Riding high and lonesome through a starlit sky.
And it comes to you how it all slips away
Youth and beauty are gone one day
No matter what you dream or feel or say
It ends in dust and disarray.
This is the teaching philosophy the First Year Composition program at FSU required me to compose, summer 2010, in preparation for teaching ENC 1101 in the fall. I borrowed the gardening metaphor from a book we read in Editing Essentials at Rollins, Getting the Words Right, by Theodore A. Rees Cheney, a book that I still refer to as my primary style guide. I think the analogy works really well in regards to teaching composition.
My Teaching Philosophy: Let the Garden Grow
Educators and theorists view the teaching of composition in many ways: as a process of self-exploration, perhaps, or as a transfer of knowledge and know-how from teacher to student, or even as an austere discipline aimed at rendering sentence, paragraph, and essay. I tend to see it as a practice in gardening. When composing, writers become those gardeners who, rolling up and their sleeves and reaching for their shovels, go to work in the wilderness of language. The products of writing, the journals, reflections and essays, become the emerging foliage, the budding flowers, which need careful trimming and attention to grow verdant and fruitful. The processes of writing, the drafting, workshopping, editing, and revising, become the tools—spades, gloves, and shovels; and the mediums in which we plant our ideas become the soil supporting our gardens as they grow. Teachers, given the privileged position of visiting gardener, work to improve the methods of their student writers. They give advice on which rhetorical and grammatical devices, which tools and fertilizers, would improve the quality of the student-garden. In the end, both teacher and student work to produce a powerful written voice and a method for cultivating that voice in the future. My teaching philosophy involves responding to student’s writing in a sensitive, productive manner, always availing myself to new techniques for composition, and encouraging students to grow and maintain their gardens of learning as they go forward in their lives.
As I begin to enter into these student-gardens, I’ll take care to tread lightly, not imposing my authority like one wields a machete, but nurturing what I find with gentle hands of support and care. I mustn’t be an unruly guest, stomping out nascent plants and ideas, and I mustn’t make so many changes to the writing that the work becomes my own, relegating students to the role of superintendent of a garden more mine than theirs. Students often recoil at too much criticism in the lines, margins, and endnotes of their papers, so I’ll strive to allow these ideas and experiments to grow freely, especially in early drafts, and assist them with trimming and shaping at the proper time. Often, the criticism we hand out in papers saturates the gardens like an insidious pesticide; we aim to help in large doses, but too much focus on errors and mistakes can damage the soil for seasons to come. Instead, I’ll try to be selective with the corrections I make on their drafts, but heavy-handed in praising their efforts. For praise from a teacher acts like fertilizer in student composition—you apply it to areas of positive growth and watch the writing flourish. In the same measure, making corrections is like pruning. Often, improving grammar and syntax is necessary to clarify meaning and lend validity to an argument, but too much of this trimming and hedging may whittle the paper down to nothing.
My goal is to bring students up, not chop them down. A good place for this encouragement and confidence building is in the conference setting. To continue the analogy, conferences are like consultations where student and teacher talk gardener-to-gardener, writer-to-writer, sharing methods, observations, and tricks of the trade. During these consultations, the teacher must allow students to speak as much as possible. After all, it’s their gardens we’re working in. Teachers should listen for reflections of the student’s methods, and encourage the student to compare their intentions to their results. But that jump from ideal to actual should be made by the student, not by the instructor. In theory, valuing the students as peers in the writing process should instill in them the confidence to be assertive with their essays. Peer workshops should operate in a similar way, with students consulting each other about clarity and confusion, logic and method, tips and tools. But these students should never discuss matters of grammar and syntax, as student-writers haven’t developed this sort of expertise, and often make incorrect corrections. Also, through exposure to each other’s writings, the students should improve on a set of reading skills applicable to their own writing. The teacher’s role is to oversee and encourage these healthy interactions within the classroom community, doling out knowledge in choice moments of learning.
Of course, the teacher oversees this process of learning, but must allow students to realize that the stylistic choices are their own. The student has to be in control of the writing, and realize that when teachers and peers comment on their papers, those comments are just suggestions. The writing process grants all authority to the writer, and this authorial ownership should stick with them throughout their lives, well beyond their academic careers. In our current democracy, this ownership and capacity for growth proves vital to entering debates and forums for societal improvement. Undoubtedly, we as teachers will never have perfected our methods as writers or educators; one must continuously tend to a garden or it will be overgrown and overrun by weeds. I hope to learn alongside my students as we develop a shared and communal expertise. Just as gardeners must always improve their methods, seek out better supplements for their greenery, and face new challenges with each passing season, teachers must realize that they’ll never come to a point of complete knowledge about composition. I’ll strive to relinquish the need to know everything about my craft for the sake of always learning something. Even though I bring with me the valuable tools of writing I’ve been given by previous teachers and experiences, I hope to never be closed off to the prospect of new learning.
Ideally, I would get as much out of my class as the students. As I hope to always seek ways to retool and strengthen my own written voice, students will find, going forward in their academic and professional lives, that they need a voice to exact the change they want from the world. This voice is the fruit of our labors, the product of our gardens, which is not terminal but regenerative. With each new season, each rhetorical situation, the student should have the power to begin the process anew, and every time produce a voice stronger and more assertive than the last. Our postmodern world is in constant flux, with technology bringing people closer together and information traveling at breakneck speeds. We realize more and more that universal standards of truth don’t really exist, but are redefined in every moment depending on an individual definition of right and wrong. We need to teach students to “learn how to learn,” to analyze and confront exigencies as they appear in the world, and use writing to bring about the changes they want to see. Our students possess the voices of the future; they are the gardeners whose task will be to prune and hone, or completely remodel, the society they’ve inherited. With the resource of written language, and the backing of a supportive community in our composition classrooms, students should have planted the seed of critical skills and witnessed the budding of confidence necessary to shape the world as they see fit.