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It is an assumption, possibly even a myth, that all students come into a class prepared to learn in whatever environment the university provides. I grew up in the heart of the Chequamegon National Forest where my parents homeschooled me. Because my dad works as a traveling minister, we also moved around the country constantly. My entire education before starting college took place everywhere except a classroom. Learning happened in spaces where I felt safe and comfortable and had a strong repour with my educators—my parents, who knew my idiosyncrasies and understood my challenges. So, when I started college, I had little experience learning in the institutional space of a classroom. This experience fostered my belief that students deserve an inclusive space where they can engage with their thoughts and value their voices as researchers and writers.
I deeply respect the diverse backgrounds of my students and strive to create an inclusive environment that responds to their individual needs. I dedicate a significant portion of class time, especially in the early weeks, to building an environment of accessibility and trust between myself and my students, while also helping them create bonds with each other. Considering the range of backgrounds and experiences that students bring to every classroom, they arrive already experts in the languages they use to navigate their personal and professional lives. They just do not always realize this expertise or consider their language diversity as valid across contexts. With that in mind, I encourage my students to challenge the preconceived notion that knowledge flows from the teacher to the students and never the other way around. Doing this fosters an atmosphere where they can recognize themselves as active participants in a knowledge-making process that works for them.
My research background in New Materialism further informs my approach for creating an inclusive and productive classroom environment. When we gather to learn, the spaces we inhabit inform the knowledge-making process. Likewise, from the class space itself to the course content, the materials we encounter as a class all convey salient social and historical information. For this reason, my students and I read objects rhetorically so that, together, we can recognize the many ways materials make meaning.
In both literature and composition courses, I have taught students to rhetorically read objects by asking my students to draw a picture of one a character from whichever text we are reading in class. The main objective is to use textual details to guide their drawing. This encourages them to pay attention to the material details they might have missed, had they not needed to know exactly how the text describes a character’s clothing or setting. In class, we will talk about their drawings and the objects from the text they noticed. I ask what kinds of methods or techniques they took to represent those objects as images and how it attention to these object changes their reading of the passage. As the semester continues, we look at popular artistic adaptations of texts. This helps students apply their newfound critical eyes for seeing how textual details can physically manifest in artwork. This skill also gives us an opportunity to further discuss the rhetoric of the objects within a text—how they contribute to the text’s meaning and the object’s role in the material world of the text. These encounters with textual objects help students meet learning outcomes like reading carefully, thinking critically, and writing clearly. But moreover, these encounters teach them how the products of human thought inform present and past cultural, social, or historical contexts.
My students, all students, already possess a lifetime of skills, experiences, and voices when they arrive in the classroom. When they complete my class, I hope they see and have developed a critical understanding for the ways that all things communicate through their material designed. But, more importantly, I hope that each of my students has had the opportunity to bring together those skills, experiences and express themselves as agents of design with power to influence and affect the spaces they inhabit.