Inventing Happens in Perpetuity
“The next thing I know, my world gets flipped upside down.”
In her essay “The Change of a Lifetime,” Carly, a former first-year writing student, shares her experience navigating a literary analysis paper prompt during her senior high school AP English literature class:
On day one of my [senior high school] AP English class, my teacher gave us instructions for a project that wasn’t due until the very last week of school. I was completely shocked and confused because I had never seen anything like this before. I was used to getting an assignment one day and turning in it the next; or maybe even a week later; who knew I would have been in for such a rude awakening.
Carly’s first paragraph alludes to a tension with her understanding of what her senior English classes entailed. The assignment she describes prompts her to actively reimagine her own writing process across the period of a semester rather than days. In this moment, Carly must reinvent her own understanding of her academic practices for what I’m sure is far from the first time. Similarly, I, her first-semester college teacher, also found myself doing this numerous times as I approached teaching her class in my second year as a doctoral student. Despite this being my fourth time teaching a first-year writing class, I’ve learned that each semester requires me to start with critical reassessment of writing and genres therein, the needs of students, along with my understanding of operating in academia. I began by reflecting on every teacher who made a positive impact on my learning. What did my past teacher(s) do that worked to help me and my classmates learn? How would they approach this class? I started with pedagogical practices that had worked for my own learning.
As a woman of color, first-generation college student, graduate student, and now a faculty member in a tenure-track position, I know now that I regularly invent and reinvent my understanding of the university and how I operate in academic discourses. I find myself listening, mimicking, and adapting to the academy by incorporating what I perceive as practices that “work” based on their dominant, positive reception. For instance, incorporating particular stylistic practices in my writing such as dashes in my sentences and colons in my titles because the well-received pieces in the discipline I wanted to be a part of make those moves. However, I recognize that my following the dominant, historically white perspective has its faults and have learned to enact my own voice and identity into my work more visibly over time. All this to say, inventing the discipline is not a one-time practice upon our initial arrival to the Ivory Tower. We must remain malleable and flexible to the people who this work impacts most, to the students who take the classes we teach. I imagine many students approach meeting the demands of their college writing classes similarly through building on what perceptions might exist about what works for particular rhetorical situations. Here, I reflect on how I have evolved as a teacher in the last five years, my first five years teaching college writing. Using pieces of a first-year writing student’s literacy narrative, I describe the impact of invention practices on developing writing pedagogy. I affirm that invention is not a one-time act, but rather, requires flexibility and necessitates regular reflection and revisioning, because teachers, like students, “invent the university for the occasion” each time we step into the classroom, design a class, a lesson plan, or give feedback on student writing (Bartholomae 3).
In the opening of her essay, Carly describes her enthusiasm for entering her senior year of high school, a moment when she felt “finally at the top of the food chain [. . .] I’m ready to breeze by this school year and not have to do any work at all” before entering her English classroom and facing a long-term assignment asking her to engage a new-to-her genre. Likewise, I felt this way about some aspects of teaching first-year writing again. I knew I was far from an expert teacher—I’m still not—but I recognized the many teaching tools in my repository from my previous experiences teaching first-year writing. When I first started teaching college writing courses as a second-year master’s student, my approach to teaching relied a lot on my past experiences as a student. At the time, I was simultaneously a student in a composition theory and practice practicum that offered me regular chances to reflect on my growing pedagogy with a group that included many other first-time college writing teachers. For context, I, then a 23-year-old master’s student, had little to no formal teaching experience at the time and only knew what I saw from my many years as a student. Composition studies as a discipline occupied a relatively new-to-me space as a student in her third semester studying it, so my theoretical underpinnings of the discipline developed and translated quickly to my pedagogical practices, a situation perhaps resonant with many first-time writing teachers who teach as a way to help fund their graduate studies. At this point, I had three years of graduate study in composition and rhetoric in my metaphorical toolbelt, a deeper understanding of the histories and movements of the field emphasizing process over product, beginning to value multimodal literacies, and much more than standard American English. This teaching moment was my first-time teaching at my doctoral program institution, one with a different demographic student population than that of my master’s program. For instance, the students at the newer-to-me institution occupied more working-class backgrounds than that of my previous institution. At this point in my education, I knew that strict deadlines and rules weren’t what I needed to emphasize so much as learning, growth, and flexibility with heightened awareness of the multitude of backgrounds, histories, and writing foundations students bring to my classrooms. The institutional differences were no longer my primary challenge so much as enacting the best pedagogy I could to support students first. In other words, my understanding of what being a writing teacher entailed had grown immensely over three years, and I knew it would and should continue to do so with each experience.
