Tag Archives: teaching

Rows of hundreds of blue and white archive boxes on shelves.

Archive: Developing Critical Collaborations

Walker Smith | University of Louisville

I arrived at my first in-person visit to an institutional archive with a strong foundation in archival research methods—both in teaching and in research. I had taught many composition research assignments with digital archives at Oklahoma State University even using readings from the field at the director’s suggestion (Gaillet). I had read extensively for my graduate seminar papers about how archives are not apolitical repositories of truth but require the user to navigate records critically, attuned to the ethical impacts of the histories that appear there (Cushman; Graban; Kirsch & Rohan; Morris; Ramsey et al.,). However, what my training hadn’t fully prepared me for was the laborers behind an archive’s organization and presentation to the public—archivists—also have their own theories and debates about the power dynamics of records management.

Entering the Edgar Rice Burroughs Archive, the world’s largest collection of “ERB” ephemera, the archivists offered me bits of information and context that I didn’t know I should or even could be asking for—particularly, what is this collection’s provenance

What is its history of ownership? 
Who had custody prior to its acquisition?
How and why was it acquired? 
What principles do the archivists follow in processing its records and making them accessible to others? 
Do they adhere to the original order of its creator or owner, or is its order negotiated among the collection’s various managers, users, and stakeholders?

Such questions of provenance in the Burroughs Archive came with high-stakes ethical concerns. The author of violent colonial fantasy novels like Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs himself espoused white supremacist values and promoted a eugenicist vision for the U.S. As the “Godfather of American Science Fiction,” his works still garner a massive fandom who actively continue to produce fan art and fiction, hold events, and catalog their activities online. As the custodians of a challenging, undoubtedly colonial archive, University of Louisville’s archivists go above and beyond to present Burroughs’ records and artifacts to the public in appropriate historical context and to collaborate with instructors and researchers who treat its contents with a fervent critical stance.

My own time researching in the Burroughs Archive helped me to notice the often untapped potential for critical collaborations with archival staff who do much more than simply provide us with access to archives and information. Below, I outline the commitments of a subfield known as “critical archival studies” (CAS) and offer one example of how I have tried to integrate CAS into writing classes. Certainly, rhetoric and composition scholars in the field have drawn from critical archival theories before (especially from Stoler) and often encouraged collaborations with archival staff (e.g., Rawson), but here I only seek to draw attention to our potential theoretical overlaps.

What is CAS? Or, What are Archivists Saying about Power Today?
Critical archival studies (CAS) is in part a response to critical theory’s uptake of the archival metaphor in the late twentieth century. On the one hand, this body of theory was vital for explaining how multiple historical narratives vie for official commemoration and for how certain publics draw on shared resources for rhetorical invention. On the other hand, many archivists have rightfully criticized that when we invoke “the archive” as a theoretical idea, we often ignore the long tradition of archival practice and scholarship that informs the world’s second oldest profession (Schwartz & Cook).

Critical archivists also bemoan this theoretical trend while pausing to consider what aspects of critical theory may be useful to their field. For example, Caswell et al. outline the commitments of CAS as follows:

(1) explain what is unjust with the current state of archival research and practice, (2) posit practical goals for how such research and practice can and should change, and/or (3) provide the norms for such critique. In this way, critical archival studies, like critical theory, is emancipatory in nature, with the ultimate goal of transforming archival practice and society writ large.

The question posed by Caswell et al. is essentially: What do feminist and queer theories, critical race theory, Native American and Indigenous studies, post/de/anticolonial theories, and other theories of power in society have to offer those who manage archival records? A lot, they argue: “We know that power permeates every aspect of the archival endeavor” (Caswell et al. 3).

Interrogating archival power is a central tenet of CAS. Rather than adhering solely to a collection’s original order, they encourage archivists to embrace the many flourishing orders and “disorders” that appear, meaning that an archive’s organization and accessibility should be determined not only by those who created or acquired it but also by those marginalized stakeholders who are represented in the collection (Schwartz and Cook 18).

We archival researchers in rhetoric and composition have been leading similar conversations about the rhetorical power of archives to reinforce harmful metanarratives, to validate official versions of history, and to bolster violent institutions’ memory-making capacities. But clearly, we also have a lot to learn from archivists about what they see as “unjust” practices in their own field.

