“I don’t think college is the best fit for you.”
“Is this writing really your own? Who helped you do this?”
“By this point, you should really know how to form an argument.”
As a first-generation college student from a working-class family, these statements and challenges are all too familiar. I can hear those voices clear as day, decades after the words were spoken, and there are certainly many more. Many of my students and research participants have heard these words, too.
Because of my strong belief in student agency and social justice, and my personal history moving from borderline-high-school-drop-out to a holder of multiple advanced degrees, I believe that every student that enters my classroom has something unique to offer, as well as something to learn. My job, therefore, is to help them identify early on what those things are and where their untapped potential lies. I begin each semester by asking students to complete self-assessments on topics ranging from mechanics to orientations toward writing. It is more important to me, at this early stage, to know how they approach the task of writing rather than whether or not they can correctly use affect and effect. Wherever possible, I draw on those strengths – in constructing peer review groups, for example – and design bespoke whole-class lessons and activities to address weaknesses. I also ask students to identify goals for themselves: for the course as a whole, as well as for individual assignments. This allows me to explicitly address their learning desires in reviewing assignment drafts, as well as set my own target goals for their revision. In a recent advanced science writing course, for example, a multilingual student was able to handle the structure of the literature review beautifully, and clearly understood what she was reading – but her sentences were stilted, with dropped conjunctions and incomplete thoughts. Rather than focus on structure and synthesis (as many in the class needed to), she and I had a dialogue about flow and conjunctions, and set the goal of her working to smooth out individual paragraphs in revision. This allowed her to continue building necessary skills while still engaging in the assignment in a meaningful way.
Classrooms, I believe, should be a safe spaces for learning: for trying on new roles; new ways of thinking, being, and knowing. This does not mean sheltering students or shaming them for gaps in their knowledge, but rather facilitating the development of a repertoire of skills that builds metacognition and an ability to navigate new situations. Because I am a writing studies scholar, these new situations are often rhetorical. For example, one of the first assignments I ask students in my writing classes to do is analyze various genre types (e.g., thank you notes, invoices) for rhetorical conventions and audience expectations. By asking them to think critically and concretely about how they recognize an invoice as an invoice and not an estimate or contract, for example, students begin to see that every form of writing is imbued with purpose and that the affordances and constraints genres have serve important functions. This sets the foundation for later discussions on academic and disciplinary genres, as well as considerations of audience. At the same time, the exercise draws on students’ prior knowledge and opens discussions for variability across cultures.
One specific moment comes to mind when a young, shy woman from the United Arab Emirates used her group’s analysis of data tables to comment on how such genres do not work in Modern Standard Arabic writing because words are written right to left and numbers left to right – she couldn’t think of any feasible way to present data in that form. This one-minute comment led to a twenty-minute discussion of various Englishes and the ways in which the US education system privileges one form of English (Standard American) over the many other forms that exist. We were able, as a class, to intellectually discuss many of the social and institutionalized factors that influence any given student’s success in higher education, providing an opportunity for the students present to reflect on their own challenges and successes.
As an educator, I see my role as one who helps my students understand the ways in which writing opens doors, and to guide them in developing the skills to get their ideas across in a clear, concise, and effective manner so that the work achieves its intended purpose. I also aim to begin demystifying the meaning-making process; to help them see that all writing is a form of structuring, of controlling the narrative. This also helps them see the ways in which narratives control them. When students leave my classroom, I know that I have succeeded not just if they have improved their communication skills, but if they are reading the world rhetorically and critically, and feel empowered to use their personal and cultural capital to meet their goals. There will always be plenty of opportunities for the world to remind us of our weaknesses; of the reasons why we may not belong in college, in a particular discipline, in a professional role. These voices from the outside often unconsciously draw on societal markers like race, gender, or socioeconomic status as a rationale – they haven’t seen people like us in those positions, so therefore we don’t belong. As an educator, I believe it is my duty to be a voice of change. To remind the students in my classroom that there is a space for them, and that it is possible to leverage our unique backgrounds and experiences so that they become ladders and not weights.Like