Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Philosophical Journey as a Teacher of Composition

Teaching composition is a really big responsibility. Composition instructors make first contact with students who are new to college, new to writing and new to critical thinking. Many times I feel, as I’m sure all of us teachers feel, that I’m not only teaching my students how to write essays, but I’m also teaching them how to be college students.

When I first started teaching, I only wanted to teach my students about how literature could be a meaningful force in their lives. I saw myself as sort of a gatekeeper of a traditional form of literacy that I saw being devalued among members of my generation (I am, after all, a millennial, just like my students). I have always been a very traditional learner (see my learning styles graph at the top of the page). I can listen to a lecture for hours (I even like traffic school). While I was in graduate school, I was adamant about teaching books that I found valuable and teaching primarily literature in all of my freshman composition classes. I admit that I was college teacher who really only knew how to teach my subject of study. After all, I was only 24 years old and I didn’t have a degree in Education, or in RCTE. I was a student of Literature (with a capital “L”) and that is what I was going to teach. So, I did. I read Hawthorne with my students and I lectured about psychoanalysis and postmodernism, and I think they learned something, but I don’t think it was always “composition.”

Nevertheless, every semester, more of what I learned from my colleagues with degrees in Education would sneak into my teaching. One semester I would start to incorporate “nontraditional texts” and the next I would have my students working in groups in hopes of creating a student-centered classroom. By the time I came to teach at the community college, I was much more open to running my classroom in a way that, frankly, made me uncomfortable. I started to use the techniques that I had learned through my pedagogical training: addressing varied learning styles, utilizing classroom technology, using a combination of group and individual work, active learning. I started teaching things I was resistant to in graduate school: like rhetoric and grammar. Turned out that I liked it. It took me a while to recognize that my own strengths- my ability to read and comprehend easily, my long attention span for lectures and my seemingly natural love of writing – were my weaknesses as a teacher. I had to learn to see things more from my students’ point of view, so that they would be engaged. It was only after I got their attention that I could make real learning take place.

Now, I enjoy revising my courses every semester to fit my student’s changing needs. After all, one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about teaching is the constant opportunity to learn and I learn new things from my students everyday. Beyond learning from them, I feel the constant responsibility to learn for them. There is a lot of information out there, and I constantly feel like I am changing and adapting, so I can better help by students learn to navigate it. I think that learning to write is also learning to think and to read the world around us. Students are constantly bombarded with so much information; I want to help them sort it out. I also care quite a bit for my students and I genuinely want them to succeed. I am always trying to improve myself, so I can be of help to them. I remember the moments in my own education when I made connections that helped me learn to think, or to see, and I hope that I have those moments with my students. I see teaching as a both gift and a constant challenge, but one that I’m happy to accept either way.

P.S. I still teach Hawthorne almost every semester.

For those who haven't seen it, here is a video that outlines some of those challenges.


  1. Great reflective post. We do tend to teach like we were taught and teach to our strengths. Those are two things are are hard to see because they are "what we have seen and what we are." When I taught English I was far more interested in teaching the themes are the relevance of them that the more technical aspects of the writing. Same with composition, I was more interested in meaning than grammar. It was an interesting day when I realized I had been depriving the students of some of the stuff I did not enjoy myself. Great post!

    PS. I have seen Michael Wesch (guy who made above video) keynote two events and a couple years ago in Salt Lake I got to talk with him for a few minutes.

  2. Awesome. I really like the video, not only for the content, but also because it is such a great example of collaborative learning and technology at work in the classroom.

  3. I think I learn as much from the students as they from me. Do you find this happens to you at all?

    As the first class students come in contact with, I feel it is important to assist in helping them find their way around the online environment. By making the students active in finding answers, I am also helping them become comfortable and confident with the technology...

  4. I definitely learn a ton from my students. It's my favorite thing about teaching : )