What Can First Year Writing Students Do With CAS?
In Spring 2020, I designed my section of second-semester composition to provide students the opportunity to conduct primary research (finding and reading firsthand accounts) in the first half of the semester before we dove into secondary research (finding and reading sources that summarize or analyze the primary sources) in the latter half. Moving from primary to secondary allows students to experience the messiness of gathering and organizing sources and piecing them together into coherent narratives for others to read, and it always highlights the ethical decisions they must make along the way about who comes to be considered a “reliable” source.

While I had taught digital archival research assignments many times before, I wanted to specifically develop in-person critical collaborations with archival staff. I first contacted UofL archivists Delinda Stephens Buie and Rebecca Pattillo and explained to them the goals I had for the first two primary research assignments of the semester. Excited by our conversations, Delinda and Rebecca worked diligently to prepare a presentation that both defined archiving for students and provided them with the history of the Burroughs Archive. Additionally, prior to arriving to the archives, I had spent a week with students defining coloniality, reading about the colonial history of archives, and discussing the impact colonization continues to have on public memory (Powell; Cushman).

With all of the necessary pieces in place, the archivists invited students to explore a personally curated exhibit of Burroughs artifacts that they thought might support the course’s focus, including all sorts of Tarzan-themed books, board games, movie posters, action figures, toys, lunch boxes, children’s shoes, and more. As students experimented with the different oddities that lay before them, Delinda and Rebecca circulated around the room, offering extra information about the history of certain items, answering questions from students, and helping them make connections between artifacts. Throughout the session, students were encouraged to take extensive notes and pictures, so that they could refer back to them over the next few weeks.

For the Unit 1 essay, students were asked to write a rhetorical analysis of one artifact from the Burroughs Archive. But as they quickly learned, this work couldn’t successfully be done alone. We engaged in research together as a class and in group activities, sharing sources and helpful bits of information along the way, and asking questions of our archival guides when necessary. In this way, primary research processes were framed as a negotiation among multiple, often competing audiences and stakeholders. Contrary to dominant understandings of history as a ready-made narrative waiting to be told, students naturally found themselves drawing connections between their artifacts and debating about the credibility of various, contradictory sources.

The contextual information provided by archivists gave students enough material to draft their essays or gave them enough clues that they could find more history in secondary research. For example, some students wrote about the 1930s Tarzan board game made by the Parker Brothers only a few years after they released Monopoly, which they were able to read more about because Delinda had provided some of the history of the artifact’s donation and condition. With this kind of background information, many of the students were able to trace how the violent aspects of Tarzan’s origin story were transformed into an entertaining colonial fantasy digestible for children.

Other students chose the 1966 “Tarzan Rub-ons” in the Picturama Magic Transfers series. Using some of the other sources provided by archivists, students were able to find interviews with Burroughs about how he made the decision to manufacture Tarzan’s image in multiple media.

This image features the "rub-on" images that will fill in the blank page of figure 4. Tarzan's torso, legs, palm trees, patches of grass, and a child holding a chimpanzee can be transferred to the blanks in the other page of the magazine.
Figure 5. The “rub-on” images.

These discussions flowed well into Unit 2 where students were asked to critically evaluate an aspect of the archive. Following class discussions, I articulated the following criteria:

Content layout and toolsOrganization and hierarchy of information, and inherent biases/stances
Originality/uniqueness of artifactsSignificance/relevance of historical events
Updated navigation guides and exhibitions for new usersImpact/learning potential of exhibitions/guides
Usability/legibility/accessibilityAccuracy/credibility/reliability of sources

Ultimately, we were able to collectively compose a list of recommendations to different types of researchers and teachers who might use the archive in the future. By the end of the two units, students were able to clearly articulate the features, functions, and tools they need from in-person archives and digital research databases, which was helpful preparation for the latter half of the course where they would need to become comfortable with navigating the university library’s various online search engines.

While students reported that they found the work of primary research exciting and beneficial, they also reported that the assignments were challenging and that they occasionally faced difficult setbacks. Most of these were successfully addressed in class discussions and responsively designed activities only because the UofL archivists made themselves available to us as secondary sources themselves, offering “the context of record creation, of archival functions, of the formation of archival institutions, of archival outreach and use and advocacy” (Caswell et al. 3). The artifacts on their own can appear somewhat a-contextual, leaving the responsibility to the user to determine what is of value and what artifacts mean, but archivists’ honest, critical histories of the archive’s acquisition and selection decisions made our analytical work easier and more effective.

