As a professor of rhetoric, American politics, and digital ethics – with over fifteen years of teaching experience – my philosophy is centered around two principles:
(1) Put students into real rhetorical situations: Provide students actual audiences, and stakes, to develop their skills as communicators and public intellectuals.
(2) Socratic engagement: Transform the classroom into an authentic (but safe) space for students to test-drive their ideas and practice sincere civic engagement with their (often not like-minded) peers.
Teaching at a highly diverse liberal arts school for the past six years, our current political climate – where public experts and respectful cross-cultural and post-partisan debate are more necessary then ever – has further convinced me of the payoff of my pedagogical approach, both in my classes (which are centered around debates re: free speech, digital ethics, and post-digital American politics) and in the public work my professional communication and digital arts students are able to produce via my “two step” approach to the classroom.
Principle One: Authentic Socratic Engagement To Teach Sincere Civic Engagement
The advantage of teaching American political rhetoric, free speech, and digital communication ethics in 2017 is that, as a professor, I don’t have the answers. All I can do is ask the questions. (Which, as part of my law school training, I do incessantly.) Centering my courses around “living” syllabi – where I provide the theoretical, legal, and ethical frameworks but leave it to students to bring in the real world examples they want to discuss – I am proud to have earned my students’ trust as a “fair and balanced” discussion leader who treats every opinion and idea as worthy of conversation and classroom-wide debate. (I’ve done my job well when they themselves aren’t sure where I come down on an issue.)
As a result of my Socratic ethos, students not only learn how to defend (publicly) their positions but, more importantly, they learn how their peers across the political and cultural aisle actually think and can begin to construct their own arguments with their colleagues’ assumptions (and presumptions) in mind. This, of course, is the critical work that rhetoric does. And by giving students ownership of their curriculum – i.e., using their essays, examples, and research as the centerpieces of my courses; creating assignments where they “translate” complex theoretical works for future classes (a strategy that Commonplace implemented at Ohio State, and my Hamline students have dubbed the “Living Textbook Project”) – I also allow them to define their own scholarly community and take ownership of their school’s intellectual and civic identity.
Principle Two: Put Students Into Real Rhetorical Situations
Digital tools allow us to break the false binary between the “classroom” and “real world” and embrace truly experiential learning and authentic assessment of student work. Whether working with professional communication, rhetoric, or digital arts students, the final goal of all of my classes is some kind of genuine, actually engagement with a “real” rhetorical audience. Over the years, this mandate has taken a number of forms. At Ohio State, the Commonplace project implemented an anonymous, automated peer-review system that trained thousands of students how to respectfully but sincerely edit and critique public presentations of their colleague’s research (for online publication and to serve as the content in their First Year Writing classes). At Hamline, the chance to “coach” teams of professional communication and art students catalyzed adventurous, high-impact assignments to “translate” their complex ideas (about free speech, digital ethics, and American politics) for public audiences.
In my professional and organizational communications courses, students worked together on campus political campaigns (e.g., having the baseball team do PR for a single mom and young woman of color running for study body president), produced research and web materials for (existing and class-created) non-profits focused on digital privacy rights and health effects of technology, and drafted diversity policies (and branding materials) for Hamline’s administrators and PR staff. In my digital media arts and freshman courses, final projects ran the gamut from sound and video art installations, song parodies, dance performances, campus free speech events, and a large-scale “science fair” on digital ethics. Regardless of the project, the pedagogical rationale remains the same: Give students a real audience to interact with and use aesthetics (and opportunities to make a rhetorical difference) to help them test their ideas, build their confidence as public advocates, and provide them real experiences (and sometimes CV lines) as citizens and professionals.