Discourses of Teaching

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Today’s guest blogger is Jason Stephens, a native of Boise, Idaho who has recently moved to Boca Raton, Florida, where he is a first year MFA student at Florida Atlantic University. Jason has been deeply involved in bicycle touring since graduating from Boise State (where he earned his BA), which has allowed for a growing sense of importance in finding purpose for the self in all activities and interactions. Jason struggled with this post, trying to find the best ways to convey his felt sense that what he said in the classroom and how he said it directly affected what and how students wrote.  His extended meditation on the discursive formations a teacher uses in the classroom (and his plea to avoid negativity) seem to me to call us all to think about the ways in which we embody our pedagogy in the classroom. In Emergingthe preface to the instructor includes the pedagogical reasoning that “students need to be prepared to deal with emerging issues in their jobs, and lives” (vi). As a first semester instructor, I view myself as a student with a deeper understanding of those skills and a view of myself as one who is “fluid, reflective, and critically self-aware” (vi) in that emerging role as teacher. I can’t help but immediately do what the text suggests: “think critically in relation to [emerging issues in student’s lives]” (vi). Standing in front of the class, I see myself acting as instructor through the paradigm that has been created and enhanced by the teaching role that my peers are now playing. I imagine myself frozen in the act of solidarity—caught between seeing my students as the novices that they are and the inductive effect of the shells of words wrapped around our teaching community, as novices in our own right. The way we, teachers, choose to foster our discourse among ourselves influences the novices within each of us and ultimately creates a pedagogical threshold to a de-centered classroom. I’ve realized through teaching that the discourse I bring to the classroom invites students to engage in both the classroom and their writing using that same voice. My focus since the beginning of the semester has been on engaging students directly with the language that I expect them to bring to the conversations that emerge out of their reading and writing in their essays. It has, so far, been a success. The students seem to push themselves further into the language that they see associated with academic writing—in both clarity and style—and have surpassed my expectations. I feared being either too formal or too informal in my communication with them during class after I realized through their first essay that their writing (both language and structure) seemed to be molded from their perceived understanding of my expectations. I used this observation to my advantage and began to shift my discourse in such a way that it mimicked how I expect them to write. Although it has brought moments of silence to the classroom while I collect my thoughts, the outcome has astounded me in the heightened focus to audience that flows out of their papers now. In any working environment the act of adopting the language and actions present is an instinctive coping mechanism. The discourse that we adopt, not only as teachers but also as colleagues, influences the way we play our own roles in the classroom. Any chance we have to hone and perfect our pedagogical practices could be shortchanged by the chosen discourse of those loudest in their attempts to cope with this role. The act of perpetuating the loudest voice plays into adopting the mentality of a limiting teaching culture and prevents the possibility of breaking through a pedagogical threshold by replacing the educational underpinnings of an individual with the negative discourses of coping. Berating student work on its inability to accomplish simple tasks, recreating episodes of confrontation from the classroom, and highlighting the failures of students—all these acts force us as emerging teachers into solidarity with our peers above our commitment to students. I wonder, as I continue to see myself frozen between accepting my students as they enter the room, eager and expectant, and the whirlwind of negative discourse percolating into my own voice, if in order to emerge as the teacher I would want to be I must first teach myself to function behind the pedagogical veil that promotes success among my students. Distance is the wrong approach; instead as Emerson stated, “we must be our own before we can be another’s” and we must find the language and mindset that will allow for positive growth for ourselves and our students before we move to cope with the new crisis of the day in our classroom. If I catch myself in the construction of the social narrative of my peers, I take a step back and remember that I am dealing with learners and students and mold my response and reaction to moments of negativity to something that is fruitful for either the class as a whole or the individual student. If a student finds an assignment tedious, rather than being dismissive or asserting authority to quiet the dissidence I use such opportunities to explain the function the assignment plays in the overall role of the class. These opportunities to open up the course objectives to the students in real time might be passed over because of a fear of losing control or a rebellion against the function of the class. I have not yet encountered a confrontation that ended negatively after explaining the role that these tasks place in the language of the syllabus. The same lesson that we are trying to imprint upon our students—a solid dose of critical self-awareness—will allow us fledgling instructors to survive this time of daily crisis. If we move past common coping mechanisms such as perpetual negative discourse, generalization of victimized authority, and woeful indictments on the national education system into a self-conscious sensitivity to our personal sensibilities and our evolving role as instructor then we can emerge as models of what we want to impart, becoming self-actualized teachers of writing. Next time I am in the classroom I’ll be just as aware of what I say and just as curious as to how I phrase it, wondering where the seeds will find fertile soil. But, I will remember that these words are mine. It seems possible that over time my classroom discourse can crystallize with constant effort and focus. And what of your classroom and work environment? How do you see these issues manifest, positively or negatively, in the community of learners that you mediate?
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About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.