We could perform rhetorical analyses of what simply lay before us, but we couldn’t answer certain questions on our own like:

    • Who originally called for the archive’s preservation and creation?
    • How have the archivists selected what records will be showcased or shelved?
    • What practices guided their organization?
    • How much of the collection is processed, and how do they decide what to process first?
    • Which stakeholders influenced these decisions?
    • What are the archivists’ goals for the collection?

Encouraging students to dialogue with archivists about their specific artifacts led them into other exciting avenues of inquiry, making it possible for them to develop critical stances and fully evaluate the various aspects of the artifacts they had chosen.

How Do I Support Critical Archivists?
These kinds of collaborations with archivists have multiple benefits for students. Not only do they enrich the researched arguments they write for the course, but they also demonstrate the dialogic and rhetorical nature of research, foregrounding how containers of knowledge like archives are socially constructed and organized according to certain theories of practice and with various groups of users in mind.

My hope is that asking students to interact with archivists supports the goals of CAS by valuing the labor of archival staff, which in turn, may also challenge their preconceived notions of research as an apolitical, fact-finding process. Below is a small snippet of some of the work that critical archivists are doing, provided by Rebecca, and which my students have used in their writing and appreciated:

Additionally, these are some of the open-access, digital archives from which students have reported rich researching experiences, all taken from a longer list written by Lynn Lewis for the Oklahoma State University First Year Composition Program:

Works Cited
Caswell, Michelle, Ricardo Punzalan, and T-Kay Sangwand. “Critical Archival Studies: An Introduction.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, vol.1, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1-8.

Cushman, Ellen. “Wampum, Sequoyan, and Story: Decolonizing the Digital Archive.” College English, vol. 76, no. 2, 2013, pp. 115-135.

Gaillet, Lynée Lewis. “(Per)Forming Archival Research Methodologies.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 64, no. 1, 2012, pp. 35-58.

Graban, Tarez Samra. “From Location(s) to Locatability: Mapping Feminist Recovery and Archival Activity Through Metadata.” College English, vol. 76, no. 2, 2013, pp. 171-193.

Kirsch, Gesa, and Liz Rohan. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

Morris, Charles. “Archival Queer.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 145-151.

Powell, Malea. “Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography, and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories,” pp. 115-127. In Kirsch, Gesa, and Liz Rohan. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.

Ramsey, Alexis E., Wendy B. Sharer, & Barbara L’Eplattenier. Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010.

Rawson, K.J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.

Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science, vol. 2, 2002, pp. 1-19.

Stoler, Ann. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance.” Archival Science, vol. 2, 2002, pp. 87-109.

Images Cited
Feature image photo by Nana Smirnova on Unsplash.

Tarzan board game, Parker Brothers, 1939. https://www.erbzine.com/mag6/0662.html.

Tarzan Picturama Rub-on Magic Transfers, Hasbro, 1966. https://www.hakes.com/Auction/ItemDetail/28695/TARZAN-RUB-ONS-TRANSFERS-SET

If Not Us, Who?

Megan McIntyre | Sonoma State University

We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.
~ Students’ Right to Their Own Language

It’s been nearly five decades since “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (SRTOL) came to be. In fact, it was 50 years ago this year (in the fall of 1971) that the officers of the Conference on College Composition and Communication appointed members of their executive board and other language experts from among the association’s ranks to a committee charged with drafting a statement on varieties of English and students’ rights to learn and compose in the languages that are meaningful to them. In her history of the development of SRTOL, Geneva Smitherman, one of the original authors of the statement, has noted that, at nearly every step of the process, the creation and adoption of the statement was an “intense struggle” (22). So much of the struggle that Smitherman describes in the histories of SRTOL and NCTE’s subsequent decision not to adopt the text –– but to instead adopt a weaker version that, while affirming students’ right to their own language also argues that they need to learn “conventions of what has been called written edited American English”  –– feels familiar. Fifty years later, despite SRTOL remaining the official policy position of our largest professional organization, so many writing programs remain stubbornly devoted to a single, mythical “academic writing,” as evidenced by continued references to “academic writing” and a lack of references to varieties of English in programmatic outcomes, including the one from the Council of Writing Program Administrators

In committee meeting rooms and faculty workshops, writing program administrators and writing faculty like me have defended the continued teaching of this mythical monolith by telling ourselves and others that the kind of standardized English that most resembles white, middle- and upper-class English is what’s expected of students in other classrooms and in professional settings. And we’re not necessarily wrong: problematic, racist assumptions about language facility and variety pervade any number of spaces within and beyond academia, such as in business environments where assumptions about “proper” writing and speaking often mean a default to white, middle- and upper-class English varieties and linguistic bias continues to harm jobseekers of color. But that reality does not absolve us of the responsibility to push back on those assumptions or to fight for our students’ rights to learn and compose in the language varieties that are meaningful to them.

