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Gina Szabady

Teaching Philosophy
It’s the first day of classes, and the air is January crisp, even in the desert. There is a slight tightness in my stomach and an irrepressible grin on my face as I jog down the stairs toward the classroom. It’s the same way I used to feel when I was very young, sitting at a silent piano with hands poised, waiting. Better than the thrill of the first notes, the crescendo toward the song’s climax, or even the satisfaction of resolution is the anticipation; knowing that anything could happen, might happen in the moments to come. I walk into a nearly full room. They are silent as resting piano strings. There are four minutes before class starts, and I am too eager. I focus on sorting my things, setting up the teaching station. I think about moving slowly, speaking clearly, finishing whole thoughts. I take a deep breath, look up to meet their eyes, and welcome them. The first day thrill of anticipation reminds me of both the joys and responsibilities of teaching: the joy of beginning a journey with a group of developing writers, and the responsibility I feel to be my best for them, to show them collegiality and intellectual curiosity through my actions as well as in my words. Although I love creating class materials and consider a well-wrought course plan essential, I also believe a student-centered approach demands the willingness to meet students where they are. Whether that means scheduling extra computer lab days to work out the technical parts of an assignment, making time for extra conferences so that each students has a chance to talk through his or her ideas face-to-face, or re-writing the assignment sheet with the class so that the expectations are more clear or the options more enticing, I find that when classes become collaborations they are most successful. There is no substitute for student investment, and I think an important part of getting students to buy in to a course is to respond to them in a way that shows respect for their knowledge and experience. The willingness to take risks with the students, to follow their lead even as I chart the course, is at the heart of my approach. Although I know where we are going, it is up to them to help determine how we will get there. Whenever and however possible, class discussion is driven by student interests and voices. To create an open dialogue, I ensure that there are opportunities for every student to speak at least once a week. Whether it is with a “rapid fire response” question that each student answers with one sentence at the start of class, or “shout about it” games for sluggish days where everyone shouts a one word response to a question about reading material or an assignment at the same time, I have found that breaking down resistance to participation can be as simple as getting students used to speaking in front of each other. And although this kind of collegiality serves the interests of developing a classroom community, it also offers a connection to broader considerations of audience and participation in public spaces as a writer and citizen. I find that


Gina Szabady

deep, critical thinking is particularly advanced by an approach to writing as a form of participation in Public Discourse, the end goal of which is similar to that described by Christian Weisser as “not just to facilitate students in interactions with a specific sphere or issue, but to help students transform themselves into active, critical participants in democratic society” (39). For beginning composition students, this might mean writing for a class wiki or proposing public argument projects based on careful analysis of audience and genre. For upper division students, this may manifest as presentations designed for their classmates where they discuss an area in their own field or research projects that demand critical analysis of the rhetorical context as well as careful research to develop the content. Sometimes the issues they raise and their comfort speaking in class means that unforeseen issues arise, and we have to navigate difficult questions in real time. I have learned to accept my own vulnerability in these moments, and admit when I am uncertain of how to respond. Although I used to worry that such lapses would damage my credibility as a teacher, I have learned that much more often they provide openings for other students to step-in and offer information I did not have. Such conversations help turn the classroom into the scene for knowledge building rather than a one-way information spigot. This kind of knowledge building is also enabled by locating sites of inquiry that are engaging for students, often through direct consultation with them. Students participate in major decisions, often deciding independently what texts they will analyze or voting to decide which genres they will work in. But they are also invited to help shape the day to day environment by choosing what music to play while they conduct peer reviews or providing a series of video clips for the class to practice particular analysis skills. Whenever possible, I want students to bring their interests and passions into the classroom, and I think this helps them see the many ways that the issues we engage in class can apply to their lives beyond the essays they write for my or other classes. Sometimes this means last minute revisions to my plans for the course and demands flexibility and dexterity on my part to balance inclusivity with the structure needed for students to have a clear sense of what is expected of them and what they can expect from me. In the end, such acrobatics are worth it when students produce imaginative and thoughtful works that my original plans would not have accommodated. On the first day and every day after, I enter the room with excitement because something unexpected, something special, could happen, and I hope it does.