away-with-something that students experience also occurs when I bring visuals and comics into the classroom.
Much of my research revolves around teaching comics as both a form of visual rhetoric and multimodal communication and as a means of textual meaning-making in order to understand how comics can be used as a multimodal byproduct from visual rhetoric theory. Visual rhetoric has been a vital part of professional communication for decades and with the advent of multimodality in composition, the role of visual rhetoric, and in turn comics, has expanded. The kairos of using a visual rhetoric pedagogy that incorporates comics is at a peak in writing studies. In fact, the National Council of English Teachers issued a call to instructors to incorporate multiple communication modes into the classroom including alphabetic and visual meaning-making systems in 2005 (“NCTE” 17). Incorporating both visual rhetoric and alphabetic writing in the classroom can tax an already crowded composition and professional communication field and, as the NCTE warns, the digital divide that creates access concerns for students of varying backgrounds can hurt praxis-based research in the area. All of these can be addressed with comics, a mode of communication that—while being centuries old—is still fresh.
Combining the critical pedagogy movement of Paulo Freire’s theory and Ira Shor’s praxis with the idea of using sequential art as a means of argument, I show the students—with a step-by-step instruction based in Quintilian progymnasmata—that composition should be focused on the message and not on the medium. This can motivate less-interested students into participating more while also introducing new methods of creation for all. The key of using this philosophy isn’t to try and shake their confidence in the importance of the written word, but to expand student’s concepts of what is and what isn’t acceptable means of communication, to have them question why some means of communication are privileged, and to incorporate visual rhetoric into their arguments.
To do this, I have students create a documented essay (in a composition course) or a technical description or instruction (in technical communication) by reading a standard textbook in the first half of the semester. Then I introduce them to comics and technical graphics, beginning with simple, fictional pieces and working up to argumentative comics (like Scott McCloud, Howard Zinn, or Kevin Cannon, Zander Cannon) or technical comics (like the 9/11 Commission Report: A Graphic Adaptation). They adapt either their argument or technical piece—depending on the course—into a graphic-based comics piece. Students learn visual argument, visual rhetoric, adaptation and summarizing skills, rhetorical analysis, and multimodal skills from a technologically simple medium. The response has been nearly completely positive.
It’s important to note that comics are just a catalyst for visual literacy and aren’t a cure-all. In scientific communication and especially business communication the medium wouldn’t be appropriate. However, visual pieces, like comics or infographics (such as David McCandless’ work) teaches ethics, communication skills, and visual rhetoric. These can be used in all subjects.
One lesson I teach from comics is images should reinforce the text’s message, not repeat it. For example, in comics if a panel’s drawing shows a man hitting another man, there shouldn’t be a caption that reads, “the man hit the other man.” This basic rule allows the visuals to speak for themselves. This can be applied to business and scientific writing on multiple levels, such as slide presentations (students usually come to the conclusion that note cards and slides aren’t the same thing), document design, research posters, and personal ethos.
Combining it All
Teaching is a constant adventure in adaptation. I’m constantly looking for—and implementing—methods that not only cater to teaching specific English courses, but how those methods can be incorporated into other courses where the approach isn’t expected. Whether it be something as simple as augmenting my authority to one course while loosening it to a Bakhtin-jester status in another, my end goal is to make sure students learn that written, visual, and aural communication is vital in their lives and not nearly as painful as they might think.