Teaching is a rhetorical act. My goal is not only to develop knowledge with students but also to persuade students that what they are learning is valuable and applicable beyond the classroom. This requires a mindset of reflection and an eye toward connection. I strive to show my students how what they learn connects to practices in their lives—to what they have already learned or to challenges they may encounter in the future. I want students to be well prepared to grapple with new knowledge after they have taken my classes and to apply what they have learned to situations outside of the classroom mindfully and effectively. Preparing students to face new challenges means going beyond simply learning new skills, taking part in new practices, or experiencing new genres. Students must reflect deeply on what they have learned, approach what they have learned critically and rhetorically, and enter new discourse communities strategically as they encounter them. Being an effective teacher means teaching students course content as well as teaching them how to build on what they have learned in other areas of their lives.
My students actively engage in connecting practices from the classroom to practices from other classes and from their personal lives. For students to understand the place of classroom content in their lives, they must first be able to engage in “mindful abstraction.” Mindful abstraction requires that a learner reflect critically on his or her learning and attempt to generalize it beyond the current context. This type of abstraction means that when students encounter a new challenge, they reflect on prior knowledge for learning and experiences that may help them to overcome the challenge. It also means that when students encounter new knowledge in the class, they reflect on how that new knowledge may apply to future situations outside of the classroom. By asking students to look back and look forward with their knowledge, I encourage them to place the knowledge into a larger context. This type of reflection is necessary for deep and adaptive learning to take place. Without it, students are likely to weld knowledge to the classroom—struggling to use what they have learned in any context but one in which it was learned. In my classes, this type of critical reflection is an essential component of daily activities: when a new idea is introduced or a major activity is completed, we think, speak, and write about what we will do and how it will apply to other situations. I formalize this process, making it a part of learning and not simply an afterthought. By engaging with such reflection, students gain a metacognitive awareness that allows them to access what they have already learned as new learning situations arise.
In particular, I encourage students to apply their learning to non-academic settings in order to practice application of concepts. Part of this process involves exploring specific literacy practices that are part of their personal lives. Students learn to go beyond functional literacy and build on critical literacy and rhetorical literacy. Students may have strong functional literacy—that is, they may be proficient users of literacy practices—but they may not be as comfortable engaging with literacies critically or rhetorically. I demonstrate to students how to move beyond the role of a functional user to that of a questioner and a producer. To engage with literacies critically, students must be able to question both how and why practices are taking place. For example, students in my junior-level writing classes critique social media spaces and cell phone apps. They explore how the design may offer affordances to users but also constrain users in certain ways. In other words, they present how designs of these technologies allow and do not allow certain ways of doing, thinking, and being. But they also go a step further in exploring these design choices as a producer. They analyze designs to understand the choices made by the designer and consider those same choices as they create their own designs. They strive to understand and question the products of others as a means of researching and producing products of their own thoughtfully and deliberately. This reflection on production and design within a space can be helpful for beginning to advanced students. They learn to “join the conversation” of producers in communities of practice within their lives—from tweets and snaps to articles and manuscripts. With appropriate reflection and guidance, students can learn how to approach unfamiliar learning situations critically and rhetorically. They become more effective learners and producers of new writing, new designs, and new knowledge.
By encouraging conscious reflection and questioning, I help students find the tools to become their own guides in future learning. This allows them to enter new discourse communities metacognitively. Students learn to be aware of what to look for when entering new discourse communities by reflecting on and critiquing literacy practices. Students can break down the discourse of a single small community to learn how to apply that knowledge to entering a new course, entering the discourse of their majors, or becoming an active member of their future field. Students learn to look at discourse circulating within communities and attempt to identify not only how members of a certain community communicate but also why they might communicate that way. They learn to be an active member of the community—and how to demonstrate to members of the community that they understand the ongoing conversations taking place. While no one can learn every genre or know how to approach every audience after a single semester, students can learn the types of questions they must ask themselves each time they enter a new social context. This is why it is so important to equip students with the knowledge necessary to evaluate new challenges. It allows students to move beyond a “teacher as guide” mentality and truly become their own guides in new learning.
Reflection and guided questioning allow students to enter new discourse communities mindfully. It is important to encourage practices that will enable students to make critically-engaged and rhetorically-sound choices as they encounter new learning contexts. I encourage students to take an active role in their own learning and place classroom learning within a broader context of life-long learning. By thoughtfully connecting learning to prior knowledge and future challenges, I demonstrate to students the value of what I am teaching and help them understand the value of reflection and critical analysis. I persuade students to draw connections between prior learning, the classroom, and future challenges. I give students a set of practices that allow them to draw on classroom practices outside of the classroom, and I help them to become better learners who are more able to overcome learning challenges.
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