My field is rhetoric, and I teach writing as a form of inquiry and problem solving. One challenge in my teaching is to get students to see writing that way. It is not simply window dressing for ideas they already have; writing is a way to create and test ideas, to engage in a dialogue with a community of readers who need to know what they have to say and will likely have something to say back. Some students approach their first college writing assignment as an exercise in demonstrating they can quote from expert sources, organize paragraphs, and punctuate sentences. They are surprised (and in some cases bothered) when faculty take not just the form, but the content of their writing seriously, posing questions, playing devil’s advocate, asking them, “How do you know this?” or “What does this really mean?” in the margin. But as I see it, that’s our responsibility as educators. Sensing a reader—an engaged and critical reader—on the other side of their rough drafts makes students accountable for their thinking, nudges them beyond the tidy 5-paragraph theme, empty cliché, and stock generalization. I see writing as a way to guide students into more intellectually rigorous work.
I love that I am constantly learning from my students and from other faculty. In the WPI project system, my students take on complex problems for which neither they nor I have pat solutions or even a great deal of expertise, at least initially: What are the socio-cultural factors that might affect a new health campaign to eradicate schistosomiasis in a small village in Ghana? Why are young people abusing prescription study drugs, and what can we do about it? What effect will Europe’s transition to e-government have on citizens’ ability to access critical information —especially for users who are blind? How can we find out more about the disappearance and changing migration patterns of sea turtles on Costa Rican beaches, and why should it matter? Tackling such questions seems impossible as they begin, and there are inevitably moments of discouragement, moments when they feel I am being too tough on them, that I should supply answers, or that they can’t push harder. I think what sustains us in this work, though, is the excitement of genuine inquiry and their growing confidence that others will want to hear or read about what they’ve found, that they might make some small difference in the world. It requires them to learn so much: to conceptualize (rather than be “given”) a real-world problem that can involve diverse stakeholders with sometimes conflicting ways of seeing the world; to locate relevant scholarship, read deeply, and connect it to their work; to manage collaborative tasks within interdisciplinary teams; and to communicate clearly and persuasively both to me and larger audiences. As an educator, I find these projects extremely challenging, but also extremely rewarding as I watch students stretch beyond their boundaries.