Teaching Reflection:  What is it we are doing anyhow?

“Although some educationists do not seem to believe it, teaching is a transitive verb.  It takes both direct and indirect objects.  While they seem occasionally willing to admit to the indirect object, they are almost universally unwilling to announce a direct object.  The educationist seems to believe that teaching is generic: Once one know how to teach, one can teach anything.”

–Hillocks, Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice

I started teaching university level courses when I began graduate studies at UC Berkeley in 1997.  Looking back over the last sixteen years of teaching within, across, and between the disciplines and my more recent teaching in composition and rhetoric, I can say that what I love about teaching is the way it continually humbles me.  I continue to be, as Paul Kameen says in Writing/Teaching, a teacher “always verging on the more, the better, the greater than this “I” who is trying to find its place in the picture.”  When I first started teaching, I imagined that there was a there; that the moment would come when I knew how to teach and could teach anything.  Yet I know now that when that moment appears, it is ephemeral.  My own personal educational journey as a first-generation student entering the University of California completely underprepared, meant that at first this feeling of unpreparedness to teach caused great anxiety.  After years of teaching experience and multiple graduate degrees, the feeling of unpreparedness is still there, gently resting on my left shoulder as I enter a new class, yet my perception of it has changed:  I have come to see it as a necessary (and healthy) tension–a tension any truly committed teacher who understand the power of writing should feel.

There is a necessary tension and there is also a kind of weightiness in my understanding of the writing teacher’s task for I’ve come to see writing, reading, and thinking as interconnected, mutually complimentary, constitutive processes–as you become a more effective writer you will become a more effective reader and a more critical and careful thinker and vice versa.  And if writing, reading, and thinking are interconnected ways of learning, adding to the weight of this interconnection is James Berlin’s assertion that in teaching writing “we are tacitly teaching a version of reality and the student’s place and mode of operation in it” (2003, 257).

My educational journey toward teaching writing zigzagged backwards.  That is, I had completed a Ph. D in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley and taught Ethnic and Chicana/o Studies courses before starting the MA in Composition Program at San Francisco State University.  It took me years to figure out that writing, the thing I loved to do, was also the thing I loved to teach.  It also took me years to figure out that what was most compelling to me about Ethnic Studies was the way it teaches you how to read, write, and think.  I came out of Ethnic Studies seeped in Chicana feminism and the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire and bell hooks–as an educator committed to liberatory pedagogy–and while my teaching goals are similar, how to get there has completely shifted.  Here is an example.

In the fall of 2003 I was teaching one of my last courses as a graduate student at CAL.  The course was called Transnational Chicana Feminism: “Refugees of a World on Fire.”  There was a service-learning component to the course and for their final project, my students were to write a 15-page essay in response to the four-part essay prompt below:

1. In the first part of the final, define globalization.  Explain how globalization is an economic, political and ideological phenomenon?  What is the relationship between economic, political, ideological, and other globalizations?  How are is internal sexism, racism, capitalist hegemony, and heterosexualization central to processes of global domination?  How did early Chicana feminist define/engage globalization, how are they engaging in transnational Chicana feminist practices today?

2. In the second part of your paper describe generally what are the concrete effects of global restructuring on the “real” raced, classed, national, sexual bodies of women of color “here” and “there”?  After a general discussion about the effects of globalization on poor women of color, you can focus here on women in the workspace, streets, households, neighborhoods, prisons, and social movements, in the U.S. and/or abroad.  How you focus at the end of section two depends on the organization you will write about in section three.

3. This is where you write about the organization you decided to work with.  How is the organization you choose an example of women of color intervening, contesting, resisting globalization? What kinds of transnational anti-capitalist feminist practices are women of color developing?  Include in this section a critical evaluation of the organization’s effectiveness.

4. The last part of your final is a critical self-reflection.  In your own words tell me how this course has developed your understanding of globalization and transnational Chicana feminism?  What have been some of the major shifts in the way you think about your world and your place within it?

I’ve included the entire prompt only to highlight its impossibility. Can you imagine having to write such a paper?  One would have to write a book to begin to answer number 1!  It’s such an impossible prompt that I can imagine an honest response to the reflection in part four would have been “ I just want to die!”

