Many of Sierra Mendez's online students have turned in "better work than they had previously"

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Mendez_cropped.jpgSierra Mendez (recommended by Diane Davis) is pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. She expects to finish in May 2022. Sierra currently teaches a custom RHE 309K course entitled "Rhetoric of Texas" and serves as Assistant Director for the D.R.W.'s Digital Writing and Research Lab. In the past, she has taught "Introduction to Rhetoric and Composition" and served on the Lower Division Curriculum Committee. Before beginning her doctoral program, Sierra worked for three years for a museum branch of the San Antonio Public Library, creating educational community-based resources, installations, and programming. Her research interests concern border, material, visual, and memory rhetorics: specifically, the historical and ongoing constitution of Mexicanx bodies via narratives held both tenuously and powerfully across San Antonio’s urban space.


How will online or remote learning affect your teaching?
The sudden and total switch to online instruction in the last year has been an enormous challenge for students and teachers. Luckily, I have worked at U.T.’s Digital Writing & Research Lab for four years, so I have spent time thinking about engaging, accessible online content and learning about necessary equipment and softwares. This shift is still an enormous challenge for me. I like to create malleable classrooms that respond to what is happening in the news, in student’s lives, and in our classroom in real time. In a traditional setting, I depend on face-to-face interaction with and between my students to know their struggles and interests. Moving online, however, requires content be produced ahead of time. In some ways, this is good because I am learning to be more structured and methodical (a hilarious notion, if you know me). It also means I hear more from students who are not as comfortable speaking aloud in class. In other ways, this is not good because it means my pre-recorded lectures have less room to respond to the news, to students’ lives, and to what our classroom is being. This fall, particularly, will be an enormous challenge because I’m teaching Intro to Visual Rhetoric: #2020PresidentialElection — topics that require response.

How does the next generation of students inspire you?
This generation of students faces enormous challenges. I am constantly moved by their willingness to engage in spite of the upheaval that surrounds them. This past spring, I fully expected after Spring Break this past year for most of my class to just say “eff this” and quit turning work in or turn in shoddy work; I wouldn’t have blamed any of them for doing so. But none of them did. They continued to participate in class activities and small group discussions via Zoom; they continued to respond thoughtfully to writing assignments, many of them turning in better work than they had previously; and they continued to seek out help through office hours and meetings. This generation of students, perhaps because of their exposure to social media and constant political chaos, seems much more willing and able than my generation to engage with complexity and to engage with humanity’s multiplicities.

What have you learned from other Bedford New Scholars?
I deeply appreciated learning from other instructors at Bedford New Scholars. I wish we had been able to spend more time talking one-on-one, but I know that is an experience not easily replicable online. I appreciated the group’s commitment to students as individuals. There was very real concern for who each student is and where they come from and what they need. There was very real attention to socio-economic backgrounds and issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation that produce often unchecked inequity in the classroom. Also, our guest speakers Kendra N. Bryant and Shelley Reid, were both incredible to listen to.

What is exciting to you about Achieve and why?
I am very excited about the feedback process enabled by Achieve. Most commonly-implemented online learning systems seem to conceive of paper feedback as an afterthought, but Achieve implements the paper into its design as an ongoing process. I am interested in how Achieve could help support portfolio-style and other nontraditional grading systems that don’t insist on the assignment of an opaque yet completely subjective letter grade.


Sierra’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 Sierra's assignment. For the full activity, see Drawing Arguments (Prewriting Activity).

I like to do this pre-writing class activity in the final unit of class. It’s fun and it helps students generate ideas and structure for their final argumentative essay and accompanying argumentative infographic. Prior to this activity, students should generally know what they want to write/argue about. In this activity, to loosen up their brains, students start by drawing an object (a unicorn, Batman, whatever) for increasingly shorter increments of time. At the end of this first part, they will have four versions of the object with different degrees of detail and, somewhere in there, something recognizable as the essence of the object. I always let them talk to each other about what they’ve made/discovered and share with the class if they want. This kind of drawing and forced quick thinking gets their brains moving and raises room energy. It also helps them think about the pieces that make a thing. The activity then asks students to go through the same steps again but, this time, writing about their argument for increasingly shorter periods of time. When they are done, they will have their topic, something like a thesis, primary paragraph claims, and key details and evidence. I’ve done this activity with undergraduate and graduate students. It seems to help most people think more creatively and openly about their argument.

About the Author
This is the shared account for the Bedford New Scholars TA Advisory Board.