I usually march into my composition class with a general outline, a handful of illustrative examples, and a dry erase marker – all aimed at solving a problem or completing a task associated with the latest project I’ve assigned. My students seem to prefer this method: splitting the project into a series of scaffolded steps and working through them in small groups or as a class. I don’t mind it either, since it cuts down on my lecture time and offers students a chance to develop “a flexible writing process” while engaging their critical thinking skills. Groundbreaking stuff, I know… However, this routine took an interesting turn one day when we were working through the steps of a rhetorical analysis.
Admittedly, I am an improvisational teacher (probably due to my background in theatre). So when I’m confronted with a room full of those blank stares and raised eyebrows that we all know so well, I can usually shift gears or backtrack quickly enough to recover most of the class before losing them to Facebook. However, on this particular day it seemed that no matter what I tried – different angles, examples, lead-in questions – my class could not work through a rhetorical analysis of the articles I had assigned for homework. Personally, I think it was more than failing to grasp the rhetorical situation and use of appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos. Maybe they were just bored and un-invested. Perhaps they had failed to complete the assigned reading (despite the required wiki post). Regardless of the reason, the class session was quickly coming to a screeching halt, and I was all but ready to chalk the day up to a loss. In a last ditch effort, I put myself on the chopping block and asked students “what about this class… What about the way that I teach? That’s a communicative event, so we should be able to analyze that rhetorically.”
As soon as I said it, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Why did I say that? Of course, I had nothing to worry about. It was February and most of the class was still too shy to comment in class without prompting, much less openly criticize their instructor and his rhetorical technique. After breathing a quick sigh of relief and cracking a joke about my “cosmic rhetorical powers” (the laughs broke the tension), I decided to plow through brainstorming the “obviously fictitious” case of my own rhetorical ineffectiveness. After a minute or so, I could see the genuine interest and surprise register on students’ faces. Despite my thick sarcasm, I was actually delivering an honest critique of my own teaching and expecting them to not only agree with the example, but to (respectfully) extend the criticism as they saw fit.
Now, I will be the first to admit that this particular improv session could have been disastrous. Rhetorically speaking, I was attacking my own ethos in front of a group that depended on it and encouraging their complicity to boot. However this example produced some immediate and interesting effects within the class. I’m not sure if it was the chance to “stick it” to the instructor, or the fact that I was bluntly critical of my own performance, but as I mentioned above, students were surprised at my gesture and quickly engaged in the class discussion. It became much easier for my students to make connections between the rhetorical techniques of my teaching and the effects they produced in my targeted (student) audience since they had a uniquely tangible example with which to work. Further, they were thoroughly invested in this activity (for obvious reasons) and worked hard to reason through the brainstorming session with positive results. In fact, several students who had yet to volunteer a comment in class were offering solid ideas without any extra prompting from me.
While reflecting on my first college teaching experience these past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that my improvised example was a crucial juncture in the development of the class. Practically speaking, it was easy to repurpose this idea for each of the major assignments in the course. My teaching practices and other general classroom business provided ample concrete examples for students to analyze in relation to the definition, evaluation, and proposal arguments. I needed only to hearken back to the initial critique, apply it to the specifics of the assignment, and students would generally make the necessary connections. Further, after demonstrating that I had indeed listened to (some of) the criticism by adapting my approach accordingly, the stakes involved in these sessions became increasingly clear. As a result, students invested more effort and thought into class activities, and more trust in my teaching and critical comments. Taking a cue from my own openness to criticism, students felt more at ease in offering their own ideas, which opened the class up and produced some interesting (and at times heated) conversations.
In essence, putting my own work on display established an atmosphere of mutual respect, self-criticism, and practical application of ideas that only ripened as the semester progressed. I have even had a handful of students ask for public critiques of their own drafts – something I never expected from English 1020 students. More importantly, this running example allowed me to continually steer the class towards sustained meta-discussions about class objectives, activities, and outcomes – a practice which arguably produced the most genuine learning experiences of the semester (a good thing too, since I lacked the foresight to build formal reflections into my syllabus). Ultimately, this less than ground breaking improvisation ended up being one of the best educational choices I made all semester. So next time you are searching for some relevant example to use in class, try a little good-natured self-deprecation. It certainly worked for me.
Chris Susak is a PhD candidate and GTA in the program who currently teaches 1020 and tutors in the Writing Center. He is also a member of the program’s Curriculum Committee.