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  • Writer's pictureJohn Constantine Tobin

Course Planning, Teaching Observation, Subconscious Assessment and the Persistence of Time

For newly minted teachers of ENG101 in the doctoral program at Southern Miss, the first half of the course is mapped out in a general sense. I still have control of my lesson planning, but most readings and general concepts for College Composition are pre-selected and vetted. So far, I’ve just made the lesson plans and taught it the way I’ve wanted, with minor alterations in course structure here and there, but this week has been different. Week 7 is the midway point in the semester and it’s a curious time in which we first years are set free to develop the remaining half of the course ourselves. That means the final two assignments are mine to teach: the position paper and the final portfolio with its accompanying reflection, whereas the first two foundational papers, the visual and textual analyses, were mapped out for me and the analytical focus is wrapping up.

Is that it for rhetorical analysis then? Position papers are much more traditional in scope. It’s not about analyzing writing for its rhetorical qualities, then determining its effectiveness, instead students are the ones who have to be effective. I have to figure out how to frame this for my students. How do I get them to put themselves on the other side of the rhetorical spectrum? To use their analytical skills on their own writing to craft a persuasive essay? I like to think that a lot of learning happens subconsciously. A student doesn’t have to set out to write a rhetorically effective paper, right? Instead, those rhetorical skills will show within their writing ...right? I think a teacher I often want direct results out of my students, but I've been thinking I should consider their knowledge as a network of information that creates cross-applicable skills in surprising, unique and often unknown ways. As a functioning network, that information cannot be so direct and measurable as I might want it to be.

In my own doctoral studies, my increasing theoretical knowledge is becoming a sort of amalgam that, well, informs my study of more theories. Each one builds connections to the others in a web of understanding. Yes, I do see some parallels in Orientalism and Africanism. Yes, I'm noticing an intersection between postcolonialism and the decentering of Western literary canon to so-called “non-standard” texts aka non-British and dominant American texts, which is all then interrelated with the much needed rise of diverse contemporary and historical thought in scholarship. While I could go on at length about shifts in theory, I’d like to keep the focus on teaching. If my theoretical studies are drawing comparisons and informing one another without me directly applying them, shouldn’t I expect the rhetorical framework that my students and I have built to be doing the same for them? It should be this type of growth that I need to look for each time I receive a new set of papers. If I really want to assess my students properly, I need to look at those subconscious connections that are made not only in their writing, but in my interactions with my students. I think this is what development in the classroom is really about, but it’s a puzzle trying to factor that into objective assessment, which is why I'm quickly becoming a proponent of labor- or effort-based grading contracts, thought I haven't quite figured out my own method of them just yet.

I think this ties into teaching observations. I’ve had the fortunate experience of having my teaching mentor be the very same person who is my professor for writing pedagogy. This puts both him and me in a unique position in which he is acutely aware of the content that I am currently learning in his class, which then must subconsciously and consciously manifest itself in various ways in my classroom as I teach my students. Who better to notice these trends than my very own professor of writing? I think it’s difficult to be self-aware of what exactly the knowledge I’ve accrued in my professor’s class is doing for me at this point. Usually, this is easier to identify in self-reflection or in this case, from an independent, but uniquely informed observer. My point is that my professor’s comments and advice are going to be particularly useful because he can point out in a nuanced critique which elements of his classroom are manifesting in my own and where I’ve made my own divergences and modifications. I think this is an exciting part of teaching mentorship. In this case, taking a good look at a student’s practice in action. I haven’t received my feedback just yet, but it’s interesting to see how this teaching relationship mirrors my relationship with my students. The teacher-student relationship helps new scholars produce information.

It seems I still can't quite get over how odd it is to be both instructor and student at once.

But my professor's advice will be helpful in how I develop the remainder of this course curriculum. I still have a general timeline and course structure from the English department regarding just how the rest of the Composition course is supposed to go, but now the materials are mine to provide, as are the assignments and expectations. It’s a lot of work to be doing from week-to-week, but the logic of the course has already been determined, while my practical experience has solidified that logic in a way that will likely help me reproduce it. It's actually all this theory that I’m learning that is a disruptive force in my course planning. It’s such an inundation of ideas I want to apply within my classroom in different ways. Yet, I think switching up plans and pedagogies too rapidly would be confusing to my students and I’ll likely be conservative this first year. That being said, the prospects are as exciting and I love having knowledge to worth with.

It’s a 16-week semester. Knowing the last two are exam weeks, that means after this week, Week 7, I have 7 more to go of concrete instruction before exams. Each one brings me closer to my own pedagogies and unique teaching style, which I hope will continue to subconsciously change and adapt to the great influx of information the world persistently provides over time.

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