Teaching Tips: Our Students Are Our Audience

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“They don’t give a F*&k.  They’re too tired from being hung-over and the only reason they’re showing up is to earn attendance points.”

This was the commentary of my best friend, a high school teacher, on the topic of what makes class interesting for college students.  I don’t teach with this assumption in mind, nor do I feel like it was my experience while attending college (at an urban university much like Wayne State).  But my friend’s cynicism does shed some light on an important question related to pedagogy in the college classroom environment: what kind of audience are we (college instructors) performing for?

I think this question is an even more complex one when applied to teaching Gen Ed courses, and since I teach writing (or composition for the sake of making myself feel more important), I’ll take my question in that direction.  One of the most difficult tasks associated with teaching college writing courses is finding some sort of “middle ground.”  The majority of students come into our classes seeing it mostly as a means to an end.  But to them, I imagine, the “end” seems very externally-determined.  What I mean by this is that, when they enter an intro to Fiction and Drama course, they expect to read short stories and plays.  They expect to read Shakespeare, they expect to read Hemingway; when the curriculum goes too far astray from that, they can conclude that the instructor has sort of put his or her own personal agenda or pet interest above the curriculum.  But what should they expect to do in a writing course?

The first part of the journey towards a better understanding of College Writing students as an audience could be asking ourselves the question: “What does our audience even know about what we’re going to be talking about?”  This is one of the questions that I think is easy to overlook when we design our syllabi and course schedule.  Students come into our classes with a large number of assumptions about what “writing” is.  They might think that writing well means good grammar.  They might think that writing well means having a thesis statement that’s clear, and body paragraphs that support the thesis.  They might think that writing is about finding the best quotes you can find in order to support your point.  They are somewhat correct in all of these assumptions, and yet they are not even close to understanding the additional complexities that writing entails.  Simply put, though they might wish Shakespeare would just “speak regular English”, and while they might think that there must be an easier formula than E=MC^2, they know that the standard has been set.  They might even find Shakespeare and Einstein, despite their seemingly unanimous brilliance, to be boring as hell.  But at least they know the formula for the course: sit through the lectures, read enough of the material to get full credit for participation, understand Shakespeare or Einstein enough to get “Cs” on the essays or quizzes (or a better grade if the aspirations are such), and get a passing grade in the class.

So far I feel like I’ve made almost no progress in answering the question about what I should expect students to know, and yet I am challenged with the task of designing a “road map” for what they need to know by the end of the semester. As I think about this, and I think about the relatively safe assumptions students can make about the aforementioned courses, I can imagine that there’s more distrust when it comes to embracing the curriculum a Writing instructor lays out.  Here at Wayne State, for example, we might really value the Analysis assignment.  But what do we want students to analyze, and why? If we should choose video game analysis, why would we want them to analyze video games?  In all of our writing courses—at least the Gen Ed ones—students are expected to write essays starting at 3-4 pages in English 1020.  Why do these “essays” have to be so different from the “plug” (a quotation) and “chug” variety they were able to get an A on in their Senior English Class (you know, the 10-20 page “papers”) they all tell us they write?  And why might this “Writing” teacher be telling me to create a video or a podcast?  That’s not writing.

These are the types of questions and assumptions that, as I type them out, sound very logical to me.  I don’t know if all or even most of my students have serious thoughts about why we write a Summary, Response, Media Analysis and Reflective Argument Essay in English 1010.  But when I think about these potential questions, I can start to develop a semester that puts the assignments into a sort of context for the students.  And I’m not just trying to answer the age old student question of “how am I ever going to use this”?  I’m trying to build my semester’s activities with a sort of “duality” in mind: yes there are things that I really believe students should understand about writing, but I will most definitely expect to do some explaining when I give them assignments.  I’ll call this step one in the effort to understand writing students as an audience:

  1. Expect to do some explaining.

What does this mean in practice?  To me, it means starting off every assignment sheet with a “rationale”, which not only describes the assignment’s purpose, but also provides an analogy for the task I am asking them to perform.  In my Summary Assignment sheet, for example, I compare writing a summary of an article to deciding on which frames from a movie will be fused together to form the “Trailer.”  I point out that summarizing an article is equivalent to the movie producer or promoters communicating to viewers: “These clips=the movie.”