Yet as a newly minted Berkeley Ph. D I relished in the complicatedness of my essay prompts–they took hours to contrive.  They were often one page long and I thought this was a good thing.  The impossibility of the intellectual task was a good thing.  My professors asked me to make the impossible a simple act every day and so I was passing that strenuousness along–I was preparing them.  In my mind, we had been reading, writing, and discussing gender and globalization for weeks and now the time had come for my students to produce written proof of what they had learned.  As I re-read my old essay prompts and my students’ genuine efforts to answer them, I am awed by their resilience and can’t help but think how true that old adage is that–in essays prompts as in life–you get what you ask for.

The essays I ask for now are an integral part of a learning process that is carefully sequenced with scaffolding every step of the way.  Bartholomae and Petrosky and their Ways of Reading has taught me a great deal about how to make the work we do in my composition class sequential as well as cumulative.  As in the work we do with Freire’s essay will prepare us for the work we will do on Anzaldúa or Adrienne Rich.  When my students go home and write an essay they are not writing something new, they are finalizing something they have been composing through multiple gateway activities that have enabled them to engage in the strategies of the essay’s writing/thinking tasks.  In fact I never ask my students to do anything on their own we have not already done together and I always make sure to explain to them why we are doing what we are doing.  The need to teach procedural knowledge and Hillocks’ poignant question, “What governs the sequencing of activities in which students learn procedural knowledge?” is with me as I think about my chunks of teaching and consider their content, sequence, and coherence (Hillocks, 171).  While in the past I thought of the areas or content I wanted to teach per week, now I structure my courses by thinking about the writing, reading, and thinking skills I want my students to develop and how they can best learn those skills through a series of related tasks.  How is this assignment connected to the others? “Now that we did X, we can use that to do Y.”  How does this assignment build on what we did last week, how will this assignment expand my students’ repertoire?

My understanding of what we do when we read and what we are asking students to do when we assign reading has also expanded.  As McCormick, I see reading as a socio-cultural act and my students as “inhabitants of particular socio-cultural formations, with particular literary and general ideologies, who appropriate from their society, both consciously and unconsciously, their own particular repertoires” (McCormick, 69-71).  It is important to me that my students learn to perceive the interconnectedness of social conditions and the reading and writing practices of our culture.  From this IRW perspective, reading is not merely the act of accessing the prefabricated knowledge in a text, but rather of examining critically the messages present in the production, distribution, and reception process attached to a “text in use” and the consequences of those messages.  In other words, texts are not static entities; they are always “in use,” changing based on the cultural conditions in which they are read and reproduced.  My students should not only perceive this interconnectedness, they should also be able to critically analyze it and make transformative interventions (McCormick, Chapter 2).

The Integrated Reading and Writing approach of our composition program has enabled me to see how reading and writing are interconnected, mutually constitutive processes and students should come to see how the structures, practices, and language of each can help to understand the other.  Reading and writing should be taught as integrated processes, not separate, or within a hierarchy where one is considered more important than the other–they are both equally important to the learning process.  This means that, as teachers, we need to not only design an integrated reading and writing curriculum, we need to also create an integrated instructional approach.  Moreover, a successful IRW classroom will emphasize the creation of a community of peers and allow the necessary time required for this community to mature (Baldwin et. al).

My thinking about what it is that we do when we read has expanded as have my ideas about literacy and the need to think of digital rhetoric.  A new world opened up for me in English 708, Teaching Writing in the Digital Age.  Before this class, I had always had an ambivalent relationship with technology and digital media, I would do only what I had to do professionally and when a new digital media task was before me I would approach it with some trepidation.  Now I am excited about how digital media is changing definitions of literacy and the idea that the internet and the way we compose on-line fundamentally shifts the way we read and write our worlds.

Another major shift in my teaching is in my approach to teaching academic discourse and the research essay: I’ve moved away from mastery toward preparing my students to learn in their discipline or field and beyond.  My training in Ethnic Studies gave me an interdisciplinary background that allowed me to teach across and within different disciplines yet my approach was something like “the ten most important things you need to know to complete a research project and write a research paper.”  If I was teaching an upper division research writing course my students would learn to work within the academic discourse of their major or field.  I worked hard to make sure they would learn the specialized discourse as we moved from the research proposal to the annotated bibliography and literature review.   While I wanted my students to think critically about their own discourse communities, my focus was on making sure they were effective sociologists or historians and less attention was paid to questioning the definition of ‘academic discourse’ as Patricia Bizzell asks us to do and we could finish a semester without ever asking what is a ‘discourse community’ and how is it constituted?  In other words, the secret secrets of the university remained intact as I worked to remake my students into master assemblers (Bartholomae, 1996, 2003).