There are numerous ways that devoting first year composition (and other college writing classrooms) to so-called “academic writing” reifies racist and colonialist language practices. We know that we harm our students when we devalue the language varieties that animate their complex rhetorical lives. 

We know that there are benefits to helping students connect to topics, questions, and rhetorical practices that are meaningful to them. We also know there is no such thing as “academic writing” as a single genre, that what we mean by “academic writing” shifts from course to course, institution to institution, and discipline to discipline. We also know that grammars evolve, that stylistic choices are fluid and contextual, and that audience expectations and rhetorical situations shift.

Knowing all this, how do we make good on the promise of SRTOL? I want to suggest three places we might begin. First, I’d point us to the work of the Institute of Race, Rhetoric, and Literacy (once known as the CWPA Outcomes Statement Revision Task Force), whose members note that, “there is still a tendency among FYC practitioners to rely on predetermined, singular, habits of White language (HOWL). Too often in writing courses, HOWL purposefully excludes a diverse array of rhetorics and other habits of language that are, at base, equal to and, when used effectively, add to and even surpass the communicative and rhetorical effectiveness of HOWL.” I’d also point us to April Baker-Bell’s Linguistic Justice, which shows us, in no uncertain terms, that English language arts pedagogies are doing lasting harm to Black students. And I’d point to the 2020 CCCC Special Committee on Composing a CCCC Statement on Anti-Black Racism and Black Linguistic Justice’s “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice!,” which tells us that, “the language of Black students has been monitored, dismissed, demonized.” Each of these texts calls our attention to the harm we’ve done by ignoring the clear position of SRTOL: 

students have the right to write and learn in “to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style.” 

Taken together, these resources also offer us a way forward. They tell us that we can support and serve linguistically diverse students if we 

  1. Affirm our students’ existing rhetorical sophistication by assigning readings and inviting writing that encourage them to explore their existing literacies and use their well-honed rhetorical skills and knowledge in our classrooms.
  2. Make our classrooms and programs spaces for exploring and building on students’ previous literacy practices by using multimodal pedagogies, assigning writing projects that invite experimentation and play, and inviting students to speak and act as experts in their own literacy. 
  3. Help students build sustainable habits and routines for their writing, reading, and making in college and beyond through sustained, mindful reflection.
  4. Resist efforts to use a single standard to judge our students’ writing by eschewing rubrics that assume there is a single correct version of English and eliminating outcomes that emphasize mythical academic English. Faculty in programs that use a standard, program-wide rubric should push for its elimination or expansion of such assessment tools, or experiment with ungrading and other approaches that center students’ goals, needs, and approaches. Writing Program Administrators for such programs should revise rubrics, heuristics, and criteria to reflect the value of multiple Englishes. Or, we might decide to avoid rubrics altogether.

In the writing program at Sonoma State University, this means I’m working on

  1. Gathering data (quantitative AND qualitative) on equity gaps. This necessarily includes actual discussions with students of color who’ve gone through our programs and courses. Writing programs share any number of traits, but they are also idiosyncratic things, and local conditions, values, and experiences can have a significant impact both on the ways that programs make decisions and how students experience those decisions. To really understand what linguistic justice means for students in our specific programs, we need to understand their specific experiences. This data can be useful in programmatic assessment and decision-making (about student success, course caps, partnerships with academic and advising support, etc.) and for faculty professional development (At my previous institution, one of the most impactful faculty workshops allowed us to read anonymized student reflections about first year writing courses on our campus and consider how our practices impacted students’ experiences.)
  2. Revising our programmatic outcomes to eliminate ones that gesture toward or invoke a mythical, monolithic “academic writing” (Again, the work of the Institute of Race, Rhetoric, and Literacy is invaluable here.).
  3. Focusing our professional development on supporting faculty in doing the classroom work above, including through (as often as possible) paid support for faculty reflection, which can lead to communities of practice and course redesign.

