My study of sacred rhetoric and experience as a teacher and learner has led me to the conclusion that the classroom is a liturgical space. By this I don’t mean that my classes are religious services, but that effective learning experiences are governed by goal-directed habits and practices; that they have an embodied dimension; and that they are founded on human relationships. I take these to be realities of how people learn, not just a metaphor for the classroom. I have therefore built up practices over my working life as a teacher which acknowledge these realities and seek to employ them to best effect in each of my classes.
First, if the classroom is a liturgical space, an effective class will be governed by appropriate habits directed toward the goals of the course. Rather than just providing content, my courses aim to build certain intellectual habits in students as appropriate to the goals of the course. My writing courses don’t just teach that revision is important, but aim to build a habit of revision; my introduction to literature does not just instruct students on the importance of great literature, but models the practice of reading well. Students thus learn the course content not so much because I tell them about it, but because they practice it in their assignments. I promote this habit formation through assignment structures that employ a high degree of repetition with enough variety to keep things interesting. For instance, my introduction to literature course employs daily writing assignments in a specific structure aimed at teaching close reading. With daily practice in this skill, students then are well-prepared for the course’s longer paper assignments, which draw on similar structures, helping them acquire the habit of reading closely and writing with literature.
My classes foster this sense of structure and habit down to the level of a consistent daily routine for course meetings. My general education courses often begin each day with the in-class writing assignment as a way to get students thinking, while upper-level courses might begin with reading aloud from the day’s text or a student presentation. This consistency helps foster student habit formation and a class culture, while also giving students a daily structure that quickly helps remove any uncertainty about course expectations and soothes anxiety.
Secondly, my courses are liturgical in they acknowledge the role of the body in learning. The disposition and status of our bodies affects our ability to learn and how we think about a particular interpersonal setting on a subconscious level. My courses stay attentive to this fact in both simple and more conceptual ways. I acknowledge how embodiment shapes learning through such simple practices as implementing regularly scheduled breaks in all my classes, or rearranging the classroom for in-class writing periods to allow students room to work and to consult with me individually.
More conceptually, I foreground the embodied experience of education by practices meant to draw on the affective and aesthetic components to learning. Students will respond to a class on a subconscious level according to the atmosphere of the room and the sounds and sights associated with it. I seek to bring that embodied dimension to bear in service to learning in all my classes. For that reason, I tend to employ analog rather than digital technologies where possible, preferring book and pen and paper for how they foreground the role of the body over digital tools. Where possible, I find it preferable for the embodied role of the class to have students engaging with a physical book or a beautifully designed manual handout over starting at yet another screen. At the same time, as something of an amateur technologist myself, I enjoy the challenge of bringing embodiment back into the digital spaces of a class, whether that class is primarily seated or digital. In those spaces, I employ social tools, audio and video to re-engage the body with the task of digital learning.
Finally, a liturgical understanding of pedagogy recognizes that education is grounded on relationships. Students learn best where they feel a connection to their instructor and to the other students in the course, and so my classes prioritize developing a class community through course policies and daily practices. On the level of course policy, I foster relationships through mutual accountability and a challenging course structure. Students in my classes know from the first day that deadlines will be rigorously enforced and the course workload will push them; at the same time, I make myself accountable to them for offering feedback within set periods (for instance, guaranteeing essay comments within two weeks) and for explaining explicitly any adjustments to the course. This mutual accountability and professional atmosphere, though students may find it intimidating at first, in fact creates an environment where expectations and clear and the class has the opportunity to bond over a shared challenge. Furthermore, my own openness and accountability to the class means that these deadlines are enforced not in a shaming manner, but simply as a condition of our life together as a class.
In daily class meetings, a regular class rhythm helps to build relationships. Students in my classes know from the outset that they will be regularly called on to speak in class following a steady rotation, either based around in-class writing or other daily assignments. This practice helps me ensure that all students have a stake in the class as well as raising voices of those who might not feel comfortable speaking in a less structured format. This formal structure for discussion yields vigorous class discussion, building relationships and rapport throughout the class.
These methods have consistently garnered strong feedback from my students. In general education courses, I average a 4.8 out of 5 on the “Excellent Teacher” score for my institution’s evaluation rubric, despite teaching composition courses that have a reputation for great difficulty. Even those students who find the general education course itself less than congenial consistently praise my work as an instructor, mentioning especially my organization and how the structure of my classes allows them to receive individualized feedback. In courses of my own design, I average an equivalent figure on the “Excellent Teacher” rubric while the “Excellent Course” score also lands at a 4.7 out of 5. Students praise my major courses as original and thought-provoking, and correspondingly rank them highly on evaluations.
These successes in the classroom have lead to increased teaching responsibilities. In fall 2019, my division chair selected me to take over a composition class which had abruptly lost its instructor after Thanksgiving break. Taking the course on as an overload, I guided students successfully through to the end of the semester despite the disruption to their course. Similarly, in spring 2020, I was appointed to teach a special technical writing lab for senior engineering students. These opportunities for teaching in unusual circumstances speak to my recognition by teachers and colleagues alike as an excellent teacher with a successful teaching style yielding strong outcomes for students.
Composition. I am first a teacher of writing, and sincerely relish the opportunity to help students of all majors improve their written communication skills in general education composition courses. My composition courses stress skills for revision, recognizing that one of the biggest challenges many students face is difficulty evaluating and meaningfully improving their own work. I emphasize guided and disciplined revision processes, a professional and accountable working environment, and thought-provoking, real-life writing prompts. Students who have struggled with writing in the past benefit from the course structure, while those with a bent toward writing appreciate the challenging subject matter my courses take up.
Creative writing. For me, teaching creative writing begins with teaching the practice of engaged reading. In order to write well and mature their creative voices, students need to approach their literary models as crafters and tinkerers, working writers ready to take apart a piece of literature not just to understand its meaning but to see how it works. My creative writing courses thus push students toward engaged reading through practices like keeping commonplace books, learning about the rhetorical tradition, and conducting annotation of diverse works in various styles. At the same time, these courses foreground student writing through regular workshops employing the practice of engaged reading on students’ own original works.
Technical and professional communication. Drawing on my professional background as a technical communicator and copwriter, I teach technical communication as a broadly applicable discipline involving communication about specialized topics with non-specialists. Students learn practical habits and tools for conducting technical research, communicating with media, evaluating accessibility, and improving usability. As with other writing courses, I stress disciplined revision habits and a professional working environment, preparing students to negotiate their future workplaces as rhetorical actors.
Literature and cultural history. As a cultural rhetorician, I understand literature as a cultural product that does rhetorical work. Accordingly, I teach literature alongside the rhetorical tradition as a means by which cultures negotiate identity, power, ideas, and social roles. My literature courses, whether introductory or advanced, always draw upon cultural studies, philosophy, theology, and rhetoric to tell a story about how literature reflects its social and historical context. This cultural-rhetorical framework, combined with my multidisciplinary background, gives me facility to teach relevant and stimulating literature surveys and seminars in American, British, and world literature.