One of my favorite questions from students is, “What do I write about?” They often ask this in trepidation, convinced they cannot devise a topic without direct guidance, but I insist that students explore their own interests and develop their own ideas through writing. To my mind, this is what distinguishes a strong liberal arts education: learning through dialogue, interdisciplinary inquiry, and self-examination. So when students ask me what they should write about, I always begin our discussion by asking about the student’s own interests and academic disciplines; I invite students to bring their own experiences as well as material from their other classes into our writing classroom.
I also employ teaching methods that demonstrate how the roles of teacher and student are interconnected. I require students to collaborate with me and each other to develop their own writing assignments in ways that synthesize a variety of disciplines and foster a broader curriculum within which students can write. By making space for student input, developing a wide range of content, and guiding class discussions in such a way that we all can share our learning from a variety of experiences and disciplines, I encourage personal as well as academic growth in students and invite them to identify as part of the larger writing community.
My interest in collaborative learning also influences how I assess students. I teach writing as a communicative act, and I expect students to use writing to communicate with each other, with an audience, and with themselves. I emphasize small workshop groups and group discussion both in and out of the classroom, including in online forums. I also frequently assign creative readings or group presentations, during which I join the students as students assume the role of teacher. I involve students in forming their own workshop groups, and students write evaluations of themselves, their group members, and their assignments. I also assign reflective writing and self-evaluations. This involves students in their own assessment, requiring them to look to themselves and each other for feedback and allowing them to take charge of their learning.
This method of assessment is particularly crucial to interdisciplinary studies, where reflection takes precedence. To this end, I also employ the “gradeless paper”: I de-emphasize grades in favor of the students’ own learning process, allowing students to further participate in assessing their writing. While I grade papers according to traditional methods, I refrain from recording the grade on the paper, instead writing extensive comments and focusing on personal conferences with students. The absence of a quantitative grade on the page encourages students to focus on the comments and consider how best to improve their writing and apply what they’ve learned in other classes beyond mine, and the personal conferences allow students to discuss the progress on their work and other avenues they might explore. I believe in the revision process, but students must decide whether to revise based not on their grade but on their own assessments and our individual conferences.
This approach reflects my interest in the success of each student, and I strive to act as a mentor for students. I carry my teaching beyond the classroom through service activities like advising student organizations and mentoring writing groups. I share my teaching with the community, as well, offering writing workshops for the public and guest lecturing in colleagues’ classrooms at other campuses. I do this as a model of the importance of integrated learning and applying education to all aspects of life, a goal I promote through interdisciplinary curriculum and assignments centered on students’ own communities, their personal interests, and popular culture. By demonstrating through assignments and my own activities that learning is a lifelong pursuit, I hope to enrich a student’s desire to learn and their ability to apply that learning for the benefit of others.