To illustrate some of the ways I’ve shifted my approach, I offer here an example of my approach to giving feedback to student work. I required students, during my first-year teaching during my master’s program, to submit printed drafts-in-process and gave handwritten feedback. A graduate student at the time teaching for the first time, I revised this submission requirement with each unit in my class as I learned more about feedback practices in the composition pedagogy graduate seminar in which I simultaneously engaged. I, for example, asked students to submit their drafts on Blackboard (the university’s LMS) as I learned that you could give feedback directly on drafts within the software; by the end students were submitting exclusively online unless they noted a print preference. I played with giving audio feedback, electronic feedback, handwritten feedback, and in-person feedback. I regularly asked students which they preferred as I continued to do my best to support student writing.
Along with revising the format expectations, I also began to develop and revise my own expectations of what it meant to give helpful feedback to students. Like many first-time English teachers, many of my first sets of feedback to students focused first on grammatical and syntax issues before I learned more about the unhelpful nature of those comments (Sommers). By the mid-point of my first semester teaching, my comments began to focus much more specifically on the content of students’ essays rather than the syntax; in comments, I asked questions, offered my interpretation of their ideas, and, most importantly, celebrated the bright moments in their drafts. In class, I challenged students to think through “Myths of Writing” with me as we formulated what we valued about and in writing (Smith). Today, I find myself saying that “I really don’t care about grammar and want to focus on how you communicate your ideas first and foremost” as I answer questions about what I expect from students. When designing my courses each semester, I, like many teachers, return to my past experiences to consider which projects, class activities, and readings might be productive to use again and whether or how they might be modified for a new class. I continuously tweak my pedagogical approach regardless of how many times I might have taught a particular course—no two classes are ever the same. Likewise, I revisit and often reinvent my assessment practices. And I like to think students do the same as they write and rewrite for us, for their classmates, for imagined and real audiences. My job as a teacher is not to stifle these moments of invention, but rather promote it through ongoing questions and comments as students take their initial inventions through the writing process. As I give feedback to students, I want students to know I value their stories and research.
In terms of the composition program at my doctoral institution, those of us who took the teaching practicum—my second such practicum—were advised to adapt a shared syllabus so that we could have a shared set of assignments to navigate and discuss in our practicum we took alongside teaching that semester. Here, I found myself re-inventing my approach to teaching first-year writing. The assignment sequence of this syllabus varied quite a bit from my previous iteration, but I knew that I would still teach many of the same writing and rhetorical principles (e.g. audience, purpose, context, writing process), just in a new context. The first unit of this course design asked students to compose a literacy narrative, a genre I had never been asked to compose, and the genre of Carly’s essay I analyze here. Here, she echoes feelings I shared when being asked to teach a new genre:
[My high school teacher] told us that we would have to write a literary analysis on our book of choice. My next question was, “What is a literary analysis?” Then, he said we would have to take all of this work and combine it into a presentation in order to teach the class about our own, individual book. [. . .] Thoughts like “What are the rules for the presentation?”; “How do I comfortably speak to my peers, and teach them?” continued to run through my head. I was very skeptical about this assignment, the class, and my whole senior year, just in the first 5 minutes of my day. This was only the beginning of the biggest advancement in my education.
Like Carly who, when receiving instructions from her high school teacher to “write a literacy analysis on our book of choice” found herself asking “What is a literary analysis?,” I wondered the same about literacy narratives. I wondered how to teach a genre I hadn’t written myself or really knew if I understood in the context of writing studies. I thought back to Cynthia Selfe’s comment during her guest talk at our department’s composition program orientation the previous year that we should engage all the assignments we ask our students to complete to gain a deeper sense of potential challenges and ways to troubleshoot. I needed to invent the genre for myself before I could ask students to do the same.
In her essay, Carly describes her process for understanding the genre of a literary analysis, which despite not knowing at first how to approach, became clearer through her study of examples provided by her teacher. Carly describes reverse engineering the genre for herself:
My teacher gave us many examples of literary analyses from previous students based on books we had already read and discussed in class. This helped me to be able to point out common threads throughout different novels and understand more of the back work of the process. We practiced writing a literary analysis together in class, mimicking those of other students’ work. This helped me really grasp the idea of the purpose of a literary analysis—to explain why an author wrote the things they did, including their style, tone, purpose, and details.
