This post was written by NCTE member Ashley J. Holmes.
If there is one impression I try to leave with students who are in my courses, it is that they have a responsibility to engage with public issues and to put their school-based knowledge and literate practices into the service of local, national, and global communities. Because my approach to teaching involves students engaging with public issues, my daily, lived experiences become an important component of my lesson planning; they become opportunities for pedagogical invention and reflection on the ways I might invite my students to “go public.”
I see an advertisement for an upcoming art exhibit and wonder if I will ask students in my Visual Rhetoric class to step off campus to explore, connect with, and learn from their local community. I attend a forum on social justice and student success and wonder how I might develop a service-learning partnership with our local chapter of Black Girls Code. I read frustrating headlines that frame young people as disengaged and disillusioned with politics and begin planning a digital activism assignment as an opportunity for students to go public with their writing and to serve public causes, while also enhancing their educational experiences. These kinds of pedagogical musings have, over time, led me to investigate what teaching methods work best in helping students successfully learn how to write, and I have come to see the value in asking students to “go public” with their writing and experiences in order to become more engaging, reflective, and articulate citizens within their local communities and beyond.
In my recently published book, Public Pedagogy in Composition Studies (2016), I draw on the wealth of knowledge and innovation from writing teachers and administrators across the country to document the ways they go public with their writing pedagogy. Based on the case studies I conducted at Oberlin College, Syracuse University, and the University of Arizona, I define public pedagogy in composition studies as an approach to the teaching of writing that values the educative potential for public sites, communities, and persons beyond the boundaries of the traditional classroom and/or campus community. These values initiate moves to go public by relocating composition teaching and learning within increasingly public spheres. Public pedagogies often require students to encounter new or unfamiliar places or to approach familiar publics from a new perspective. My usage of the term public pedagogy draws on theories from education and curriculum studies, as I advocate for the umbrella concept of publics to both represent a common language for the public work we do within composition studies and to expand our sense of what it means (and where) to go public.
What I’ve found from talking with teachers and program administrators is that going public can have a deeply meaningful impact on students’ learning, even if the experiences of going beyond the classroom are disorienting at times. For example in Chapter 2, I look at how Jan Cooper and Mary Garvin partnered to create an interdisciplinary field-based writing course at Oberlin College. They asked students to go public by visiting rural locations, collecting ecological data, and interviewing residents in a nearby watershed for a community-based publication. I also examine how Crystal Fodrey, teaching first-year and advanced composition courses at the University of Arizona, prompted students to spatially critique a local place of their choosing, resulting in provocative analyses of tattoo parlors, classrooms, and neighborhoods. These and other sample assignments throughout the book demonstrate the value of public knowledge from community members not traditionally associated with schools, and they show how prompting students to engage with unfamiliar publics can expand their views of the world. Writing, then, becomes an important conduit for students to engage with public persons and communities around them.
The epigraph at the start of Public Pedagogy in Composition Studies is from Peter Mortensen, who, in his 1998 article “Going Public,” argued “We must go public. And we can.” Mortensen believes, and I agree, that the work of teaching and researching writing has the real potential to “clarify and even improve the prospects of literacy in democratic culture,” but to have an impact, Mortensen argues, we must work within more expansive, inclusive, and public forums. And, given our current cultural moment, I believe it is essential to prepare students for critical thinking, sharp discernment, and civic engagement within our communities. Mortensen’s call to go public is both a challenge and a comfort as I plan to, once again, embark with my students on a course of study that directly engages with our public communities.
Ashley J. Holmes is assistant professor of English at The Georgia State University where she teaches first-year composition and undergraduate and graduate courses in rhetoric and composition. She has published peer-reviewed essays in English Journal, Community Literacy Journal, Reflections, Kairos, and Ubiquity, and she is currently a Section Editor with Kairos. She has been an NCTE member since 2005.