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  • Writer's pictureJohn Constantine Tobin

An Emergent Composition Pedagogy: The Interconnectedness of the Graduate Student

Each day these concepts from my doctorate become more and more interconnected with one another. It’s a weekly inundation of theories combined with praxis plus an intense stress that accompanies this synthesis of information. I mentioned this predicament during my pedagogy course this week. I also touched on how I don’t quite know how it will all come together or where it will leave me. My pedagogy professor responded by saying that this is a beautiful problem - that this particular interconnectedness and the way it shapes how a student’s world is perceived: that the beauty of higher education. These are sentiments I really appreciate, especially in how they have helped me frame my experiences as I’ve continued to consider them over the last few days. I think it’s this particular situation that has drawn me back to my studies time and again.

When I first began to teach during my MFA at The University of Baltimore, I had to face the accumulation of my own knowledge, and then frame it for these new student writers. In this process, I found a certain newness in my understanding of academia. My teaching mentor back then once told me that the ideal standard for a professor in today’s world is one who both produces knowledge and passes it on. A writer who teaches writing must also write. A research professor must both conduct research and bring it into the classroom. This was an echo of a sentiment from a newly minted professor in a psycholinguistics course I took back at The University of Michigan. As my studies progress, I’m starting to wonder if there’s more to this ideal standard. I’m currently in several unique positions: I’m a writing student, a writing instructor and a poet. Perhaps it’s because I’ve begun the terminal course of my education and the idea that I’ve reached the pinnacle of my studies is unsettling. Should I really ever stop being a student? …Is that even possible?

This brings to me our pedagogical focus from classes this week: antiracism in the composition classroom. An additional pedagogy meant to build upon the pedagogies I’ve been developing throughout the semester alongside my teaching experience. I’ve always wanted to make my classroom a welcoming place for all my students, but through the readings this week, I’ve come to understand that this can be far more complicated than being a welcoming presence and encouraging my students. One reading tackled two specific scenarios of white instructors using antiracist pedagogical practices to make students of color feel comfortable in their respective classrooms. Despite their attempts and using recommended practices, their efforts didn’t quite make their students feel welcome and the instructors had to reevaluate their methods. This highlights how incorporating new pedagogies is a learning process. This reveals to me that teachers must also be students. This is what I need to build into my teaching philosophy.

If I am to be a successful instructor, I can’t just rely on the ideals and standards that have been imparted to me from my past experiences. I have to be an active learner in addition to a writing instructor and poet. Perhaps I should always inhabit these three roles: teacher, student and poet long after my doctorate. I know it’s important for instructors to remain concurrent with the most recent and relevant theory in their respective fields, but being a student is more than that. I would never have been able to assess these antiracist pedagogies and the complexity with which they must be enacted without my instructor and classmates. I wouldn’t then have been able to adequately share the theories I’ve been studying with my students. I’ve brought some of my articles from my classes into the undergraduate classroom and found that my students tend to enjoy and engage more with me when I share my studies with them. They get to see where my pedagogies come from, which gives them an idea of why they are learning what they’re learning.

I remember back during my MFA trying to explain to my students why I was teaching them rhetorical genre analysis. I came up with my own reasons, which were sufficient enough, but I couldn’t explain to them the scholarly basis of rhetorical analysis in the composition classroom. I couldn’t connect the links from my course material to the wider sphere of academic knowledge from which it came. This was a major motivating factor for pursuing a doctorate. For writing, the MFA is the terminal degree, so I had technically achieved my qualification to teach college composition. Yet the inability to answer those questions from my students made me feel woefully inadequate as a professor.

At this point, I’ve come to realize the feeling of underpreparedness I had is manifesting as an additional component of my teaching philosophy. Perhaps I need to be a student if I am going to be an instructor. I need to be learning and synthesizing new information to effectively pass on information to my students. The interconnectedness of the graduate student is becoming a part of my philosophical and theoretical goals in the composition classroom, and perhaps in any other course I might teach. At the moment, I am fortunate enough to allow all that my doctorate is pouring into me to accommodate this teaching philosophy. but my mind still wanders to what might happen when I’m no longer in this environment. How might this experience be replicated beyond the terminus of my graduate studies? A question I’ll have to set to mind as the dust of the doctorate continues to swirl and eventually settle.

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