The things I like best about myself as a teacher and the things I work to refine share a boundary: excitement. I move around the room, peeking into group work. I let my enthusiasm take over. I am not afraid to jump up and down. I yell when students say amazing things (which is often). It’s mostly a good, productive thing. It keeps my students (mostly) energized and interested. They tend to meet me where I am, sometimes in quieter or less gesticulating or less movement-oriented ways than mine, but we share that register. Being excited reminds me continually why I do this: that as long as I’m excited and continuing to learn and to play with ideas, I’m still dedicating myself to this practice. (If the former stops, it will signal that the latter is in trouble.)
But excitement sometimes trips me up: I have trouble letting silent moments lie fallow in discussion, and I sometimes trail off on tangents that confuse both my students and me. Sometimes I interrupt myself and we all forget where I started. One of my students gave me a positive spin on this: “That’s why this class is so great – it’s fun and we get excited and go off on tangents that relate back to what we’re learning.”
I am interested in establishing certain kinds of authority, on both my part and my students,’ and disrupting others. Part of the productive work of excitement allows for this kind of flexibility in a pretty seamless way. This semester, I am having my students complete a self-directed group project, the scope of which is up to them. It’s also important to me that students know what the words we are saying mean, so I’ve taken a page from the playbook of some of my colleagues and after asking for a definition, I now ask to them to look it up on their phones if they don’t. Along these lines, my classroom is a space of liminality. We talk about more disciplines than just composition. A student asked if he could use psychology to discuss literature, and I practically jumped up and down; I had to stop myself from recommending graduate school in English.
I tried out a new exercise recently that one of my students crystallized in a way I hadn’t thought of. In this way, we both thought on our feet, and we did it in complementary ways. I had asked my composition students to carry on a discussion without talking. Adapting the (wonderful) dialectical notebooks technique developed by Anne Berthoff, I asked them to each write a thought about the book we were reading and then respond to another student’s work. To accomplish that, I asked them to give their paper to another student and get a paper back from a third. We did the switch twice, and when I asked them to share their experience, the discussion trickled out into a really productive, excited conversation. One student told us that it was like responding to each other on the blog, which gave me a useful working title for the exercise: in-person blogging.
As this anecdote illustrates, I believe in improvisational teaching, which I define a little differently than the literature does. Maybe open teaching is a better term. It doesn’t preclude planning ahead – and may well be bolstered by it – but it openly acknowledges being in the moment, considering the people and perspectives in the room, and shifting as needed. It takes energy and expectations into account simultaneously. I believe in improvisational writing, too: the free writes that I assign and that many composition teachers before me have assigned are part of that work, but I also try to introduce new methodologies for my students to try. My recent forays into textless writing are a good example of this: I took an idea that grew out of my research, developed a plan, and then tweaked the plan when my students had had the chance to offer what their experience was.
Kandice Chuh is one of the many luminaries in my orbit who talks about the inextricable positioning of her teaching and her research, and I am learning that my work falls along similar lines. My research in composition centers on bringing the body and affect back into the classroom as a tool for writing, and on breaking down the boundaries between popular and “high” culture as well as between different composing modalities. In these and other ways, I draw on the work of Sondra Perl, Peter Elbow, Sara Ahmed, Eric Lott, and Mike Rose, among many others. Improvisational/open teaching and textless writing all ask students (and teachers!) to set what they think they should know or do aside and mine more deeply within their memories and (un)certainties to see what is there. Teaching and researching with feeling is partly about acknowledging the humanity of everyone in the room, partly about drawing on everyone’s expertise(s), and partly about finding interest and inspiration everywhere possible.