(Note: I recently completed a set of materials for an award nomination packet. This post is part of those materials.)
Students and instructors need to share in learning from each other. I think one of the most destructive tendencies an instructor can introduce into the classroom is take on the role of the source of knowledge, expertise, and institutional capital. No only is this counter-productive, in most classrooms, it is also irrational. As a writing instructor, I must acknowledge that the situations and technologies of writing are emerging and shifting faster than I, as an individual, can keep pace. In many cases, students have a much better sense of which writing technologies, social platforms, and specialized professional expectations that I do. As a result, I try to treat my classroom as a space where I can learn from the students at the same time they are learning from me. In the best cases, my students and I identify a question or writing situation for which we have to share the exploration of tools and strategies to meet it. I challenge my students to identify writing locations where they can find conversations and information sources relevant to their own investments and interests. As often as possible, I try to create an environment where students can conceptualized productive ways to participate in those conversations, whether it is offering some of the fruits of their own research or experiences, or learning how to contribute relevant questions with respect and tact. As they share these experiences with me and their fellow students, we are collectively exposed to actual writing instances about which students are genuinely interested.
These sorts of practices also offer opportunities for me to encourage students to understand these challenges in terms of the “work” writing can do. Most students enter into the classroom with a performative sense of writing. Many see writing as the creation of texts in an educational/academic environment for the purpose of demonstrating knowledge or to produce specific genres with which they are often unfamiliar. It’s little wonder that students have a difficult time adopting a perspective of writing as something of practical value outside the boundaries of the institution. These misconceptions are precisely why I try to meet students where they are at with the sorts of writing they are already producing (Facebook, Twitter, email, texting, blogging, journaling, reflection, reviewing, commenting, forwarding, etc.). These types of writing offer rich sites of composition around which students can learn to identify that they already know and employ about traditional writing concepts such as audience, purpose, circulation, ethos, pathos, logos, etc.
This sort of approach allows me to negotiate a balance between putting students in challenging situations, providing some of the resources to meet those challenges, and making space for students to develop their own approaches to those challenges.