Educating Workers To Become Citizens
The question students ask me most frequently is, “Why do I have to do this?” Sometimes they are referring to narrow concerns like writing a response paper or analyzing a video clip. Other times they are considering much broader philosophical questions such as the purpose of the liberal arts or whether college is even preparing them for the future they want. Too often, students see college as a means of developing a narrow set of skills to perform one single job for the remainder of their lives. Within this worldview, it is clear why many students find liberal arts courses frustrating: writing an APA-style analysis essay is certainly not a skill widely used in the offices of today’s global industries. Yet, broad-based learning with an emphasis in critical thinking and adaptability is the foundation of today’s workforce and the marker of mature, ethical, intellectual existence. With this in mind, all of my work in the college classroom is in guiding students toward their future role as productive citizens in a community. In this sense, my pedagogy is grounded in John Dewey’s call for the “interfusion of knowledge, of man [sic] and nature, of vocational preparation with a deep sense of the social foundations and social consequences of industry and industrial callings in contemporary society” (393).
One way I strive to help students understand college as more than basic jobs preparation is through an emphasis on the transferability of skills. I do this directly by delineating the difference between hard and soft skills and, for each assignment, specifying which skills are applicable in other contexts. For example, in my first-year courses, I spend an entire day in the first two weeks of each semester discussing active reading strategies, which helps students learn to take effective notes, make connections between texts and concepts, and reflect on their experiences. From there on, I require students to submit their active reading/screening/listening notes for each text we encounter. When we begin drafting essays or crafting multimedia projects, I show students how to use their notes to build a well-considered project. Additionally, we discuss how this workflow, from reading to notes to action, mirrors the types of workflow they may be expected to do in a range of careers or even in personal endeavors, such as buying a house or deciding which candidate to vote for.
Additionally, I focus extensively on multimodal communication in designing assignments. In all of my courses, I emphasize the relationship between medium and rhetorical strategies in ways that not only help students develop critical thinking and reading skills but also allows them to understand how they can use rhetorical and artistic strategies to effectively communicate across multiple modalities in their everyday lives. To do this, I design multimodal assignments around the notion that writing in all forms is necessary for engaging fully in society. In all of my classes, students write not only in traditional literary and academic forms but also through cinematography (writing in motion), photography (writing in light), and phonography (writing in sound). For example, one in-class activity I use regularly in Literature and American Studies courses is to have students “translate” dense, theory-heavy works into text message conversations or even a series of gifs. This forces students to dive deeply into the text and determine how best to clearly articulate abstract concepts through modern language. Similarly, in my First Year Seminar on Artificial Intelligence in Science Fiction, students worked in groups to craft a multimodal, persuasive project centered around the question, “Should robots be granted human rights?” Students collaborated to determine their argument, the intended audience, and the most effective platform and persuasive techniques through which they could reach that audience. Groups have created a variety of projects, ranging from a Facebook page for college students to an activist website for conscientious thirty-somethings, and even a powerpoint presentation they might deliver to a group of tech company executives. Through these types of assignments, students gain a clearer, more critical perspective on their position in a media-driven society and a new understanding of how to effectively use rhetorical strategies across different modes of communication. In turn, they begin applying the concepts and skills learned in class to modalities that are already familiar to them, particularly online platforms, again reinforcing the transferability of skills.
Finally, and most importantly, my overarching goal for every class I teach is to help students see the liberal arts as a means of developing a sense of empathy and to empower them to demand diversity and inclusion in their own communities. To accomplish this, I intentionally assign texts that introduce students to a broad range of voices, including those of people of color, women and non-binary people, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. Engaging with these texts can often be uncomfortable for students, but I encourage them to embrace discomfort as part of a learning process. For example, in my American Voices class, students listen to and read Malcolm X’s “Ballot or Bullet” speech; by and large, students are outraged by his separatist ideas and calls for violent action. However, later in the semester, students read Valerie Solanas’s “SCUM Manifesto,” and they tend to find her separatist ideology and call for violent feminist revolution empowering. We spend an entire class session reflecting on and deconstructing why they feel that a Black man’s call for violent revolution is unacceptable, while a white woman’s similar call is right on. They begin the session terrified that they will say or do the wrong thing, but by the end, they feel brave enough to identify their own unconscious biases and can articulate concrete ways to be more inclusive in their daily lives.
Of course, even with all these strategies built into my courses, students continue to ask, “Why do I have to do this?” Rather than dismiss them, though, I would argue that this is one of the most important questions a student can ask. And rather than providing a simple answer, I use soft skills training, multimodal assignments, and an emphasis on diversity and inclusion to guide students toward new questions, opening up possibilities they had not even considered before. While many students may initially see college as jobs training, my goal as an educator is to help them see themselves and their futures as more than a narrow set of skills: they are capable colleagues, passionate intellectuals, and compassionate citizens.
Dewey, John. “The Function of the Liberal Arts College in a Democratic Society: The Problem of the liberal Arts College.” The American Scholar, vol. 13, no. 4, 1944, pp. 391-393.
Teaching, like writing, is a recursive process.
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Develop goals or expected outcomes based on departmental standards and general education skill/competency requirements
Design units, lessons, projects and select diverse texts that directly connect to those goals or expected outcomes and will meet the needs of the students enrolled or likely to enroll
Write prompts and rubrics that communicate expectations to students transparently
Assess student work
Reflect to determine which aspects of the material best engaged students and helped them achieve the goals or expected outcomes
Return to earlier steps to revise based on assessment and reflection