  1. Students will mostly not find cool, hip or valuable what we find cool, hip, and valuable.

The first thing I think it’s important to assume with respect to this rule is that students do not think professors are cool or hip.  I’m sorry to burst the bubble that has been inflated by aloof, pipe-smoking, perfect right-angle bearded, tweed jacket or chic skirt-wearing, retro Hollywood caricatures of “professors.”  If students presume some sort of coolness on us, it’s safe to say that these presumptions are misguided.  How many of our students are all eyes and ears when we talk to them about an amazing segment we heard on NPR?  How many of our students get their coffee from stainless steel thermos instead of from the loving hands of a barista?  How many students enjoyed the movie “The Matrix” for its commentary on the oppressive social bureaucracy, as opposed to for its cutting edge fight scenes?  How many students even think the Daily Show is an indispensable counterweight to the dog-and-pony, talking-head echo chambers of mainstream news? Many of us professors enjoy these things because we have been a part of valued family or friend groups who have turned us on to them.

If we think a John Stewart segment or a clip from the Matrix or a discussion of fair-trade coffee helps our students understand something about writing or a writing assignment, we should situate these items into our lessons.  But when we start to appropriate cultural products or phenomena that we think our students should think are important, there is a danger of “missing” them—of teaching from our values, interests, and preferences, as opposed to teaching to our students’ needs and knowledge funds.

  1. We do need to be entertainers (sometimes).

Because of some of what I talked about in #2 (students don’t necessarily get the same entertainment value out of things we do), this rule becomes quite tricky to follow.  I know there are some English Majors out there who can cut it up on the dance floor (I don’t know this for a fact, because I’ve never actually seen someone whom I knew was an English Major stealing the show with dance moves, but I know it’s possible), but for the sake of this rule, let’s assume that many of you are like me, wallflowers by nature.  Now, the fact that we can’t or are reluctant to dance doesn’t mean we’re not lively, life-of-the-party personalities, but if we do happen to get more excited about what’s happening in a great novel than what’s happening at the club, we’re probably also less likely to feel like “entertaining” is part of our job description.  To be entertainers, then, we have to step outside of our comfort zones—outside of the book skin that protects us from the more mundane aspects of being social creatures.

Because of rule 2, the good news is that we don’t have to worry about bursting the bubble of “coolness” we wrongfully assume students ascribe to our professor status.  In order to entertain, we have to let our guards down a little bit.   For me, this has meant being willing to share with my students some of the things about myself that I don’t think I would have considered “cool” if my professors would have shared with me.  I believe I have had a fair amount of success at beginning units or individual lesson plans with somewhat embarrassing stories about myself.  When a majority of students completely miss the boat on an assignment which I thought was clear-as-day, I bring out the story of a time when I was asked to sweep up dry-wall debris from my grandmother’s basement.  An hour into the clean-up, my uncle came down to check on my progress and could barely rein in his laughter until he got upstairs to tell my dad how amazing it was that I could have accomplished so little in such a time span. The story might actually make me look cool if I would have had the excuse that I was texting or just rebelling against the work, but the truth is that I had earnestly did what I thought I was asked to do, and I had failed miserably.  I use this story to talk about how “messing up” is not always something to be ashamed of.  If my uncle and father had explained the task to me a little more clearly, maybe I would have come a little closer to their “mark.”  I tell students that even though I thought I did a fine enough job of explaining my expectations, it’s clear that they need another chance.  They still messed up, but I share some responsibility.

What stories like this do is humanize our teacherly persona.  Students often find them engaging, I think, because they are so far off-topic (at least seemingly).  The entertainment or human-interest value creates a type of connection—it breaks down a sort of teacher-student wall that otherwise might not be approached.  As long as you have some moderately-relevant embarrassing life experiences to share, you have the material you need for this type of “edutainment.”  Below is a short list of some of the other rabbits I’ve pulled out my hat for the sake of being what Bob Dylan once humorously labeled himself as: “… more of a ‘Song and Dance man’.”

  • I perform some dance moves that I learned from an internet video on simple dance moves (which I also show students) to introduce the idea that writing means learning specific “moves” with language. (I also give students the opportunity to dance for extra credit).
  • I bring in my guitar to play songs that would be much better simply streamed on YouTube—songs that relate to something from a particular unit.
  • I use the “Rap Battles” from the movie “8 mile” to teach the Response Essay.
  • Let me know what other gratuitous (though they may not be!) entertainment exercises you utilize in your class…
  1. We need to balance entertainment with boredom and activity.

