As an English teacher, I notice the ways in which texts circulate and are constructed, and the ways in which this occurs not only in the classroom, but in “society” at large. Advertisers publish ads in magazines and on TV and then feature digital versions of these advertisements on website sidebars or on YouTube. Contemporary novelists publish their work on blogs or writing sites, and then turn those into bestsellers, or else they go through traditional publishing channels and promote their work on their blogs. Non-“literary” people—high school students, parents, newspaper reporters, pop stars, business leaders, politicians—all circulate everything from their most interesting thoughts to their most mundane daily activities through social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Texts are all around us, being constructed and circulated with more ease than ever before. In my teaching, I try to emphasize the importance of paying attention to both text and context, and the ways in which text and context interact and shape one another.
When I teach both literature and composition, the three main tenets that influence my teaching are:
1) Texts are powerful, and as a result, the ability to write and analyze texts empowers students.
2) The historical and material contexts in which texts circulate are important, and that students need to be aware of these contexts both in terms of the texts they read for class as well as all material they read generally.
3) Writing is social. Texts are constructed not in a vacuum, but by people and for people.
In my composition classes, I emphasize the need to structure texts to address an audience. I illustrate how an awareness of audience affects the ways in which writers present themselves, and give students assignments that not only ask them to demonstrate their awareness of language and their ability to present knowledge about specific topics, but that also ask them to reflect upon their self-presentation for different audiences across different genres. In my literature classes, I require my students to perform close readings of course texts and also to reflect upon how the historical and material contexts of these works may have influenced their interpretation at the time. My own academic studies have focused on the circulation of African-American periodicals and printed works in America in the mid-1800s and on Modernist periodical and book culture, so in my teaching, I want to emphasize the ways in which the material history of a text can throw interpretations of a text in new relief.
I also make a point of bringing to my students’ attention the ways in which texts are constructed and circulate in our contemporary digital culture. While in the past, texts could only circulate through physical publication and distribution, and/or word-of-mouth, now texts can be written (or typed) and distributed worldwide in minutes. Today’s digital culture also places a renewed emphasis on visual rhetoric: as people, especially young people, create blogs and Facebook accounts, the images and designs that they decide to use on those pages act together to create a persona and affect how the content on the page is viewed. This is why for my composition classes, I have a unit at the end of the semester on understanding how different interfaces support different types of content differently as well as how to use color, font, and layout choices to create a professional Web persona. Students create their own WordPress or Tumblr blogs, and then examine how their blogs’ visual layout enhances the content that they are trying to post. In my literature classes, I require my students to make Tumblr blogs because of the ways in which the ability to “reblog” and comment on posts (and see the comments of others as posts go along, and see the number of people who have “liked” or reblogged a post) allows each user to see a small history of the content that has been posted. In addition, with the ways in which archives have become digitized, using a website like Tumblr that allows people to post images or links to archived content with comments underneath allows a more streamlined interaction with outside content while simultaneously teaching students new ways to combine content and analysis online.
Finally, I believe that the act of constructing and analyzing texts is social. We write to others, and I want my classes to reflect this. Here I draw on Joseph Harris’s views that intellectual writing consists, in large part, of using and responding to others’ texts, and so I am committed to showing my students both how other writers communicate in their texts, written or visual, as well as how students can better express the ideas that they want to express. This means that in my composition classes, I regularly have my students share their ideas in small groups before coming together as a class to discuss a piece of writing, and why I also value peer review. In my literature classes, I also value group work in terms of talking through analyses to see if students have picked up on different aspects of a text (word connotations, syntax, etc.), and I also want students to have some exposure to their classmates’ academic interests—one reason I use Tumblr is so that, later in the semester, I can ask students to create their own questions for close reading course texts and then coordinate things so that they can respond to each other’s questions.
While I may not teach with the explicit purpose of deconstructing existing power structures, I do feel that one of the best ways to empower students is to teach them how to analyze what they read and how to write with an awareness of audience and context. I hope to empower my students by giving them skills that they can use not only as they write papers, but also as they navigate the texts thrown at them in all aspects of their lives.