My teaching philosophy and practice are inspired by a Writing Across Communities 3.0 approach. Informed by Juan Guerra and Michelle Kells and the translingual writing pedagogy, this approach connects writing to multiple social spheres and sources of knowledge, including nonacademic ones; students’ experiences, accents, and places of belonging are valued and centered; and, diverse writing conventions and rhetorical traditions are explored and interrogated. Writing thus is not taught as an inflexible monolith but as a rhetorical practice, adaptable to multiple audiences as well as diverse institutional, national, or linguistic contexts. Writing Across Communities’ emphasis on diverse writing and rhetorical conventions permeates all aspects of my writing pedagogy from course design to syllabus development, assignments creation, evaluation, and professional development workshops for faculty.
Writing Across Communities in Curriculum Design
My customization of a general education composition course, Techniques of Research, demonstrates how a Writing Across Community model deepens student learning. In the first part of the course, students read academic texts and practice writing in traditional academic genres. Students learn to read critically, take notes, and then summarize, critique, and synthesize academic texts on topics such as hybrid academic writing (Bizzell), transcultural citizenship (Guerra), codeswitching (Kells), alternatives literacy sites (Moss), and sponsors of literacy (Brandt). Since this part of the course involves academic discourse communities unfamiliar to many first generation college or international students, I purposefully choose texts that “speak to each other” (Guerra and Kells; Brandt and Moss). I have also invited several authors of these texts to communicate via email or video a short message to our class. With this strategy, my students understand that authors and their texts are connected and that through writing, we form communities of discourse to which they can also belong.
In the second part of the course, students engage in a community-based research project that expands their sources of knowledge and connects the classroom to local and transnational communities. Students choose a community partner, conduct interviews about literacy, language, or rhetoric-related issues, and practice skills in primary source data analysis. The community-based project has been extremely successful in terms of the students’ engagement in and outside of class as well as the quality and originality of scholarship they produce. One student who interviewed his Haitian father’s literacy history collected data in Creole with his sister as a translator in English; another, inspired by Kells’ work, investigated the impact of local dialect in Bahamian students’ writing. While in a previous semester, this unit focused on family and ethnic communities, this semester we adopted a more expansive view of community. Students have partnered with various non-for-profit organizations working on social issues: homelessness, food justice, immigrant rights, housing affordability, etc. Such projects enhance students’ agency and ability to act and write as legitimate producers of knowledge about literacies that have been long neglected in academia. A recent student’s reflection explains “I was the one in control of my work” and learning from community members was “truly an opportunity.”
Writing Across Communities in the Syllabus
Understanding the history and significance of language rights, I have been working on a statement on language pluralism that would shape my pedagogical approach. This statement has been revised and adopted by several teacher-scholars across the country in various ways: for writing center tutors; in the First-Year Writing programs; and, even in the NCTE Statement in Support of Ethnic Studies Initiatives in K-12 Curricula. Having such a statement in my syllabus brings awareness that in class participation, some users of English may not feel comfortable to talk spontaneously and confidently; that with each assignment I promote the conventions of a US-centric writing practice and, whenever rhetorically appropriate, I create a space for other Englishes, dialects, and even other languages. And finally, this statement prompts me respond strategically to my students’ work, in particular first-generation, international, and/or multilingual domestic students, prioritizing content over language difficulties and personalizing feedback to their needs.
Statement on Language Pluralism
The ability to communicate in multiple languages and/or use
varieties of English is a valuable asset. In this course, you are
encouraged to use or draw upon your varied linguistic and
cultural resources. Although we’ll employ English(es) and
Standard Written English (SWE) for many situations, you may
resort to other languages and rhetorical practices in particular
Belief in the value of language pluralism shapes course assignments as well. In a first-year writing course, I facilitate invention for a literacy memoir assignment by offering prompts that guide students to toward points of interest such as family/home settings, school, extracurricular literacy, etc. I include a set of questions (prompts) dedicated to multilingual/translingual literacy. For instance, students can select a proverb/story from their own language and expand on its meaning and value in their cultural background. Or, students are encouraged to think of dialects of English (African American vernacular, Jamaican Creole, etc.) and trace its use in their personal or family context. A successful result in this sense was the publication of my student Jehrade McIntosh’s literacy memoir on University of Michigan’s Digital Rhetoric Collaborative blog. As Jehrade codeswitches in Jamaican patois to capture his warm interactions with his mother and the critical voices of the local community, he contours an agentic self as he connects his experience to influential Black men like Malcolm X and activist Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Jehrade called the publication of his literacy memoir a “groundbreaking opportunity” for him as a student and a future professional. In my classes, students like Jehrade are encouraged to develop as writers within and beyond academic spheres and to take risks in experimenting with language repertoires, dialects, and multimodalities. Even students who choose to compose in traditional discourses benefit from exposure and recognition of cross-cultural rhetorical practices that are crucial in our global, interconnected world.
I believe a Writing Across Communities model has a transformative impact on student learning. Students become more connected in and outside the university and these social networks shape their engagement through authentic inquiry. Since I incorporated this model in other writing courses, such as an advanced writing course in the professional writing major, Writing for the Internet, I attest to its adaptability to a variety of student demographics, courses, and institutional contexts. I will end with a student’s reflection on the value of writing and researching across communities: “There is a value in learning academic text and learning from community members because you learn how to work in an academic setting as well as apply yourself to the outside of the world. I believe this will impact me in the future because I now know how to apply academic concepts in the “real world” and vice versa.”