I remember the first faculty day I had to attend at the beginning of my teaching career at Jackson Community College.  A professor from Eastern Michigan University gave a convincing presentation on how “different” the digital-native students who walk through our classroom doors are.  They parallel-think.  They see their mobile devices as parts of their identity.  They process information differently.  They have shorter attention spans.  Her message was that we need to be ready to cater our teaching to the sea-change of consciousness that 21st century students manifest.  She’s probably right.  But even though education, as a field, moves incredibly slowly in response to social, political, and psychological changes, the idea that some of our tried-and-true methods of learning should be tossed into the ocean with typewriters and cursive handwriting is over-zealous.

Again, because of previous rules (see rules 2 and 3), students don’t need us to be “the change they see in the world.”  There may come a time when today’s actors, comedians and Silicon Valley Techies are tomorrow’s educators.  But until that day gets nearer (not even Bill Gates wants to teach at his own schools), we can keep on keeping on with some of the standard practices that seem to work well for us.  Sure, students can find a video on YouTube that walks them through the construction of a thesis statement.  But I still feel like a 15-minute boring old lecture on what a thesis statement does for an essay, and how a thesis statement, as a claim, is inherent in the way we think, provides students with some context that they might only get from the web after spending an hour or more sifting through self-recorded YouTube videos.  I know that a lot of composition theorists—many, like Peter Elbow, whose work I greatly admire—and teachers firmly believe that the only way students can get better at writing is to put themselves in front of that monitor and “go.”  And while I support the idea that students need a chance to simply write poorly and make mistakes before they can fully internalize and learn from these mistakes, isn’t it possible that a plain, dry class discussion of an example essay in that genre of writing could save students from some pitfalls when they actually begin drafting?

Outlines, example discussions, reading questions, quizzes, thesis workshops, short lectures on citing sources… let them back into your pedagogy.  Some students will find these to be the missing links to their writing development.  Other students might simply appreciate not having to google them.

  1. We need to *show* them that we give a damn

This is where I finally come back to the remark of my high school teacher friend, whose cynical remark began what has turned out into a long essay.  If he’s right that students, on the whole, come trudging, half-inebriated, into our classrooms, then should we meet that lethargy with indifference?  My answer is no. But I sometimes feel that assuming that students don’t give a s&*t re-invigorates my commitment to being a thoughtful, passionate instructor.

As writing instructors, we’re uniquely positioned to show students just how much we love teaching them and how passionate we are about their development.  We have smaller class sizes (even though 2 or 3 classes of 20+ essays does create a pretty formidable reading list for a semester), allowing us to memorize names and even some personal interests of our students.  Because “writing” and “rhetoric” are still often perceived as off-shoots of a real subject (“English”), we also have a fair amount of flexibility in terms of what we allow students to write about.  We can use this flexibility to our advantage in helping students pursue writing topics that are in line with their interests.

But more than anything else, because part of our responsibility is to provide written feedback on our students’ work, we have a direct line of communication with our students that many courses don’t (or choose to avoid).  Students want to know how they did on their biology test?  Scantron will tell them.  Students want to know how they did on their analysis of Hills Like White Elephants? Their English professor will brand that “C+” in hot red ink onto the end of the final page, and offer a two sentence defense of the grade in handwriting as large as they can make it.  In writing, we can talk our students through the process.  We look at their drafts.  We use Microsoft Word’s comment features (or GooglePages for you cutting edge educators) to create a little bit of a conversation as we go through their work.  We let them know that we are listening, and that we have some ideas of what we think they can do to become better—not only for our course, but for the sake of their future writing.  We might even set up times to have 10-or 15-minute conferences with them.  As writing instructors, we have ample opportunities to show our students we care about their development as thinkers, and even as people.  When we know their names, when we encourage them to pursue topics they seem interested in, and when we show them that we’re listening, it’s likely that they will feel valued in our class, and while there’s no scientific data to support this (at least not any I’m going to take the time to look for), I think it’s pretty safe to hypothesize that their feeling valued will result in their valuing our class.

Of course there’s the outside chance that my quick-quipping high school friend is 100% correct in his assessment of students’ apathy.  But in rhetoric, where there are no real absolute truths, it’s up to those of us who believe in what we’re doing to write a different, more rose-colored narrative.  Our students are listening… even if only between checking in on their twitter feeds, texts, Instagram, and Facebook updates.

Ryan Flaherty is a lecturer at Wayne State University.  He teaches Basic Writing as well as Intermediate Composition and has authored a large portion of the program’s textbook for Introduction to College Writing. Currently, he is helping to revise the Community Writing Program at WSU and will be teaching “ENG 3020: Community and Writing” in Fall 2016. 

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