All of these are concrete steps I can take in my own classroom and program. But, as the first post in this series reminded us, all writing and teaching work is local. I can’t chart for you how precisely each of these things might work in your classroom or program, but I can encourage you to find ways to (1) better understand the experiences of linguistically diverse students by reading the work researchers like April Baker-Bell and Django Paris or the College Reading and Learning Association and by talking to the linguistically diverse students in your own classes and programs and (2) interrupt, in ways big and small, the assessment and grading systems that do harm to all of our students, particularly our linguistically diverse students.

We can also insert ourselves, as often as possible, into conversations about writing and literacy on our campuses; we can be a voice for our students’ rights to their own language. But we have to start. And we have to start now. 

Writing faculty, writing programs, and English departments, as well as the humanities more broadly have the history, experience, and knowledge to lead conversations on our campuses about the harm of mythical “academic writing”. We can create the permission structure for our colleagues outside of writing studies to let go of the myth of “academic writing.” We can expose the lie. 

‘Cause if we don’t, who will? If not us, who?

Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic justice: Black language, literacy, identity, and pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.

Baker-Bell, April. “Dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism in English Language Arts Classrooms: Toward an Anti-Racist Black Language Pedagogy.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 59, no. 1, 2020, pp. 8-21.

Beavers, Melvin, Beth L. Brunk-Chavez, Neisha-Anne Green, Asao B. Inoue, Iris Ruiz, Tanita Saenkhum, and Vershawn Ashanti Young. “Abbreviated Statement Toward First-Year Composition Goals.” Institute of Race, Rhetoric, and Literacy, 2021. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1A0YO3K4IVIJLJTNSBGl5HJKOdddAK73spe2GbOmJn1w/edit. 

Cedillo, Christina. “Diversity, Technology, and Composition: Honoring Students’ Multimodal Home Places.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 6, no. 2, 2017.

Conference on College Composition and Communication. “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” 1974. https://cdn.ncte.org/nctefiles/groups/cccc/newsrtol.pdf. 

Conference on College Composition and Communication. “This Ain’t Another Statement. This Is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice,” 2020. https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/demand-for-black-linguistic-justice. 

de Klien, Christa and Rachele Lawton. Meeting the needs of linguistically diverse students at the college level. College Reading & Learning Association, 2015. 

Finegan, Edward. “What is “Correct” Language?” Linguistic Society of America. https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/what-correct-language. 

Kohn, Alfie. “The Case Against Grades.” Educational Leadership, vol. 69, no. 3, 2011, pp. 28-33.

Lyscott, Jamila. “Jamila Lyscott: Why English Class is Silencing Students of Color.” TED, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4dc1axRwE4. 

Mitchler, Sharon. “Pedagogy: Considering Local Conditions.” FEN Blog, 2021. https://compstudiesjournal.com/2021/06/07/pedagogy-considering-local-conditions/. 

Paris, Django. “‘They’re in My Culture, They Speak the Same Way’: African American Language in Multiethnic High Schools.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 79, no. 3, 2009, pp. 428-448.

Smitherman, Geneva. “’Students’ Right to Their Own Language’: A Retrospective.” The English Journal, vol. 84, no. 1, 1995, pp. 21-27.

Stommel, Jesse. “How to Ungrade.” JesseStommel.com, 2018. https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/. 

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “The Meaning-Making of Reflection.” FEN Blog, 2021. https://compstudiesjournal.com/2021/07/12/the-meaning-making-of-reflection/ 

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Should Writers Use They Own English?” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2010, pp. 110-117.

The Meaning-Making of Reflection

Kathleen Blake Yancey | Florida State University

[R]eflection is rhetorical […] only through
bringing the human and the world together to theorize
can a reflective knowledge and meaning be made.
(Yancey, A Rhetoric of Reflection)
The book cover of A Rhetoric of Reflection, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, featuring a black and white picture of a person examining their reflection in a puddle on the ground.
Figure 1. A Rhetoric of Reflection, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey

The word reflection points in a myriad of directions; it means so differently—see, for example, the ways several writing teacher/scholars approach it in A Rhetoric of Reflection—that it can be difficult to define fully. But I’ll try to provide a point of reflective departure 😉, at least in terms of my own sense of reflection.

In advance, though, I think I should observe that this blog post wanders a bit. I hope it does so reflectively. I hope it prompts you to think about how you define reflection, how you include reflection in your life, how you include it in your teaching and learning.

