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Teaching Philosophy

Matthew A. Vetter -Ph.D. candidate


Assistant Director of Composition Department of English, Ohio University 343 Ellis Hall, Athens, Ohio mv115510@ohio.edu - mattvetter.net

Articulating a teaching philosophy is a risky endeavor. Risky because the act of writing such a document, and the textual product that emerges in that act, assume a kind of endpoint, a destination or terminal arrival. In articulating a teaching philosophy, we risk fooling ourselves into believing we have arrived as teachers, that our pedagogies are sufficient or even complete. Yet teaching, like writing, is an ongoing process, one that is best practiced with continuous trial and feedback, reanalysis and innovation. The work I do in the classroom, then, can only be explained alongside an understanding of pedagogy as something that evolves as it is informed by experience, scholarship, and the cultural backgrounds and academic needs of my students. In his often-cited essay Teaching Writing as a Process Not Product, Donald Murray argues that Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness. Murrays advice, which echoed contemporary pedagogical recommendations of countless others in Rhetoric & Composition, figures strongly into the teaching methods of most writing teachers today, including my own. But if we revise Murray slightly, we can begin to see how such recommendations should affect the ways we imagine our teaching philosophies as well. Instead of teaching finished pedagogies, we should recognize that pedagogies are always unfinished. And yes, we should glory in that unfinishedness. Research into writing and the teaching of writing didnt stop with the process movement and neither should our pedagogies. My own teaching continues to be informed by ongoing research (both others and my own). Central to such research, and central to my pedagogical methods, are four ideas about (teaching) writing. 1)That increased writing ability can be achieved through the teaching of metacognitive and conceptual knowledge about writing. 2) That writing is a social practice and is best understood within specific rhetorical, social, and material contexts. 3) That students are motivated writers and learners when they are writing for specific audiences and purposes both within and beyond traditional academic contexts. 4) That technology is a major factor in the production and transmission of writing and that students need to practice writing in a variety of electronic media. To make the assertion that increased writing ability can be brought about by the teaching of metacognitive knowledge is also to recognize that the teaching of composition goes beyond local or domain-specific knowledge of particular skills and conventions. Metacognitve thinking entails learning about the specific processes and dynamics of writing in order to make them more accessible and transferable to the writer (Beaufort). For instance, when writers in my class begin to learn more about their own writing processes, as well as the processes of highly-skilled writers, they can then transfer this knowledge to new writing situations beyond the course assignments. Directing students to reflect on their own work, and their struggles in meeting the course outcomes, are major components of the courses I teach. My students typically write a reflective essay to accompany every major assignment. But students can also learn general-knowledge

concepts they can transfer to new writing situations. Students in my current junior composition course, for example, are learning to think about genres as more than just textual categories. We're reading articles on genre theory that recognize a more complex view. As part of this process, we're thinking about genres as dynamic structural entities that emerge in recurring situations and accomplish specific social actions (Miller, Berkenkotter & Hucken). When my students leave the class, they'll take this conceptual knowledge about genre with them so they may better understand how genres both inform the production of texts and help create the socio-material circumstances of our every day lives. Thinking about genre in this way reflects a general socio-cognitive approach to understanding writing, which has become a major influence on my teaching practices and curriculum design. In this view, now pervasive in current best practices across the discipline, the effective composition of a given text relies on the writers understanding of the rhetorical situation as well as the realization that conventions and matters of correctness are dependent upon specific social contexts. Good writing, I tell my students, can never be consistent across social contexts. I enact social theories of writing in the classroom through a variety of methods, but perhaps most explicitly through the assignment of ethnographic research. Because ethnography allows the study of social groups, students can gain insight into writing by examining how conventions, social structures, norms, and ideologies of a certain group influence the production and interpretation of texts (Brodkey). In a course Im currently teaching, Writing, Reading, and Rhetoric in the Professions, I'm asking students to conduct primary research into their chosen profession to more effectively learn how understanding a community can help them understand how to write in that community. Understanding that writers need context-specific knowledge to be successful has also led me to the realization that students are more motivated when they are accomplishing genuine rhetorical objectives for specific audiences. In particular, Ive found that students benefit from working on project-based assignments that engage them with public audiences and purposes outside of the classroom. While this kind of pedagogy is typically shuffled under the umbrella of service or client-based learning, Im interested in challenging those reductive notions and creating situations where students go beyond serving a client to become self-motivated by a particular goal. To put some of these ideas in practice, Ive partnered with the Wikipedia U.S. Education Program to design course assignments that ask students to edit Wikipedia articles. Not only are students more motivated by the public nature of this kind of writing, they can also experience firsthand the social-collaborative process of knowledge construction. I've also worked to share research about the benefits of this type of pedagogy in my own scholarship, as well as through workshops, presentations, and interviews. My experiences using Wikipedia to teach writing also demonstrate my commitment to teaching with and about (writing) technologies. In the humanities, we often forget that writing itself is a technology, a material tool used to accomplish specific aims. Its also easy to forget that texts are always shaped and constrained by the media and technology they are filtered through. In light of these issues, one of my goals as a teacher is to promote awareness of how technologies alter writing and writing situations, and to give students opportunities to practice writing with different technologies. Im met this objective in a variety of ways: by encouraging students to create blogs for informal class writing and to utilize different media to create digital multimodal projects, to assigning digital portfolios in which they showcase their work for broader, more public, audiences. While working with technology can be a challenge, it can also enrich our pedagogies. It

requires us to imagine our classrooms as places where both students and instructor commit to the often daunting task of learning something completely new and foreign. Challenging students to practice metacognition, directing them to consider the social dynamics of writing situations by engaging them in highly contextualized writing tasks, and encouraging them to work with diverse technologiesall are representative of the current methods I have adopted to translate experience, research, and theory into specific pedagogical objectives. Yet I also recognize that my success as a teacher depends on my continued engagement with these activities. The moment I perfect my teaching philosophy is also the moment it becomes ineffective, unresponsive to advances in the field and out-of-touch with the ever-changing needs of my students. I leave this philosophy, accordingly, gloriously unfinished.

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