In my time teaching writing in many capacities at UW-Madison, I’ve taught in computer labs, res-halls, a studio space inside a library, and online. I’ve incorporated new hardware and software, had my students produce multimedia projects, used the writing and research tools of other disciplines, and generally invited “the new” joyfully into my teaching. Though my teaching settings have involved these flashy elements, my innovation, if any, is to make writing and learning newly possible and newly exciting to all of my students. I do this in two general ways: 1) My classroom space is a constant, intimate, and excited exchange of knowledge among all members, that, ideally, spreads from our classroom across their curriculum and to their lives; 2) My assignment design encourages active experimentation while accomplishing curricular goals.
I encourage my students to think of our class as a lab; while we pursue some projects individually, we meet in that space to work collaboratively and share knowledge. I foster a culture that is non-competitive while at the same time values pushing and challenging—each other, me, as their instructor, the readings, even the ways we think about writing and learning. The specialization of disciplines has its advantages, but the size of the university and range of subjects can make students’ individual classes into isolated knowledge-pods. My classroom activities and assignments ask students to make connections across their courses and pursuits. Throughout the semester I assign tasks called “Field Work.” A short assignment asks them to revise work they produced for another course; a presentation option is to teach the class about a genre of writing from another discipline. Students in my classes have interviewed their Nutritional Science professor, combined projects with the consent of their Folklore professor, or filmed a research project on student athletes with UW-Football players right on the grass of Camp Randall. From informal show-and-tell style assignments that ask them to engage ideas outside of our class, to tasks which ask them to go out into the community and share their research, students have been encouraged to make concrete connections across their individualized curriculum and to their personal lives. My philosophy is: if they are not discussing or applying our work outside of my classroom, or bringing knowledge from their other courses into my classroom, the purpose of the university is being failed.
I design assignments complementary to the “lab space” of my classroom, in that writing tasks are like lab work—there are clear skills to be honed in the task, not just displayed in it, and there is further knowledge to be discovered in the outcome. I reward experimentation. Built into every major assignment is an “artist’s statement” wherein the student or group is able to state their purpose, explain their approach, and reflect on its success or failure. They are encouraged to experiment with new genres, and I also teach established genres and assignments in experimental ways: I’ve assigned a documentary film project as a research paper, asked them to craft a conspiracy theory as a “persuasive essay,” and often in my courses we write an essay in class. That is, a whole essay, as a class, in class. Students are invited from the beginning to inhabit this spirit of experimentation, and I give standards for evaluation transparently and with flexibility for failure. Failure itself is a useful teaching tool. Entry surveys reveal that some of my students have never failed and some feel they have never succeeded. Teaching and assigning work that goes against the grain helps me reach all types of learners. Inviting my students to work hard and fail spectacularly shakes entrenched “A” students out of their complacency and empowers the (formerly) “C” students to challenge their sense of their own skill, ability, and ultimately the education process itself.