So, a definition: reflection, which is both a theory and a practice, is a means of making meaning. Drawing from experience and more—others’ views, information, intuition, materials, objects in the surround—we engage in a practice requiring attention, multiple perspectives, and time so as to understand anew. Sometimes, that understanding is deeper as a consequence of reflection; other times, that understanding changes, sometimes radically. Our reflections benefit from being situated in community, from response, from support. Reflection doesn’t so much provide answers as point to and open other ways of seeing and being; it puts into dialogue the familiar with the unfamiliar, the small in the large, the large in the tiny. 

In writing studies, we’ve long thought about reflection as a means of helping students develop as writers. Some of us ask students to describe their writing processes—in what’s conventionally referred to as a process memo. Some of us invite students to account for their development as writers—though the drafts and through the quarter or semester and through the years. Some of us require students to assess their texts according to outcomes—some of which may derive from a writing program, others of which students may create. All of these forms of reflection, which serve very different purposes, can be quite valuable. 

Still, I wonder: are these the best questions to prompt reflection about writing? Put in terms of the definition above, are these questions that will prompt authentic meaning-making?


We reflect in our personal lives, too. Consider the idea and the practice of family. How would you define family? How does one create a good family? Is a good family a happy family? An extended family? A family by choice? Does one ever leave one’s family, and if so, when? 

Or consider retirement. What is the purpose of retirement? Is it to sit back and rest after a lifetime of work? Travel around the world? Is it to care for our families in new ways? Is it to take up a new career or hobby? Is it to serve the public, perhaps by delivering meals on wheels or volunteering for a political candidate? What is the purpose of a good retirement?  

What’s interesting about these sets of reflective questions is a point that is obvious: no one can reflect for another; each of us, often in community, reflects.


As teachers, we know about reflection and about the role reflection plays in helping us improve—but again, largely through practice, largely through response to an undeniable exigence. When students don’t respond as we’d liked or hoped, we have an opportunity to reflect, to consider their concerns in the context of our aims, and to understand what’s going on differently, especially from the perspectives of others who also inhabit our curricular and pedagogical space. Such an exigence provides an opportunity for growth. Organizers, too, it seems, as AOC commented during 2020: “I come from the lens of an organizer, and if someone doesn’t do what you want, you don’t blame them — you ask why. And you don’t demand that answer of that person — you reflect. And that reflection is where you can grow.”

The course on a page is a hand drawn calendar for the fall semester with tasks such as "share" and due dates laid out for the whole course.

Figure 2. An example of Yancey’s “course on a page.” Photo credit: Kathleen Blake Yancey

All the (many) good teachers I’ve known have grown over time. For my part, one way I’ve grown—in response to student concerns—is in sharing with them ways I’ve organized a class. Because I design the courses I teach, it’s always been obvious to me how each unfolds, how the readings are arranged to motivate writing, how the class discussions and workshops will link to both. But students, they didn’t always see it this way: to them, my courses sometimes felt disorganized, they said. Was I disappointed? Yes. But I wasn’t angry. As AOC observes, there’s no blame here. I saw the logic of their response, and I also liked my intent, to include the potential for invention that a bit of ambiguity, per Kenneth Burke, seemed to provide. Through reflection, I effected a compromise: syllabi that were more detailed but that didn’t foreclose the chance of serendipity. In addition, I created a corresponding “course on a page” helping visually orient students to the way elements were linked and the times when assignments were due. Happily, I found that the course on a page also helped me; in drafting it, I could see where my rhythm of assignments needed an adjustment and assure that deadlines were relativized and reasonable. Reflection, in other words, includes more than taking stock or looking backward, although it includes both: as a meaning-making activity, reflection is also oriented to new understandings and future change.


About two years ago, faculty developers Tracy Penny-Light, Laura Colket, and Adam Carswell invited a group of international teachers, including me, to contribute to their edited collection Becoming: Transformative Storytelling for Education’s Future. The key word in the title, Becoming, signaled the editors’ interest in teachers becoming teachers in response to critical incidents, or episodes of difficulty, surprise, or struggle. More specifically, the editors were interested in how these teachers had experienced critical incidents, in how those incidents had contributed to their teaching practices, and in what the incidents might also suggest about how teaching practices, or the educational system itself, should be changed. 

