What Our Faculty Say About Teaching
In Spring 2020, MA students in the English department interviewed some of our outstanding Rhetoric and Composition faculty.
Every day Katy Abrams teaches, she provides what she calls a “wellness basket” that contains snacks, tampons, condoms, cough drops, and other sundries that accommodate student health needs. “Students bring into the classroom a huge amount of stress,” Abrams says, and sometimes professors don’t recognize those stresses as underlying blocks to their student’s education. She describes her wellness basket as one of “many small things I do,” but it enables students to feel like they can speak and participate more freely and safely in the classroom.
For Katy, grading proves to be the largest struggle in the classroom. In her RC 1000, “everything is on a points scale, nothing is weighted” and “all but two assignments are given completion-based grades.” With the latter, she emphasizes doing the work to the students’ levels of best performance, and assessing it on that basis. These transparent and open grading practices show students that, while the course is very important to Abrams, she understands that students come to RC 1000 with different backgrounds and skills.
Interview by Thom Young
Heather Custer, a delightful and experienced RC teacher at App State, structures her classes so that students will learn academic language and writing skills as well as experience an equitable grading system. Following the “They Say, I Say” pedagogical approach, Heather encourages her students to read, summarize, and identify the language used in academic articles before they attempt to write their own. Through these readings, her students become familiar with collegiate level writing. She encourages her students to imitate the format of the articles they read so that they create their own similar sounding scholarship. In this way, she effectively helps her students to use academic rhetoric by imitating, which is less intimidating and much more achievable to the growing writer.
To further give her students confidence, Heather uses a contract based grading system. This innovative grading system helps students be assessed equitably regardless of their knowledge upon entering the university. To quote Heather:
The limitation of your language, your inclination toward writing, and your past writing experiences shouldn’t be what keep you from getting an A. What should prevent you is if you are not willing to do the labor to become a better writer.
Students in Heather’s Rhetoric and Composition class are assessed equitably and walk away with the transferable skill of academic writing.
Interview by Reci Smith
Working in a program as unique as Student Support Services (SSS) with first-generation and low-income first-year college students who are largely students of color, care is desperately needed. In a campus and broader world where these students, unfortunately, aren’t always visible, validated, or valued, this care is a necessity in App State's classrooms. Mady Fitzgerald works to provide this care in her RC 1000 courses. Along with this dedication to care, she supports student growth in writing and research capabilities by modeling how to navigate the academic world, which often felt inaccessible for many of her students before her course.
For Mady, an overarching goal for her RC class is that students become strong, confident writers whose voices are heard and experiences acknowledged. When asked about student improvement in writing in her class, she altered this value judgment by remarking, “I think any kind of growth is a type of success. Sub out the word ‘improvement’ for ‘growth.’” She carries this distinction with her every day to class, acknowledging the varied appearance that success can have for each individual student. While supporting this academic growth in her class, she also values individual growth in confidence needed to be a successful university student when it comes to writing.
Interview by Logan Land
Although Dr. Lewis has decades of experience as an English professor, his first time teaching RC 1000 was during the summer of 2019. This particular course was unique in that Dr. Lewis’ students were predominantly upperclassmen taking first-year writing. Dr. Lewis approaches his teaching with the understanding that his students have now entered the academic setting and aims to simplify the process of bridging that gap. One activity that he found helpful was a reading of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” where he asked students to analyze the text and choose the side of the wall they would see themselves behind.
Dr. Lewis is also a professor who, even after a long career, demonstrates his enthusiasm towards learning. As a professor, his curiosity creates a helpful classroom environment that is encouraging to students. In this setting, the reciprocity of learning between student and professor will drive the classroom into something that is more fulfilling than simply “just a gen ed course.”
Interview by Marcel Gutierrez
Dr. Jessica Martell, an assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, guides writing courses in Watauga Residential College that provoke civil discourse, creative expression, and critical conversations. Dr. Martell wants more than anything for her students to recognize their place in the classroom and in the university itself:
I want to give them the keys to the castle. Look, here is all this knowledge: books, libraries, lectures, classes, classmates. Soak it up! I want them to be proud to be scholars.
To execute this, Martell relies on a pedagogical approach called "Coming to Terms," a process for mediating oppositional viewpoints and classroom dynamics, which she does with the intention of bolstering student participation and encouraging their self-determination and confidence in the often intimidating world of academia. When asked about this approach, Martell stated, "We have to recognize the limits of our own views in order to embrace them more confidently, and we must see value in the views of others in order to challenge them with respect."
Interview by Eva Lambert
For Professor Ruggiero, having an agenda and sticking to it is one of the most influential parts of a successful class. Her classes are constructed to help students become more relaxed and adept in academic and professional environments. Professor Ruggiero stated that being authentic is also key: “Students know when you are not being real with them.”
She explained that she develops authority in classes in order to promote student engagement and collaboration, and she explained that she starts semesters with clear but strict class policies and expectations. However, after classes find their rhythm, she relaxes her grip, and she invites her students to call her by her first name. She said that it is easier to loosen up as the semester progresses, but it is very difficult to tighten up a class after a certain point. She feels that this is an important part of building a productive and safe learning environment.
Professor Ruggiero’s main goal for class meetings is to encourage students to engage with each other, class materials, their own ideas, and more, as they work to apply rhetorical concepts to their lives and classes. She said that she directly asks students, “What is your central goal or main argument?” If the student is not able to articulate these aspects in a few concise and direct sentences, then she has the students free-write, reflect on the text and their process, share the draft with peers, and consider more revision. Professor Ruggiero uses these forms of low-stakes writing to help students learn, transfer, reflect, and apply their burgeoning rhetorical awareness and skills.
Interview by Jacob Mazza
Dr. Belinda Walzer is a Rhetoric and Composition professor who passionately believes in the power of words and centers her classroom around accessibility for all students. Specifically she works to develop each student’s confidence as a member of the academic community through reading practices and peer review.
Her focus in the classroom is to “decentralize the power dynamic of the classroom,” and she gives readings on which she expects them to comment to work toward this goal. She purposely selects readings that help provide an opportunity to unpack students' perceptions about writing because “there is not one ‘right’ way to write.” These readings put tools into the writer’s toolbox to help students understand why they might be asked to write a certain way and why they might have personal misunderstandings about their own abilities as writers. Ultimately, Dr. Walzer creates a classroom built on collaboration where students will not just work on their confidence as writers, but learn how to give, accept, and decipher feedback, and go on to actively use it, a skill that will be helpful in the long run.
Interview by Emily Sedlacek