Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

on lesson plans and pedagogic tactics

ProfHacker offers a useful post by Billie Hara on lesson planning. It's a useful discussion, and one to which I could certainly see pointing new teachers. Hara also notes the familiar stereotypes of professors who are underprepared (and thus unfocused) or over-rehearsed (as in presenting from ancient lecture notes). So perhaps we might all think more carefully about preparation.

But here's the thing…

How do we want to characterize the cybernetics of pedagogy? Would we say that a course has a specific direction toward which we a steering? Is each class meeting then a point along a largely pre-determined course? And if not, then what exactly is being "planned"?

I want to consider this in terms of my own teaching. This semester I am teaching the second part of your FYC curriculum. The course's curricular status is fairly typical. It's the place where we teach "research." The courses generally have a "thematic focus." The one unique quality is that the course also satisfies the humanities GE requirement. My particular section's thematic focus is the effects of media networks and emerging technology on research practices. I could say more about it, but I don't think it is necessary for my purposes here.

Tomorrow we will be discussing Nick Carr's essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Since the course revolves around a research project, the first task is for the students to begin identifying a research topic within the context of our theme. The Carr essay offers some potential avenues for that. So we will be reading that and a couple other pieces over the next few classes with this task in mind. Certainly I could enumerate several curricular goals (and match them to the WPA Outcomes Statement or whatever). But really, from my perspective, the goal is for something unplanned to occur. 

It is in that context that I think of tactics rather than plans. We are all familiar with the laywer's advice that one never asks a question without knowing what the witness' answer will be. Here, that tactic is inverted, where pedagogical questions are ones where one not only does not know what students will say, but ones where one does not know what they should say. The students' task will be to find some way to intersect the course material with their own experience and interests in a way that can result in a research project. Who knows what paths they will take? Or what rhetorical challenges they will face?

That's not to say that a curricular program cannot have goals or objectives, but it is to suggest that there isn't a simple brick-by-brick relationship between those goals and classroom activities. Looking at the WPA Outcomes, for example, I couldn't say of my own teaching that a particular class or activity matched up with a particular outcome. More importantly, regardless of the kinds of outcomes we might describe for FYC as a profession, we need to understand that they are not discrete objectives but attempts to describe different features of a more integrated experience of humanistic writing.

None of that, btw, should be interpreted as meaning that we shouldn't give thought to what we are doing in class as teachers! Of course we should. I just have trouble thinking about a course in terms of planned outcomes, in terms of being able to say to a class that today we will learn x, y, and z. Ultimately the task of the writer is to be able to take up the world around herself and compose. I don't think that's planned.