To learn about this, the editors gave us the same reflective assignment:
1. Please write an educational autobiography in which you reflect on critical incidents in your experience as a student in relation to literature and theory about teaching and learning. In doing so, please consider the following questions:

How did those defining moments shape you as a learner? Are you able to identify an arc or any themes in your experience? What roles have your various social identities played in shaping your educational experience? What role did the contexts in which you were learning shape your experience? How did your broader social/cultural/political sphere shape your educational experiences? What main struggles did you face as a student? Did you have any resources, supports, people or strategies to help you overcome those struggles? What are you most proud of when you look back on your time as a student? What are you most surprised or concerned about? If you were to go back to talk to your teachers now, what would you tell them about how to better support you as a learner?

2. Please write your teaching or leadership philosophy. In doing so, please reflect on the following questions:

What are your key beliefs about teaching/leadership? What literature and/or theory supports your beliefs? What specific strategies do you draw on that align with your key beliefs? What critical incidents have shaped your beliefs and practices?

3. Please write a critical reflection about your experience thinking through these aspects of your teaching and learning experiences. What connections, themes, contradictions or new understandings emerged for you through this writing process? What implications might this have for your practice?

The cover of Becoming: Transformative Storytelling for Education's Future by Laura Colket, Tracy Penny Light, and M. Adam Carswell has a vibrant yellow-orange background with a spiral paisley swirl.

Figure 3. Becoming: Transformative Storytelling for Education’s Future by Laura Colket, Tracy Penny Light, and M. Adam Carswell.

I identified three such critical incidents, two in college: (1) when I saw integral connections between two seemingly disparate junior-level classes, Victorian literature and geology; and (2) when I enrolled in a rhetoric class in communication studies whose orientation toward texts differed considerably from that in the English department where I was a doctoral student. As important, I also identified an earlier critical incident occurring outside school, when as a child living in 1958 West Germany, I understood the situatedness of certain holidays—Thanksgiving was the first—as uniquely American and also—if somewhat vaguely (I was, after all, just 8 at the time)—as a more general phenomenon wherein cultural practices are often historically motivated. For me, I said in the chapter, living in Germany “was Copernican: the US, with its unique Thanksgiving, was no longer the centerpiece body among planets and stars, but rather one planet among many.” 

In the past, I’d often told this story about my surprise at learning about how un-German Thanksgiving was, sort of as a joke on myself: I was very surprised that my German friends were not celebrating the holiday, and my child-like naivete is pretty funny. But as I reflected on this experience in writing this chapter, I understood it another way, more as one source for my appreciation of history, my appreciation of difference, and my commitment to weaving both into my teaching, especially in terms of the way I begin classes: 

history is important to me as a person and as a teacher. I began college as a history major and was certified to teach history to students grades 6- 12; along with rhetorical situation, the historical context—perhaps in part because of my living, as an impressionable child, in such an intense historical context in post-war Germany—functions as something of a standard intellectual framework for me. It’s probably not surprising, then, that I begin every course I teach with history, more specifically with students’ histories. I often open the first class period with an icebreaker focused on course content that taps student’s prior experiences; my first homework assignment performs the same task more discursively. This term, I am teaching a special topics course, Writing across the Curriculum and the Question of Writing Transfer, and the first assignment is what I’ve called The Snapshot Project:

In 1-2 pages (single spaced), identify three moments when your writing changed. For each moment, 

a. describe it
b. analyze how your writing changed and why
c. consider whether this change was helpful or not
d. theorize about what this tells you about how writers
may develop

Tracing our own histories, as my students did this week and I have done here, allows us to distance ourselves from them, see them from other angles, and begin to make meaning of them.


I think one of the questions reflective teachers often have centers on the how of classroom reflection: what reflective questions should we ask students, and when should we ask them so that they are meaningful to students? That italicized part? That’s the kicker: it’s very difficult to decide in advance what will be meaningful to others. But in a writing class, or a rhetoric class, we are situated in an intellectual community where some questions, when reflected upon, have that potential. The list of potential questions, below, is hardly exhaustive, but it might provide a place to begin, for our students and for us, and it might also be that we return to these questions more than once.  

What is the purpose of rhetoric? What is the purpose of your rhetoric? 

What does it mean to write in the world?

What’s the most important text you’ve written? Why was it important? What did it teach you about writing? 

What does it mean to write? Is it only words, or mostly words, or words plus—words and visuals and document design and sound? Are writing and composing synonyms? Are you a writer, a composer, or both? Why?

Why do we write? Why do you write? 

What will you write and why?

At the end of the day, what difference will your writing—a given text, your writing generally, your efforts—make?  Continue reading