Here, Carly gains insight on the genre through exposure and practice similarly to the ways I engaged teaching through mimicry of past classroom experiences and teachers. I too reverse engineered how I approached teaching literacy narratives by studying a few of my own. What ideas did the term “literacy” encompass? What moves were authors of the lauded narratives like Malcolm X, Sherman Alexie, and Frederick Douglass making that I could teach? How could I teach these concepts and help students brainstorm their literacy narratives? Looking back, much of my feedback on Carly’s project focused on asking Carly to think about the overall organization of her essay toward highlighting her process of successfully working through the assignment she describes throughout. Carly describes returning to her existing knowledges and building from examples to gain a deeper understanding of what was being asked of her as she worked through the prompt she was given. What she describes mirrors much of my own process of developing my own pedagogy:
At first, I had no idea what a literary analysis was. I had never written one, or read one from someone else, so it was my first time hearing about it. I could put together the words, so I knew it had to be something about analyzing a work of literature, but that was about all. My teacher gave us many of examples of literary analyses from previous students based on books we had already read and discussed in class. This helped me to be able to point out common threads throughout different novels and understand more of the back work of the process. We practiced writing a literary analysis together in class, mimicking those of other students’ work. This helped me really grasp the idea of the purpose of a literary analysis- to explain why an author wrote the things they did, including their style, tone, purpose, and details.
I sympathize with Carly’s feelings of inexperience with the subject she was asked to engage. As a teacher, I often find myself relearning what I think I know about various genres and concepts. For instance, I have taught the concept of “rhetoric” numerous times throughout the years, but I find I refine my definition each semester based on student understandings and discussions. While I do not recall what I might have said or written to Carly at the time of her writing this essay, as I look back at her writing, I think about the impact of her experience on my pedagogical considerations. Although I learned a lot from scholarship and discussions in my teaching practicums, it is through student writing that I really hone my pedagogy. I learn from essays like these the extent to which students value working through examples and drafting or “practicing writing.” I learn why what I do in a classroom matters for writing processes. And in this particular example, I learn the impact of one classroom experience on a future one. Revisiting Carly’s essay here, for instance, reminds me as a teacher of the feeling of not knowing a term or concept and what it takes to gain enough knowledge to participate in a discourse. Here, Carly describes the impact and value of working through examples from her teacher. These practices emphasize the depth that writing requires of us, a reminder that it requires numerous moments of invention.
Carly’s essay, and student writing in general, reminds me to check my own perceptions and understandings of the discipline and academia. I often ask students to ask “Why” whenever we complete an activity—why on Earth might I have made us do the thing we just did? Through this practice, I think with students about writing practices, about the histories informing what is deemed as a concept to spend time on in our classroom space. More importantly, I hope we can reinvent and make space for our own understandings and continue to nuance big terms like “composition,” “literacy,” and “rhetoric” for and with the voices and realities these terms exist in today.
I want to close by returning to Carly’s essay once more. She concludes her narrative with a vivid description of how she approached teaching the topic of her literary analysis—Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar—to her class as part of the final requirements of the project:
The last step was to create a visual representation of the book, which was the hardest step for me because I am not a very creative person. [. . .] I knew that powerpoint or posterboard presentations got really boring, really fast, so I wanted to do something different. I also figured that I would be more comfortable presenting to my peers if I didn’t have to read off information already in front of them. So I decided to make a representation of a common theme in the book: women feel[ing] trapped by the surrounding society, almost like they are living in a bell jar. I bought a large jar and I hot glued a Barbie Doll to the inside like she was trapped. This was not a lot of work on my part, but it got the point across and my teacher liked that I was able to show something and elaborate on it more through speaking.
The Barbie Doll glued inside a jar that Carly describes presenting to metaphorically symbolize the primary theme of “women feel[ing] trapped by the surrounding society” she focused on in her literary analysis of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, demonstrates Carly’s own reinvention of traditional visual presentations. She enacts a breaking away from a metaphorical bell jar (the presentation genre) through creating her own simple though powerful representative artifact. Likewise, teachers can continue to consider what we’ve trapped in our own bell jars and how we might create new openings or chip away at the glass to create space for our own inventions of the discipline.
 Carly was a first-year student in my English 101 course in Fall 2016. I use her essay here with permission.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Teaching Composition, edited by T.R. Johnson, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008, pp. 2-31.
Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to and Evaluating Student Writing.” Teaching Composition, edited by T.R. Johnson, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008, pp. 377-386.
Smith, Frank. “Myths of Writing.” Essays into Literacy, Heinemann, 1983.