When You Think You’ve Made It, or On Transitions

AcademicTwo thousand twelve was a major year for me. Sixth months into my first year as a master’s student, I transitioned from English education and literary studies to composition and rhetoric; two months later I transitioned from studying how to teach traditional essays in high school to studying how to teach multimodal texts in higher education. Both transformations culminated in a master’s thesis about using remediation to help English teachers teach multimodal composition in their classrooms. It was a practical guide that used genre theory, best practices for teaching writing, and social development theory as theoretical foundations.

Yet my own teaching in first-year composition did not fully reflect my research interests. During my year and a half tenure as graduate teaching assistant, I mostly taught print-based essays, sneaking in only two assignments related to multimodality–the Twitter essay (which was really an extra credit assignment) and the information sharing blog. I graduated with my master’s frustrated that I had not done more. The director of the Composition Program who was also my thesis director loved alternative approaches to teaching writing, so she gave me the freedom to practice my research. Three first-year composition courses and only two assignments reflected my thinking. And I was starting my Phd at Wisconsin claiming that this would be my research, my academic identity. I wanted my thinking to be my action. What scholar doesn’t teach what he or she researches?

Just a couple days ago I finished teaching Media Studies in a Digital Age, a three-week college-level course designed for gifted high school students provided by a non-profit organization called Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth (WCATY).  The class was advertised as exploring the effects of media on people while learning media techniques, which I translated to “digital rhetoric and multimodal composition.” Working closely with the director, I created the course from the ground up–we spent the first week learning digital rhetoric, the second week exploring design thinking and the social and behavioral impact of new media, and the third week thinking about narratives, media, and culture. Students created electronic portfolios using WordPress–it would house all of their work: their reading responses, their two media projects (one group, one individual), their small in-class media projects, the entire media production process, and their portfolio reflections.

The class went well, or, in the words of my education assistant, “the class was not bad.” We had fun. We laughed. A lot. Mostly at Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert. Some times at each others. My students created some awesome media projects, definitely rhetorically-appropriate for the contexts I put them in.  I was surprised actually that the class went better than I had expected.

For the first time, I taught a multimodal composition course, the very thing I had written about and read about and thought about for so long. And it was easy.

It was easy exactly because I spent two and a half years studying this topic, because research and teaching experiences from the last twenty years was at my disposal. Cynthia Selfe, Cheryl Ball, Kathleen Yancey Blake, Geoffrey Sirc, Anne Wysocki, and others, had laid the foundation. Thanks to them, my transition to multimodal composition was fairly smooth. I worried that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I’d fall, that I wouldn’t transfer my content knowledge and my instructional knowledge to the classroom in this new context. Yet I did it, without even thinking. The entire course, from assessment to one-on-one conferences, felt organic.

Often you go through a PhD program and you aren’t sure if you’re growing intellectually. You’ve taken the courses, you’ve written the seminar papers, you’ve read the articles and books. Even though your professors give you validation, tell you there’s a place for you in the field, and your colleagues recognize your awesomeness, there’s still doubt.

But then someone asks you a question related to your research or you have to create a new class from the ground up. And like clockwork you ace the answer, the words spill out of your mouth, your thinking goes in different directions as you consider the larger implicates of the question or your answer to the question. Or you struggle to put together a syllabus not because you are ignorant and your friends and colleagues were wrong about your awesomeness, but because there’s so much your students can read and talk about that you’re afraid to leave anything out.

You don’t know how much you know until you’re placed in a context that forces to you to show what you know. Then you realize, this academic stuff is second nature to you.

I thought I wouldn’t be able to transition to multimodal composition; I thought I’d never make the transition, but when it came time to make the transition, most everything fell into place.

I’m slated to return next year and teach the class again. I’m hoping that in the next twelve months I’ll have grown intellectually and pedagogically (awkward sounding word, I know). I hope I’m a better teacher, a better scholar, and a better person so my students can be better also.

Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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