Madhu Nadarajah on the power of community in the writing classroom

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Madhu Nadarajah_BNS_Headshot.JPGMadhu Nadarajah (recommended by Nick Recktenwald and Tia North) is pursuing her PhD in English with a concentration in Cultural Rhetorics at the University of Oregon where she is researching the discursive practices within the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. She is currently serving as the Assistant Director of the Composition Program where she worked on redesigning the Composition Policy Handbook, helped with graduate teaching instruction, and facilitated the annual Composition Conference. She is also a Culturally Responsive Teaching Fellow in which she draws on her work in Cultural Rhetorics to provide anti-oppressive teaching principles for the wider Composition community in the classroom.



How do you ensure your classroom is inclusive, equitable, and culturally responsive?

For me, community building exercises are crucial to ensuring the classroom is inclusive, equitable, and culturally responsive. Through community, students learn to trust the classroom space and become more comfortable having transparent conversations. One approach I take to help build community in my classroom is through the readings I assign. Part of my writing pedagogy is to inform students about the complexity surrounding writing studies. Many of my students are taking my class to fulfill their writing requirement and therefore are unaware about the history of writing in institutionalized settings. One reading in particular that helps students situate themselves within the history of writing studies is CCCC’s “Students Rights to their Own Language” (1974). While the article was published a little under fifty years ago, many of the concerns brought up still remain true for writing students, particularly that surrounding a student’s agency. By framing the classroom through readings like “SRTOL,” we began to have transparent conversations about voice, power structures, and community.

What is the most important skill you aim to provide your students?

A skill that I aim to provide my students is for them to have a greater awareness of their own rhetorical traditions. In my classroom, we define rhetorical tradition as not only a means of communicating, but also the cultural and material effects that have led us to these communicative practices. I want students to become aware of the rhetorical tradition they are bringing in, how they have come to gather those traditions, and how it interacts with the rhetorical traditions of their peers. Moreover, this awareness leads students to understand how their rhetorical traditions are part of the larger constellation of rhetorical traditions. In other words, how do these rhetorical traditions exist with one another? I believe this awareness of rhetorical traditions is an important skill for students that they can carry over to their other classes and to their lives outside of school. In particular, understanding the cultural and material effects that inform their way of communication allows students to intimately understand the weight of (physical and cultural) space. 

One assignment that helps students understand their own rhetorical traditions is my “Social Literacy Assignment” (provided later in this post). I define a social literacy narrative as an exploration of a rhetorical moment that informs your awareness of a social issue (or issues) that directly impacts you and how that shapes how you communicate and interact with others. In this assignment, I also ask students to pay close attention to how subject-position cannot be separated from how you perceive and are impacted by the rhetorical moment you are reflecting on. I find this assignment (especially since I assign it early on) allows students to have a more nuanced understanding of the importance of rhetorical practices. 

What is it like to be part of the Bedford New Scholars Program?

The Bedford New Scholars Program provided me with an incredible opportunity to be in community with other graduate students who are also passionate about teaching and rhet/composition studies. Additionally, while we all had a background in rhetorical studies, our approaches to the field varied greatly. In turn, this offered me a great opportunity to collaborate and network. My favorite part of the Bedford New Scholars virtual Summit was the “Assignments at Work” session. This session was an opportunity for the Scholars to share and workshop an assignment or lesson plan. I received valuable feedback on my teaching assignment and I was able to learn about the exciting materials from the other instructors. The other parts of the Summit that I really enjoyed were the sessions led by the guest speakers, Dr. Andrea Lunsford and Dr. Wonderful Faison. Their individual talks were incredible and I learned so much about their pedagogical approaches. Moreover, the Bedford New Scholars Program provided me with a greater understanding of what higher-ed publishing looks like. We tend to view higher-ed publishing as these “big bad guys.” However, the Bedford New Scholars program has opened my perspective to how nuanced publishing really is. While publishing is definitely not without its faults, what I appreciated about the Bedford New Scholars Program is learning how Macmillan Learning prioritizes student perspectives in the development of their textbooks.

How will the Bedford New Scholars Program affect your professional development or your classroom practice?

The Bedford New Scholars Program is a collaborative and engaging experience. In particular, I learned a lot about the behind the scenes of higher-ed publishing. I think this new knowledge will help me tremendously in my professional development. One of my roles is that of an Assistant Director of Composition. Within that role, I often discuss textbook options and reflect on the newest trends in textbook content. The Bedford New Scholars Program gave me an inside look into the most current trends for writing textbooks and how that information was determined. I will be taking this new insight back into my role as we start to discuss the textbook options for the new academic year.  

Madhu’s Assignment that Works

During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Dilara’s assignment. For the full activity, see Social Literacy Narrative.

My assignment asks students to write a social literacy narrative in the form of a letter. I typically assign the “Social Literacy Narrative” within the first week of the quarter in place of an “Initial Reflection” assignment. This is a great way for students to reflect and expand on their understanding of rhetoric, especially as it applies to their own space and place. The assignment asks students to consider the rhetorical moments that helped shape their awareness of social issues that directly impacted them and how that shapes the way they communicate and interact with others. It also requires students to reflect and interrogate how their subject-position plays an integral part in those rhetorical moments, especially as it informs how they communicate with other people and different communities. I offer four different examples of what I regard as a social literacy narrative so the students have an idea of how they should model their assignment. I have students write the assignment in the form of a letter because it is a style that allows for personal expression and is addressed to someone the writer specifically designates to be the recipient.

Find Madhu on Twitter @MNadarajah9.

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