When it comes to technology, I am an unashamed early adopter. I know about new software months before it’s released, manage my own server of twenty websites, and constantly install and experiment with open-source content management systems. My commitment to innovation has become one of the hallmarks of my teaching, because using cutting-edge digital tools allows me to do what I do best: help students make connections between theory and practice.
In my English senior seminar, “Technology, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication,” my students and I spent the semester interrogating information and communication technologies using the technologies themselves. For instance, as we discussed convergence media and online privacy issues, I asked students to create accounts on the social bookmarking site Delicious.com, then add links to online information that was relevant to our class discussions. Because all the links were automatically aggregated on the class website, students used what their classmates posted as a jumping-off point for their individual research projects and in our class discussions. In another technical communication course, I gave a digital tweak to a traditional technical writing assignment and had students use Instructables.com to create and upload instructions that blended text and annotated photos; within days, 100 percent of the students had received comments from readers outside the class. In other multimodal composition and communication classes, my students have uploaded “kinetic text” videos to YouTube; created their own topic-specific micro–social networking sites on Ning.com; and made web-based mix tapes in an exploration of the parallels between arranging mix-tape songs and composing traditional academic essays.
Of course, technology can never replace an engaged — and engaging — teacher. It’s merely one valuable tool. Several other core principles guide my pedagogy.
The best learning takes place in an environment where students feel respected not only by their instructor but by their peers. I try to help students get to know each other, which can be as simple as devoting time during the first few weeks of the semester to learning one another’s names. I also make a point of assigning frequent collaborative projects that require students to develop and sign group contracts before they begin their work.
Students benefit from knowing what goes into developing and evaluating assignments. Not only do I present clear grading criteria, I often work with students to create them. On the first day of class, I show my students the grade spread from the past several semesters — my attempt to make plain that not everyone gets an A. I also subscribe to the notion of radical transparency about myself as a teacher. I upload all of my past teaching performance evaluations to my website, so students can use them as a guide as they decide whether to enroll in one of my courses.
Rhetoric and composition courses provide the perfect opportunity for service-learning assignments that motivate students with genuine communication challenges rather than fictitious scenarios. In a business communication class, I asked students to identify and solve communication problems in their own workplaces. One student, who helps his father manage the family farm, created a visual quick-start guide of instructions for operating the new GPS navigation system on their John Deere tractor. In a report and proposal writing class, a nontraditional student from a nearby small town persuaded her group members to write a grant application for funds to build a new park along a popular hiking trail. The students integrated a multimedia video into the PowerPoint presentation they developed for class and eventually submitted a revised version of their proposal to a charitable foundation. The project was funded, and the park was built. When students can take their knowledge beyond the classroom, applying the skills and new paradigms they’ve learned to the workplace and to their other studies, I know my teaching is having an impact.
I ask a lot of my students, but I also give a lot in an attempt to foster a sense of mutual commitment. It is not enough for my students to know that I have high expectations for them; they need to see evidence that I am genuinely committed their success. At the end of each semester, I extend an offer to all my students that my door will continue to be open to them as they work on résumés, electronic portfolios, and graduate school and job applications. When I taught a paired section of honors first-year composition with Dr. Don Payne, I saw that despite his tremendous workload, he spent countless hours outside of class working with students on individual projects and helping them adjust to university life. The experience strengthened my commitment to teaching and provided a glimpse of what I hope to be doing twenty years from now. It also inspired me to give more to that class, for which I was given the university’s Honors Teaching Award, a distinction that had never before been awarded to a graduate student instead of a faculty member.
A multimodal environment is the natural backdrop to my student-centered teaching. For the two years that I held an assistantship as the instructional technology coordinator of ISUComm, Iowa State’s communication-across-the-curriculum program, my mantra as I worked with faculty members and other graduate students was “Try one new thing.” I have taken that dictum as my own, and I am always eager to experiment with new technologies, new assignments, and new courses. I worked with a faculty member and another graduate student to redevelop the curriculum for English 213, “Computers and the Study of English,” and was the pilot instructor to teach the new curriculum and assess its success. During my graduate work, I have pursued every available opportunity to increase the breadth and depth of my teaching experience. I have taught courses in traditional classrooms and in computer labs; have worked with remedial freshmen, honors students, and graduating seniors; and despite the increased demands on my time, have volunteered to teach a new course every semester. Over the course of my graduate career I have taught nine different courses and developed original syllabi for all but one of these.
I have also come to love researching and teaching about pedagogy, particularly instructional technology tools. I’ve taught numerous workshops on such topics as content management systems, class websites, and social bookmarking, both inside and outside my department, and I’ve presented on my experiences and findings at several national conferences. Now, faculty members and fellow graduate students seek me out for advice when they’re looking for ways to speed up electronic grading or searching for the right software program to help their students collaborate. Enhancing fellow teachers’ access to and understanding of technology tools is one of my passions.
For me, technology not only provides a simple way to connect with and engage students, it makes it easier to maintain those connections long after the class has ended. A few of my former students follow me on Twitter; others contact me periodically via email. A few months after my “Technology, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication” class ended, I received an email from one student who said, “English 411 was the best class I have taken at ISU, and the one that I have thought about and talked about the most, even after the class was officially over. I’m sure that I will continue to think about the questions and issues that we raised as I continue on in my studies (the way a class should be).”
Knowing that this student and others have successfully connected their work in my classes to their other coursework and their endeavors outside the university is my greatest reward as a teacher.