Whether I am teaching First-Year Writing, a professional writing course, digital writing, or a creative nonfiction workshop, fostering the development of facilitas—Quintilian’s term for enacting rhetorical genre knowledge, that is, the ability to communicate effectively and ethically in any form, in any situation—remains the primary tenet of my engaged and inclusive pedagogy. I believe that compositions spanning the spectrum from literary to lab report can be taught and practiced in ways that remain connected to students’ individual identities and diverse linguistic backgrounds. All students are capable of improving as communicators, and that capability increases tenfold when teachers of writing make a conscious effort to engage students in the four overlapping knowledge domains from which the most successful writers draw: subject matter, writing process, rhetorical situation, and genre. Students need not wait for inspiration from muses in order to have valid ideas and produce writing of value to both themselves and others. With guidance on how to arrive at, develop, and communicate an idea about a well researched and understood subject, in a composition using particular genre conventions, written in response to a particular exigence and revised for a particular audience and a particular purpose, students can best work toward becoming flexible writers who use their agency to communicate effectively in myriad forms and effect positive changes in the communities with and for which they write.
To promote the rhetorical dexterity characteristic of a facilitas practitioner, I focus on invention and paced drafting activities in my classes. For example, to prepare students to rhetorically analyze public spaces of personal significance in a previous iteration of First-Year Writing Seminar, I first had them create Google maps populated with narratives of personally significant locations. In groups, they made lists of the dominant cultural ideologies present on their maps. They wrote short narratives and analyses about select spaces. They added to their maps as their understanding expands regarding how public spaces convey messages imbued with ideologies not drastically unlike what they might find in an advertisement or a political speech. They explored campus looking for spaces that exhibit inequalities of gender, race, class, ability, etc. and write from those specific locations. By the time they are asked to produce a rough draft of their analysis, they already have access to thousands of words of inventive draft material on which their peers and I have already offered response regarding the critical depth and logic of their claims, evidence, and analytical explanations. Although students often complain about the amount of reading and writing I ask them to do while they are doing it, after the fact they often tell me this practice boosts their confidence in themselves as writers and in their writing processes. Depending on the goals of a given class, I have asked students to write weekly project progress memos or keep blogs or research journals or commonplace books, always with the intent that they generate as much relevant inventive text for feedback as possible prior to turning in a “final” product. The labor that students put into their learning through their engagement in writing processes from invention to reflection is more important to me than the polish of what they produce, and it is for that and other equity-oriented reasons that I have started to use labor-based contract grading in my writing courses.
This is not to say that all of this generative writing is without rhetorical situations. Part of the practice of facilitas is the attempt at demonstrating an understanding of the intended audience, purpose, and genre conventions of a given writing project as well as getting students to understand that these conventions are situational, context-based, and therefore subject to change outside of the discourse community of our classroom. If the rhetorical situation is relatively uniform for every student in the class, as it is for the aforementioned spatial rhetorical analysis assignment, then I will explain on the assignment prompt that, for example, the audience is other FYWS students who do not know much about spatial rhetorical analysis or about the specific space one has chosen to analyze. In order to prepare for this, we would conduct an analysis together as a class of the audience, purpose, and genre conventions of a few sample rhetorical analysis articles. In most instances, I let my writing students explain and revise the criteria for a given assignment through this process of analyzing the rhetorical situation and genre attributes of quality model texts.
Rhetorical situations rarely remain professor-defined in my writing classes, especially in the later weeks of a semester. Proficiency in a given genre might be developed from composing in that genre over and over again, but facilitas development requires a range of new yet related challenges. I have been fortunate to teach in classrooms where my students and I have access to technology, which allows me the ability to develop public pedagogy capitalizing on elements of design and context-specific communication in multimodal texts across a wide array of digital genres and media. What started as first-year writing experiment in political blogging prior to the 2008 presidential election has evolved into a digital remix project for which students translate their previously written research essays into Prezi presentations, infographics, YouTube videos, brochures, websites, and/or any other genres a student deems best to reach their self-identified target audience(s) with their chosen well-researched issue. Constructing students as producers rather than simply consumers of digital media fosters in them not only facilitas but also the critical analysis skills necessary of digitally literate global citizens in the twenty-first century. Additionally, the metacognitive skills students develop as part of the genre-translation process from research essay to chosen public genres aids students in the transfer of writing knowledge and ability across disciplines and other professional and civic writing situations.
What does my approach say about me as a teacher? It says I understand that a good rhetorician should be able to navigate multiple roles and discursive situations within a single day all while remaining true to her convictions and ethical in her presentation. It says I value my students’ experiences. I value their cultures. I value their differences. I value their understandings of what successful writing looks like and does in the world. And I believe in their abilities to rise to writing challenges that extend past the classroom and into the various communities and publics that comprise their realities. My students are writers first, and I—a fellow writer—am their guide through the vast and ever-changing landscape of writing.