During my first semester teaching freshman composition, I designed a writing assignment that encouraged students to experience a feeling of publicness. I asked students to engage with audiences immediately around them and illustrate, through creative genres, a problem affecting a community to which they belong. Students’ initial interest in the opportunity to write about a topic of choice devolved into unsettling anxieties at our first in-class peer review. One student worried that her board game about campus trans experience would lead to uncomfortable interactions with dorm peers, another encountered racial tension on Twitter when visualizing locations of debate during campus protests, and another student shared frustration after exhausting all avenues for publicizing an environmental campaign within local restaurants. While they didn’t know it at the time, students were experiencing what I believe to be the nature of writing—writing is precarious, unwieldy, vulnerable, and full of mistake-making. However, these first experiences as a writing teacher made it glaringly clear to me that my composition classrooms needed to shift students’ orientation to what failure signals in writing if they are to feel comfortable writing in public.
My writing classrooms push students to the point of glitching in order to develop rhetorical flexibility and an awareness of their broader context, situation, and audience. Similar to its application in electronic contexts, glitching here signals a minor malfunction when composing, a snag in the process, or a temporary setback that encourages students to pause, ask “what’s not working,” and consider how their current rhetorical strategies clash with the larger situation. Finding out how an argument doesn’t work is at the heart of learning how to write. However, I don’t just want to help students accept that they’ll face mistakes and failure in writing; I want students to plunge into failure. To make room for that, I prompt students with writing activities that intentionally shift attention toward the glitches, encouraging students to reflect on how the moving parts of their argument don’t fit in order to pave a new path in writing. I include writing assignments such as Jody Shipka’s “Statement of Goals and Choices” in order to assess students’ abilities to work through the drafting stages when their existing paradigms for analyzing and building arguments fail them. In journaling activities and writers’ workshops focused explicitly on glitches, students shake the fear of failure and begin to approach a roadblock or less successful part of an argument not as a stopping point but an opportunity for meaningful revision.
Confronting failure is critical for helping students witness how writing and rhetoric have real consequences in the world, which is why I design writing assignments that ask students to engage with public, personal, and professional communities immediately around them. During an intermediate writing class on the topic of community and responsibility, students observed a public problem of their choice and specifically investigated its audiences and the ways information circulates about this problem within various communities. Engaging with local and immediate audiences such as student organizations, Madison middle schools and businesses, and university archives, students experimented with research skills in interviewing, observation, and analysis. After investigating various contributors to the problem, they collaborated in groups to offer a solution to a specific audience through professional, academic, and other writing genres. Ultimately, they posed complex arguments on topics such as campus sexual assault, eating disorders among male athletes, homelessness in Madison, and the Midwestern emerald ash borer crisis. When one group crafting body image workshops for middle school young women struggled to negotiate workshop content with the local teacher, they attended to this glitch through reflective writing exercises in order to juggle multiple perspectives and manage the writing process. In the process, they produced rich accounts of their rhetorical situations, demonstrating knowledge of the actors, materials, contexts, audiences, infrastructures, and ideologies that foreclose, support, and even catalyze writing. By participating with authentic audiences and exercising rhetoric as a mediating tool of communication applied to problems in which they were already invested, students developed the capacity to see writing as a messy but effective tool used for engagement with, participation in, and change for the world.
Focusing writing classrooms on public and civic writing fosters student encounters with the ways writing and rhetoric are deployed for exclusionary and even hostile purposes—a difficult but inevitable reality that writing instructors have a responsibility to acknowledge. Because my classes often draw from current events and material central to students’ outside lives to unpack course concepts, these conversations can sometimes feel tense, pressured, and sticky. I use policies and framing tools in the syllabus, on the first day of class, and throughout the semester that prioritize inclusivity and require mindfulness and respect during discussion. In addition, I guide my students to implement rhetorical analysis when navigating charged material to consider how factors of agency, judgment, privilege, and power shape any rhetorical situation. I have shared these strategies in a graduate proseminar on the teaching of writing I co-taught while serving as an Assistant Director for a large first-year writing course. In this experience, I designed and led a series of professional development conversations around disability in which instructors considered how their participation requirements, activity lessons, or assignment design prioritized a particular kind of rhetorical or literate style, making learning inaccessible to some students with un/documented disabilities. Students enter writing classrooms from a range of backgrounds and with myriad learning needs, and these intentional pedagogical approaches prioritize inclusivity and extend insights central to our discipline to serve all students.
I have expanded my commitment to helping prepare students for the writing demands they may encounter in their future by serving as a UW-Madison Writing Center instructor for the past six semesters. In one of my roles, I teach a workshop on professional email communication to students ranging from first year undergraduates to advanced graduate students preparing for the job market. Echoing my philosophy of glitching, I ask participants during the opening activity to analyze a series of “bad” examples, discussing with others what makes a sample email exchange clunky, indiscernible, and even offensive. Examining these scenarios builds comradery in the group, bringing light to a topic that can often feel pressured due to high stakes outcomes. Having focused their attention to audience and the power dynamics central to this form of communication, participants then begin to successfully revise these scenarios and generate a set of key strategies they can use in email. In these and other writing center experiences, writers engage the same beliefs that ground my writing classrooms—deep inquiry and questioning, meaningful revision, and carefully crafted arguments articulated to specific audiences—cultivating some of the most important and transferable skills any writer can learn.
I began teaching as a high school English teacher, and in my earliest experiences, I witnessed challenging instructional contexts that trained me to draw from realistic writing situations relevant to students’ own lives in order to motivate learning. Whether I’m working with freshmen or graduate students, I structure student learning experiences with this key philosophy in mind. Engaging with writing in real world contexts can feel unstable. Executing the proper voice catered toward an audience is situational and can feel volatile. However, our voices—our abilities to respond with writing—are often our most viable tools for such engagement. My classrooms aim to be a place that inspire students to write passionately about problems they see in the world, cultivate a unique sense of voice, and most importantly, feel supported holistically as people yearning to use language to compel rhetorical action.