At about the time I first became interested in teaching writing I stumbled across the above passage by J. Krishnamurti. I was still an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, was a writing assistant in the Learning Assistance Program, and was struggling with my own studies, trying to balance the demands of a double-major and wondering just what exactly I would do with degrees in philosophy and literature once I finished. Like the students I tutored, I was extremely anxious about the quality of my writing, wanted the approval of my teachers and peers, and constantly worried about the future. Thus, Krishnamurti’s call for an approach to learning rooted in freedom and discovery—as opposed to one motivated by fear and conformity—resonated deeply with me. It was an invitation to reconsider my goals as a student and a writer, my values as a human being, and the role fear itself plays in shaping our culture and society.
Indeed, as a teacher the greatest challenge I’ve seen many writers face over the years is precisely this problem of fear. So many students worry about “getting it wrong,” and even more, they so dread getting “bad” grades they often edit themselves to the point where they believe they have nothing legitimate to contribute. Such writers struggle to produce whatever they think their teachers want to read, and in the process they forget that the one precondition for successful communication—and the purpose of going to school in the first place—is to discover something actually worth saying. Not trusting their abilities or right to challenge convention, anxious of making mistakes at almost every turn, is it any wonder such students view writing as an obstacle to their goals rather than as an opportunity to learn, experiment and discover?
Of course, as I have matured as a teacher and scholar, my understanding of the roles education can play has also become more complex. While I still believe that freedom from fear is an essential step in learning to do anything well, I also see discourse as a form of social interaction, and subsequently I don’t believe that simply learning to express oneself is where the study of writing ends, just where it begins. If students are to become effective producers and communicators of knowledge, part of their education must include a study of how discourse works in real contexts, how communities regulate who gets to speak and write, about what, to whom, how and when, and how the beliefs and values of such communities are constrained and made possible through larger systems of power and ideology.
Whether we aim to approximate some discourse as a means of gaining entry into a particular discipline or profession, or we seek to break conventions and attempt to write and think about problems in new ways, I believe the careful study of language in use (which includes a consideration of writing on such micro-levels as syntax and grammar, of course, but also its wider social and political implications) is essential to becoming an effective communicator.
Thus, while one of the cornerstones of my teaching philosophy is that learning—like good writing and research—can only take place in an atmosphere free from fear, this does not mean I avoid conflict or controversy in my courses. On the contrary, I see the classroom as a space where students and teacher alike must be rigorously challenged; where ideas, experiences and feelings are shared in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, yes, but where all are pushed to critically reexamine the social, political and ideological implications within and behind their positions.
The challenge and the joy of teaching for me lies just in this: in creating courses that encourage experimentation, exploration and play, but that are also intellectually engaging, that demand serious critical investment. I never underestimate my students’ ability to think and write about complex issues in important ways (whether they be basic writers, or advanced students in literature or composition), but in doing so, I also understand that everyone stumbles a bit when asked to try new things. I have high expectations, but I am accepting and supportive when risks taken don’t turn out exactly as planned. I encourage my students to be open and trusting, but I also push them to be critically self-reflexive, to carefully consider the implications of their statements and choices. This partly explains why I rely on a portfolio and self-evaluation system in many of my courses, which allows students to rate their own progress and effort over the course of the semester. Not only does this approach give them an opportunity to discover and reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, it decenters grading in a way that invites everyone (myself included) to take more chances, to test new ideas, to push our work into new territories. This also explains why so many of my courses feature some community outreach or service learning component: if writing is to have any meaning beyond an evaluative and regulatory function, it must attempt to critically engage the world in serious ways.
Other features of my courses include the use of facilitation groups (where students periodically prepare and frame the discussion of a topic or set of readings), course journals (in which students compile a range of response pieces, in-class writings, and self-reflections on their own work and progress), multimedia presentations (including the use of film clips, music, interviews and a range of other digital materials that may appeal to different learning styles), and various research and design projects (intended to teach critical information literacy and the use of new technologies.)
I must confess that my approach to teaching and learning is not always easy. Not only do I surrender much of the privilege and authority typically used by teachers to maintain control in the classroom, but students can be initially resistant to being made responsible for their own research and learning. Further, in a system where categorization and ranking are the norm, students can be wary of being evaluated on process and progress rather than a strict calculation of their project grades. (As one student explained during an office visit, “so many teachers say they value creativity, but in the end it’s not really true.” ) Finally, in my effort to create a classroom environment where everyone has the ability to express themselves, we are all inevitably exposed to some ideas, perspectives and experiences that can be difficult to accept. Indeed, I’ve come to recognize that my classes require a level of commitment, intellectual honesty, creativity and acceptance that go beyond many other courses my students take.
But my ultimate goal as an educator has never been to simply to teach a set of skills or to help students master a set of facts, conventions or ideas. My purpose as a teacher has always been to help others see the transformative possibilities of language and writing; to inspire students to be not merely consumers but producers of knowledge; and to challenge colleagues and students alike to become more passionately engaged, critical members of their communities.