Teaching Philosophy - California State University, Sacramento

Teaching Philosophy
Dan Melzer
In the spring of 2009, I was part of a committee that created a set of learning goals for
composition courses at California State University, Sacramento (CSUS). These learning goals,
based in part on the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ Outcomes Statement for FirstYear Composition, reflect my philosophy of the teaching of writing as well as the influence on my
pedagogy of current scholarship in the field of Composition Studies:
Goal #1: To help students understand the ways that readers read and writers write in and
beyond the university
My experiences as a Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinator and my reading of WAC
scholarship (David Bartholomae, Charles Bazerman, Nancy Sommers, Marilyn Sternglass) have
shaped my classroom focus on academic literacies and the nature of academic discourse
communities. In addition to exploring academic literacies, I ask students to critically self-reflect on
their self-sponsored reading and writing as well as practice writing for audiences beyond the
academy. To achieve all of these varied goals, I conceive of my composition courses as a course in
“writing studies,” and I align myself with the “Writing About Writing” movement, which argues
that a first-year composition course should be a course about literacy itself. In my first-year writing
courses students compose literacy histories and literacy self-surveys; conduct rhetorical analyses of
personal, academic, and public texts; and engage in extensive research projects focused on
investigating literacy, such as ethnographies of discourse communities or case studies of writers.
Goal #2: To help students understand processes of reading, writing, and research
My emphasis on writing processes began with my early reading of the process movement
literature (James Britton, Peter Elbow, Donald Murray). I currently align myself with social process
theorists (Mikhail Bakhtin, Patricia Bizzell, Kenneth Bruffee) who emphasize that reading and
writing are social and situated processes. To enact this social constructivist approach, in my classes
I assign dialogic online reading journals; I require frequent in-class group work, including peer
response; and I use portfolio assessment, which emphasizes global revision and the importance of
both process and product.
Goal #3: To help students develop a metacognitive understanding of processes of reading,
writing, and thinking
Cognitivist scholarship (Janet Emig, Linda Flower, Mike Rose) as well as the research on
student self-efficacy and self-assessment (Brian Huot, Ed White) has shown a strong correlation
between metacognitive awareness and reading and writing ability. I value students’ ability to
understand their composing processes as much as I value the evidence of those processes and the
final products. To help students understand their own reading and composing processes, I ask them
to complete literacy self-surveys, compose literacy histories, discuss and share reading and writing
strategies, respond to texts about reading and composing processes, and include reflective cover
letters with each draft I respond to as well as an extensive self-reflexive essay in their final
Goal #4: To help students understand textual conventions
My teaching has been heavily influenced by genre and discourse studies (Paul Prior, Amy
Devitt, James Paul Gee). Helping students understand genre as a social action and the ways textual
conventions constitute discourse communities and shape meaning is a critical part of my
composition courses. I want students to understand academic genre conventions, think critically
about the genres they perform outside of school and the academic genres they encounter in college,
and practice composing in multiple genres. The “multiliteracies” work of the New London School
and recent scholarship in multimodal composing (Jay David Bolter, Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe)
emphasizes the need for students to gain the rhetorical agility to compose in multiple genres and
media, and I feel this is a critical 21st Century literacy skill. To accomplish this multiliteracies goal,
I encourage students to rhetorically analyze the aural, digital, and visual genres they read and
compose outside of school (social networking sites, music, text messages, etc.), and I also ask them
to experiment with the genres and modes and mediums of delivery for class writing projects. In my
composition courses students have created audio literacy histories, video interviews with professors,
website resources on college reading and writing, etc.
Goal #5: To help students understand and engage in reading and writing as communal
Collaborative learning theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Kenneth Bruffee, as well as
constructive thinkers like John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky, have informed the way I structure my
classes as communities of readers and writers constructing knowledge through collaboration.
Students respond to readings and to each other via electronic bulletin board posts, share their
composing with the class and in peer response groups, and collaborate on projects. This sense of
community is further emphasized by culminating projects that involve collaboration, such as miniconferences where students present the results of their research in panels, collaborative websites to
be used by future classes for which students collaborate on articles about reading and writing,
bound course books that collect class writings, etc.
Goal #6: To help students think critically about academic discourse communities as contact
zones where different cultures both connect and come into conflict
Teaching in colleges with socioeconomically and ethnically diverse student populations has
furthered my interest in the work of Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy and has challenged my
earlier thinking on first-year composition as an “initiation” to academic discourse. I’m interested in
creating a “contact zone” in my courses, where students both understand and question academic
discourse. I ask students to consider the ways their personal histories have influenced their
encounters with academic literacies and to ask problem-posing questions about academic discourse
conventions as well as their own personal discourse communities. My students read essays and
book chapters from teachers and compositionists who have written extensively about literacy and
race/class/gender (Freire, Keith Gilyard, Mike Rose, Ira Shor, Geneva Smitherman, Patricia
Sullivan), and I ask students to use those readings to critically self-reflect on the ways that academic
cultures and academic discourses connect and conflict with their home cultures and personal
discourses. In my courses students consider the politics of language use and standardization and
explore the relationship between language and identity. The power of language to shape identity
points to a thread that connects all of these six goals for first-year writing: my desire for students to
see reading and composing as acts of meaning-making, and to see literacy as central to their lives, in
college and beyond.