In February of 2019, I had my “aha” moment. I was unmotivated at my corporate office job as an administrative assistant, where I had relatively simple tasks: scheduling meetings, creating expense reports, assisting the occasional company outing. It was decently paid gig, and I grew to love the people I worked with. But still, something wasn’t clicking. I felt like a square piece trying to be shoved into a round hole.
One day I was discussing workloads with a coworker, who was higher up than me and was in the same department. She and I got to talking about a proposal she was working on for marketing, and wanted a second pair of eyes to skim over and see if anything needed to be fixed or corrected.
As I sat in my cubicle, reading over marketing collateral checking for comma and spelling errors, I realized what I was missing: I was a writer and a teacher, working in the completely wrong career.
I had graduated Kennesaw State University in 2015 with a B.A. in communications, and to make an extremely long and complicated story short, I found myself 4 years later, with no recent writing or communications experience, waiting for my boss to tell me when to run and grab his lunch at Chickfila. (No disrespect for administrative assistants; it just was NOT meant for me).
In 2020, I found myself in a different job as a tutor/instructor, anxiously awaiting if I’d been accepted into KSU’s Master’s of Professional Writing program. I had really grown to love teaching and working with students, but I also wanted to pursue professional editing and publishing. Thus, applying to be a teaching assistant throughout my studies seemed like the best option. I can now say that roughly two years later since my “aha” moment, I feel more inclined than ever that this was the right path for me.
I say all of this because I am a firm believer that people’s lives aren’t this linear thing, and therefore, learning isn’t linear. Each student that walks through the door has their own shared experiences that have unfortunately been subdued by an American educational system bent on promoting testing scores over quality of work. This was slightly another reason why I applied to be a TA: my tutoring students all vocalized that they didn’t feel that Standard English principles were actually the societal norm. “We never talk like this in real life, Ms. Zajac!” I couldn’t argue with them. I certainly don’t talk to my friends and family in an academic manner; why do we require our students to focus on only academic writing? What about other genres? What about the students’ unique voices, languages, and dialects?
Therefore, my teaching philosophy comprises of the following tenets, as emphasized in the book Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies:
Threshold concept 1.6 in Naming What We Know astutely observes that “writing is not natural” (27), and I agree with this wholeheartedly. We as a society learn to communicate through oral language, and pick up linguistical norms through hearing our parents and loved ones communicate around us. It is not until at around age 3 or 4 we really begin to learn how to write. Therefore, I believe that first year composition classes need to take into account the linguistic challenges and dialectal differences within the English language as a whole. Writing is not an inherent trait learned, but linguistics and verbal communication are; it is not fair or just to expect that every student will walk into my classroom being masters at prescriptive grammar norms from Standardized English because their individual experiences may not reflect Standard English norms. When approaching papers, I will, then, be focusing on high order concerns, such as organization, structure, and content. If there are outstanding grammar issues made throughout papers, I will be sure to sit down with students and discuss ways to improve, but ultimately it isn’t my goal to reinforce comma rules; it is my goal to teach students how to think, process, and convey messages through their writing.
2) In studying rhetoric, we are studying the ways in which knowledge comes into existence (social-epistemic rhetoric)
I believe that teachers have the obligation and duty to educate their students in more than just their designated fields. While I have chosen to teach first-year composition, I’m fully aware that some students will come into my classroom with a somewhat limited understanding of how society has played such a huge factor into how they have learned to read and write over the years. Because of this, I want to make the main “theme” of my class centered around linguistics; by understanding linguistics in American society, students will be better able to understand why we write the way we do. This mentality coincides with the social-epistemic theory of rhetoric, which “shares a notion of rhetoric as a political act involving a dialectical interaction engaging the material, the social, and the individual writer, with language as the agency of mediation” (Berlin 489).
Based on my own research with linguistics and first-year composition courses, I believe there is a disconnect in communication between the two fields because of an underlying fear of “rocking the boat” by introducing topics that carry heavy political and social activism connotations. I was shocked to find out something as seemingly unproblematic as linguistics isn’t integrated in FYC courses because of politics, within the government and the educational system as well. How can we as teachers expect students to learn how to write if we don’t connect how students learned how to speak? It’s with this mentality in mind that I will be integrating many outside sources and readers that dive into the basics of linguistics, and connect these articles through promotion of how rhetorical skills were implemented in those works. By analyzing and breaking down articles that discuss linguistic elements and ideas, students will become aware of how linguistics should shape writing, thereby creating a meta-cognitive act of recognizing how social factors play into how Americans speak and write on a daily basis.
3) Students have a right to their voices and gain agency through their writing.
I have had so many students express their discomfort with approaching writing in a creative way. Indeed, students feel the need to stick to the classic, impartial “five paragraph” essay format in first year composition classes because they have been taught for over a decade that that is the only correct way to write. I hope to instill in my students a sense of authority and agency through their writing, that writing can give them power and control over their thoughts and words. I want them to have this sense of power through their blog journals and also through the topics they pick for their essays. I want them to write about things that truly motivate them, not the unoriginal ideas of whether abortion or weed should be legalized. In order for them to understand power through words, I need to assign prompts that actually get them excited to write or to even think about the topic to begin with. I also plan to instill a sense of self by creating multimodal genre selections that student can submit their final assignments through.
All of these thoughts are explored in further detail in the blog posts on this website, but I encourage those reading this to take away one specific theme: American society doesn’t speak the same way – therefore, students shouldn’t be expected to write the same way. This is the mentality I hope to instill during my first year as a FYC instructor at Kennesaw State University.