Rhiannon Scharnhorst on her new commitment to "failure" in teaching

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Rhiannon ScharnhorstRhiannon ScharnhorstRhiannon Scharnhorst (recommended by Samantha NeCamp), Bedford New Scholar 2021, is pursuing her hybrid PhD in Writing Studies and Victorian Literature at the University of Cincinnati, where she expects to defend her dissertation Willful Objects and Feminist Writing Practices in May 2022. She teaches a variety of courses in writing, from first-year composition to advanced topics classes, including Writing with Style and Food in Literature. She has also served as the Assistant to the Composition Program, writing and designing the department's handbook, overseeing graduate student education, and hosting the annual graduate conference. Her research draws on feminist rhetorics to make sense of objects in writing studies, including typewriters, cookbooks, and other tools. She also writes about materiality, embodiment and writing practices of nineteenth-century women writers in Great Britain.


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

How to communicate effectively in writing, which starts with helping students unlearn limiting beliefs about writing. So often students enter the classroom believing they are “bad” writers because a previous teacher told them they were. They see writing as a performative act, done only as a test of grammatical intelligence or syntactical prowess in the classroom. Yet they are some of the most prolific writers I’ve ever seen. 

In my classroom we spend a lot of time unpacking what makes writing “good” or “bad” (hint: it’s always contextual). A well-crafted text message can be just as “good” as a brilliant essay. Both require an awareness of the rhetorical situation, the affordances of the genre, and a lot of practice. I want students to leave with an understanding of writing as a recursive process, a tool for thinking and not just a record of intelligence logged onto a page. I want them to have the confidence to try things in writing that might not work out. Writing is a skill we cultivate through practice, not something that’s given to us by a muse or higher being. 

How does the next generation of students inspire you? 

They refuse to live by the status quo. If they see injustice, they work to correct it. They are willing to call out bad behavior, refuse to back down when something’s not right, and are actively trying to address some of the most pressing issues in our world today. I am constantly in awe of their resilience: what they’ve lived through with the pandemic, climate crisis, racial injustices, mass shootings just in the last year is astounding. Yet they continue to fight, continue to seek out opportunities for growth and change, and are all around some of the most resilient individuals I’ve had the chance to learn from. Their vulnerability and openness about their personal struggles with issues like mental health—struggles that I myself also experienced—are also inspirational. What with all those platitudes, I can’t forget to add they are also hilarious: rhetorically adept, unabashed, irreverent. I spend a lot of time laughing with them.  

What do you think instructors don't know about higher ed publishing but should?

Publishers like Bedford/St. Martin’s use their power to create texts that are inclusive and equitable by recruiting and publishing diverse voices and perspectives and by asking for feedback throughout that process through programs like BNS. I mistakenly assumed higher ed publishing was more of a top-down process than a real reciprocal relationship between publishers and teachers. Instead, the editors are just as invested in creating tools and texts that challenge the status quo. The texts are continually revised, updated, diversified. They seek out students and teachers who will give them honest feedback. They commit to doing better, being better, and invest their time in figuring out how to provide material that responds to in-the-moment concerns. Most importantly, they listen! 

What have you learned from other Bedford New Scholars?

The struggle is real, y’all! Hearing from other dedicated teacher-scholars across the country about their teaching practices gives me hope for the future of higher education. The diversity of approaches (labor contracts, trauma-informed teaching), the variety of modalities (visual essays, memes), the shared anxieties and concerns (extremism in the classroom, pandemic issues): all helped me appreciate and reassess my own standpoint as an imperfect teacher. In particular, we revised our diversity philosophies together after a week spent thinking and discussing how to bring antiracist practices into the composition classroom. 

Out of those conversations was born my commitment to “failure”: that doing important work like creating equitable and culturally relevant curriculum requires a commitment to listening, changing, apologizing, improving. There is no perfection in teaching, only the continual recommitment to this necessary work. Thank you to everyone who read, shared, or listened as we co-created this space for change.   


Rhiannon’s Assignment that Works: Autoethnography 

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 Rhiannon’s assignment. For the full activity, see Autoethnography.

Students don’t know how they write; by that I mean they don’t know what their writing process looks like on the page as it happens. In most cases, the students I teach in introductory composition courses have never considered writing as a labored, material process. This assignment asks them to record their screens while writing, as well as the environment they work in, the people they talk to, the objects they use, and ultimately their thought process as they write. They use this primary data to write an autoethnography, detailing what they witness in the screencasts as well as any conclusions they draw after coding their compiled data. 

Usually, the material realities of their lives show up on the page, from what they use to write (computers, cell phones, pen and paper) to the spaces in which they write (kitchen tables, coffee shops, beds, buses). The writing process expands, spreading from time spent typing on a screen to conversations about the assignment with roommates. They begin to reassess their own practices, interrogating what works and what doesn’t. My hope is that the assignment sets them up for future writing success by bringing their awareness to the labor behind it.

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