I’ve taken from McCormick the idea of teaching academic discourse, as situated discourse.  In teaching the research paper students will be taught how to wrench the research paper from the objective/individual paradigm which it generally occupies into the social and the historical.  As the teacher I strive to help students develop alternative means of analysis and encourage students to interrogate the ideological assumptions and the specific power relations underlying the diverse positions they encounter, as well as the social, political, moral, and (I would add) ethical implications maintaining them. (McCormick, 148)

In the way I approach teaching academic discourse now reading and writing are a struggle within and against the languages of academic life.  What matters in my courses is that students learn to develop their own ideas and theories on a subject and that they come to understand the language and methods of the university.  Students in my class then are given the responsibility of having something to say, or taking their place within an academic conversation as active participants, able to make important interventions: Interventions that are new, that shift university discourses with their particular socio-historical way of seeing.  Instead of lectures, or course texts, being central to the course, what is central is that students learn to command the activities basic to undergraduate study: reading, writing, interpretation, report, discussion. (Bartholomae and Petrosky, 1986, 2008).

The shift then is one of emphasis, what I strive for now is helping my students approximate academic or disciplinary discourse through assignment sequences that enable them to imagine themselves as “insiders” with something worthwhile to contribute.  This is not an easy task when your are teaching generation 1.5 students and students new to academic discourse who are use to writing from and around the margins.  My teaching of academic discourse now is grounded on the ideas of Bartholomae, Petrosky, and Bizzell and their call for teaching academic discourse in a way that teaches students to question the reproduction of disciplinary boundaries and authority–in other words–my focus is on developing the habits of mind essential for success in college writing.  While in the past I would have been satisfied if a student could at the end of my research writing class write an effective research paper within their discipline; now I want to prepare students to learn in their disciplines or fields and beyond.  My goal is to equip them “with a mental schema for learning writing skills in new genres in new discourse communities they will encounter throughout life;” to set them, as Beauford suggests, on a  life-long course of becoming more expert writers (Beaufort 17 and 158).  In other words, I want them to read, write, and think rhetorically.

After two years of writing instruction, Lewis Buzbee, one of my writing teachers and mentors at the University of San Francisco, turned to us and said, “now I am going to tell you the secret to becoming a great writer.”  He was whispering, as if to disclose an ancient secret, and so we were perched on our seats.  He then turned to the whiteboard and wrote three words in capital letters: READ, WRITE, REVISE.  He was talking about how to become a great writer in creative non-fiction, yet, I believe the secret to becoming a great writer applies to all genres.   I also believe, along with Elbow, that the process of learning to write effectively involves understanding your writing process and your relationship to writing and that learning to write effective academic prose requires different kinds of writing across formal and informal genres (Elbow, 2000).

I know from my own educational experience at the University of California, that one of the most important gifts of a college education is to teach our students to become strong readers and strong writers in the way Bartholomae and Petrosky define these (2008).  Our students have to emerge from college with these skills for their own personal self-fulfillment and in order to succeed and make important contributions in their communities and beyond.


Baldwin Patricia, Helen Gillotte-Tropp, Sugie Geon-Salter and Joan M Wong.  Composition for Success: A Student’s Guide to Integrated Reading and Writing. Boston: MA. Pearson Custom Publishing, 2007.

Bartholomae, David. “What is Composition (and If You Know What That is) Why Do We Teach It?” In Composition in the 21st Century, edited by Lynn Bloom, Donald Daiker, and Edward White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996: 11-29.

_____.”Inventing the University” In Cross Talk in Composition Theory, edited by Victor             Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003: 623-653.

Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky.  Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers.  New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2008.

_____. Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts: Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, Inc., 1986.

Beaufort, Anne.  College Writing and Beyond.  Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2007.

Berlin, James. “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories.” In Cross Talk in Composition Theory, edited by Victor Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003: 255-269.

Bizzell, Patricia. Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Elbow, Peter. “Reflection on Academic Discourse.” Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hillocks, George.  Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice.  New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1995.

Kameen, Paul. Writing/Teaching: Essays Toward a Rhetoric of Pedagogy. Pittsburg: U of   Pittsburg Press, 2000.

McCormick, Kathleen. The Culture of Reading and the Teaching of English. New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.


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