Teaching is a privilege and responsibility I take seriously and enjoy immensely. As a professor I have demonstrated significant flexibility, broad knowledge, and expertise by developing and teaching well over a dozen undergraduate and graduate classes—a brief sampling of which includes teacher-training courses, travel writing, a multimodal capstone combining rhetorical theory with graphic memoirs, and myriad iterations of first year writing. I have also taught, connected with, and learned from an equally wide range of students. I’ve successfully taught students with traumatic brain injuries, students who have experienced homelessness, students who are transgender; students who are parents; students who were homeschooled; students who attended exclusive boarding schools; students from the Diné reservation, from Turkey, Iran, Russia, Korea and Phoenix; students with autism, students with photographic memories, students with addiction issues. I work to ensure that each of my students, from whatever disparate background, feels welcomed, supported, and included in my classes.
One thread that ties my varied teaching experiences together, and which benefits all students, is a profound desire to help students find ways to write from positions of expertise. For example, I’ve often incorporated some form of ethnographic fieldwork into my classes. Students in these courses blend their location-based ethnographic research with textual research to craft writing that relies on their own experience, often in the form of field notes, as a significant form of evidence. Using ethnography as a research method allows students to become experts: regardless of the preparation they enter the course with, their personal experience with their research material helps them develop writing confidence.
In many of my classes, and now throughout the FYC program at NAU, I’ve asked students to share their insights and experiences through “occasional papers,” or “OPs.” Bill Martin’s English Journal article offers OPs as a way of connecting students with one another and with the teacher. I’ve found them invaluable for honing lessons of audience awareness and building community. OPs work like this: Students write a short personal paper in response to some occasion and share it orally with the class. I write and share OPs, too. Unlike most projects, the OP is subject to no editing, revision requirements, or critical feedback: students get a round of applause, a few questions or compliments, and credit for reading. Because students are invited to write and read in a nonstandard dialect or in a language besides English, this inclusive assignment honors students’ voices. Students prepare and share these low-stakes assignments with a certain degree of glee and abandon, and the work shines. When they read OPs aloud, the class is spellbound. OPs are fun, often enlightening, and help students understand one another. They also help ensure that while my students are always writing, they are not always worrying about writing.
Beyond getting students to discover and establish themselves as experts and to develop confidence as writers, I want to help students encounter what they might otherwise not, to deepen their thinking and writing. In travel writing, an online general education course, I’ve done this by requiring students to get offline and go experience a new place. One project requires students to take a walking tour with specific but unexpected directions (e.g., “turn left when you see something blue”) and revise their notes into a meaningful travel story. Travel writing also requires ethnographic research: students conduct interviews, practice participant-observation, and craft field notes. Face-to-face interaction with new people, then, is as integral to the course as shaping writing. I love assignments like this in an online class because while students can take the class from anywhere, and could easily feel isolated, ethnography moves the beyond the virtual and helps students better connect with places and people as they improve their writing skills.
New and future teachers also need to learn to harness a sense of expertise to be successful, so in my teacher-training courses I create regular opportunities for students to learn from and teach one another. As much as possible, I want new teachers to learn answer each other’s questions, to grow to rely on their colleagues and peers in addition to turning to those in positions of authority. In the K-12 teacher training course I taught at URI, I asked future K-12 teachers to create publicly shareable “plagiarism prevention projects” to teach students and one another about various aspects of academic honesty in fun, accessible ways. We shared the projects through Facebook and the projects have been used in undergrad classes at URI and NAU and in high school and middle school classrooms in Arizona, Colorado, and Kansas. That assignment is emblematic of what I see as the best kind: one that allows students to develop and share knowledge in a fun and memorable way.
One of the best compliments I’ve received as a teacher came from a colleague at NAU who mentioned that whenever he walks by my class, he hears us laughing and wants to pop in to see what we’re doing. My classes are interactive and exploratory, and they’re often super fun. I don’t teach the kind of classes where students could fall asleep; they’re too busy moving their desks into different configurations to discuss, write, or draw in small groups; they’re too busy presenting their research, drafts, or self-care/study strategies; they’re too busy doing interactive online Kahoot! quizzes; they’re too busy translating complicated rhetorical concepts and articles from long, maybe boring-to-them articles into rhymes or skits to help one another remember and better understand them. Teaching is, for me, akin to a sport. Before class I practice and prepare, and expect students to practice and prepare; when I’m in the room I’m focused and always on the move, as are they; when I leave the room I’m tired and happy, and hope my students are, too.
Another method of helping students have fun, place themselves in a position of expertise, and push themselves to learn more about writing and/or scholarship emerged in the graphic and embodied rhetorics capstone I taught last spring. I developed “The Awesome Project,” which asked students to write researched rhetorical autoethnographies that incorporated visuals they’d created themselves. From the projects I learned how psychologists interpret drawings children make in therapy and got to see re-imagined drawings. I also learned about the rhetorical function of the design of a student’s childhood home, an analysis that included detailed student-created blueprints—I’m working with that latter paper’s author as she revises it for publication. I design assignments to help students learn, but also to help them teach me and other readers.
Before teaching at the university level, I taught English and language arts at several middle and high schools. I taught in a K-8 school where gangs and gum-chewing were deemed problems of similar stature, at an affluent suburban high school, at a charter school that catered to students who had been expelled from public school. My wide variety of teaching experiences across various ages, abilities, identities, socioeconomic statuses, and institution types has solidified my belief that setting high expectations while providing scaffolded opportunities for creative exploration is critical. While my teaching is always evolving with new technologies, courses, and places, the core beliefs remain: the best teaching results from helping students accomplish more than they think they can, from mixing preparation with spontaneity; from balancing rigor with humor; and from a willingness to connect with and learn from students as individuals and as members of particular communities.