Rachel N. Spear, Ph. D.
Some pedagogical practices crush the soul…Others allow the spirit
to come home: to self, to community, and to the revelations of reality.
- Mary Rose O’Reilley
The above is one of my favorite quotes within educational theory. I have read a variety of scholars, from Freire to hooks to O’Reilley, and each one has played a role in my attempts to define my own teaching methods. I do believe in constructing classrooms based on Freire’s mutual trust, hooks’s engaged pedagogy, and O’Reilley’s radical presence. But abstract theories alone fall short, and I turn to the below philosophy to better explain who I am beyond these theories—as both a teacher and person.
As an instructor of both composition and literature, I view learning as individual and communal processes that incorporate interdisciplinary links and transcend classroom walls. This statement highlights that in both writing and literature courses, I work towards exploring culture and expression by selecting readings (primary and supplemental) and assignments that invite students to think past the course enrolled, insisting that they become proactive in strengthening their engagement with material explored. I implement this goal namely by thematically focusing courses around diversity issues, identity formations, and writing processes, allowing us to engage with race, gender, and class issues while critically analyzing the material, reflecting upon our own perspectives, and interrogating our knowns in efforts to promote social consciousness and self-awareness. Classes often engage with themes through active reading, writing assignments, and group projects in efforts to challenge students’ critical and creative thinking and to assist with in-class discussions.
Collaboration and Community Experiences Enhance Learning.
Directly connected to the above is my view that classes should become open communities; I encourage communal bonds within the classroom and the community at large by incorporating group assignments, peer reviews, and even service-learning components in hopes that students will work collaboratively, teach each other while also teaching themselves, and strengthen their civic engagement through readings, discussions, and applied learning. One assignment that has proven to be successful in an introduction to literature class is a group project that asks students to develop questions in relation to the assigned readings, oversee the online journal for that week, and lead the start of class at the end of the week incorporating their peers’ responses. An effective composition assignment that focuses on community is where students are asked to investigate unfamiliar discourse communities, engaging in several kinds of field research. In both assignments, students have to understand, collect, and analyze information obtained from others while simultaneously interrogating their assumptions to produce a cohesive interpretation and argument that cultivates learning. Furthermore, these multimodal assignments also require students to develop oral communication skills and serve as a means to enhance their written arguments, through synthesis of sources and selection of supporting evidence.
Learning is an Individual and Communal Journey.
I am conscious of my efforts to create an environment where students know each other and feel comfortable sharing their opinions and confusions. Such atmospheres encourage students to be respectful and accepting of others’ backgrounds and experiences, not only with their readings and peers but also in the world around them. Furthermore, I make it obvious that I want to know each of them as a student who has a life outside of my class by inquiring about their majors, encouraging them to cross-disciplines when appropriate, and arriving before class to converse about their concerns with the readings/assignments. I also emphasize proactive learning, stressing that they are their best resource. In addition, during class, I am not afraid to make my shortcomings known, allowing students to recognize that I do not have all the answers in hopes that they become comfortable in their “unknowns” and begin to view all learning as never-ending journeys. These factors work together to encourage students to become self-sufficient learners within larger contexts.
Developing Voice is Rhetorical, Creative, and Personal.
The notion of authorial voice is important to me, as it intertwines identity and creative and critical thinking. Students should be able to analyze rhetorical situations, including writing tasks, negotiating among writing styles, tones, and genres appropriately. To accomplish this and assist students in writing sound arguments, I implement multiple (formal and informal) assignments that require students to examine contexts, consider audience and purpose, allowing them to hone writing skills by analyzing how audience alters form and content. Such engagement is grounded in academic writing, but it is not devoid of the personal. Moreover, I invite personal stories when appropriate and when related to larger cultural matters, as the personal may become catalysts for learning. Through such, students’ confidence and ownership in their writing increases.
Writing is a Process and Can Always Be Improved.
No class is detached from writing; this principle is an integral part of my pedagogy. I assign formal and informal writing assignments in both literature and composition courses, and I incorporate revisions and self-reflections with major assignments. I also work with students based on individual needs and writing styles, incorporating stages, offering feedback, and encouraging them to utilize campus resources and office hours. Also, when working with a new genre in composition classrooms, I often intertwine smaller assignments in preparation for larger ones. For example, before students turn in a four-page profile on someone whom they interviewed in the community, I use one class, pair students up, have them interview each other, and turn in a one-page write-up. Such smaller assignments work towards developing a sense of classroom community while simultaneously increasing students’ confidence and competence levels, as we are then able to discuss common errors, interviewing techniques, and even possible successes and fears before their larger essay.
Materials and Discussions May Be Challenging and Uncomfortable.
I find it important, if not essential, to integrate challenging material and often theory, never lowering my expectations, which in turn, increases theirs. My demanding syllabi are often coupled with discussion-based lectures, requiring students to make connections among the course reading and larger objectives on the spot. These discussions are not the only impetus, as students must be able to convey their ideas in polished papers and formal presentations. Also, discussions and topics may (seemingly) be uncomfortable and difficult, but such material and spaces become opportunities for learning, for transformation, and for social awareness.
Courses Lead to Ever-Developing Compassion, Critical Analyses, and Creative Thinking.
I note that my students do commonly bond with each other, wanting to discuss readings and wanting to listen to their peers’ ideas and applicable stories. Students do not always agree, but they engage in effective and intellectual dialogues, showing me they are not only reading but also caring and respecting each other while entering larger conversations with critical engagement. Their investment and intrinsic motivation strengthen their critical analyses, rhetorical thinking, and writing skills; furthermore, conversations often trigger new perspectives and creative thinking. My methods seem intuitive simply because we should aim to develop critical and creative thinking skills while simultaneously working to understand ourselves and others better. The field of language arts, through the lens of the personal and cultural, is an ideal vehicle to do such. Like my students, I, too, am ever-developing in conjunction with my experiences, conversations, and readings both inside and outside classroom settings, and I know I will continue to challenge my comfort zones, searching for new ways to improve my syllabi and teaching methods while embracing interdisciplinary links.
Teaching Is My Calling, Not Just a Career.
My diversity lends itself to colleges and programs that uphold missions of education across disciplines, that foster holistic learning and civic engagement, and that aim to enhance creative and critical thinking. I seek to secure a position at an institution that is both student-centered and teaching-focused, where I can grow and develop with encouraging colleagues. Also, I would happily welcome coordination duties or a dual position.