As a teenager I first learned to love writing by self-publishing, making my own zines with friends using primitive tools like my parents’ DOS-based personal computer and dot-matrix printer, peddling the results at concerts, records shops, and through exchanges with other writers by mail. These experiences with DIY culture taught me to view authorship as a pursuit of independence, a product of equal parts resourcefulness and playful experimentation. In the years since, as I have parlayed that love of writing into a rewarding teaching career, those views have been complicated as I invariably witness literacy become a site for competing personal, programatic, material, and global interests. In talking with thousands of writers at the writing center, for example, disparate disciplines, multiple languages, and divergent social histories of class, race, gender, and sexuality push upon them as they work at various stages of their assignments in ways that provide an opportunity to express agency at the same time as they attempt to standardize that expression. These two experiences — working as both an amateur and professional — serve as a productive tension within my teaching philosophy that reach well into my classrooms and curricula.
What these experiences share, however, is the dedication and courage of putting unpolished writing at the center of an encounter, where their processes and products alike are explored through a variety of dialogic strategies. This might seem most obvious in the writing center, where students come to voluntarily share rhizomatic decisions that build toward a larger becoming, but DIY culture is pedagogically similar, teaching writers to learn by experimenting with the materials at hand, including their personal histories, mentors, and peers, and the more public technologies, institutions, and spaces, to shape and circulate a text that has a future. In this way, I see my role in the classroom as designing assignments, lessons, and assessments that foreground opportunities for students to make and share writing by engaging those materials and resources in rhetorical and defamiliarizing ways.
For example, the lower-division courses I design often start with an introduction to these materials and resources — of texts, sounds, technologies, spaces, campus/community events, or even just of the writers themselves. In my introductory writing course, DIY Publishing, students handle and research examples of self-publishers from our university’s special collections. Through various trips to our library’s archives, lessons on using the catalog, and posts on their blogs, students contextualize their research on abolitionists, Dada artists, or Beat poets to account for the profound material and social forces that have historically affected self-publishers, including budgets, technologies, networks, and often their own experimental forms and radical ideas. As students embark on their own creative projects throughout the rest of the course, and host a class-curated zine fest in our library’s commons, we often refer back to this initial, historical foundation to better understand the framework inherent in the ongoing struggle for public voice.
While working with archival or primary data can be a struggle for student writers, asking them to engage with raw voices and materials provides them with insights in writing and research that more accurately reflect the kind of non-academic writing they are likely to practice outside of school. In my professional writing courses, for example, students produce feasibility reports that present researched-based responses to problems outlined by real clients — people in their lives that they have worked for or know. This project, a culmination of a semester together, requires students to use interview strategies, survey tools like Google Forms, internal company documents, and observational data, to rhetorically assemble findings. This kind of resourcefulness can applied within the class itself; in my creative nonfiction courses, for example, students post and share writing prompts inspired by the course reading, and use their classmates’ prompts as they draft their own prose, which they also share though workshops and self-publication. These extended heuristics for writing — where students talk, collect, analyze, and share — not only teaches them how to use intertextuality as a resource for ongoing authorship (a skill they will use repeatedly as they enter new situations and work with other communities of writers), but that invention comes more naturally through a sustained, vibrant engagement with their immediate communities.
This careful balance — of considering the needs of divergent individuals working within a centripetal community — is one of the most important lessons we can teach student-writers and is a balance I learned myself when I directed the Syracuse University Writing Center. There, I collaborated with a number of stakeholders from across campus to foster an environment that would become more than just a space where teachers sent students to clean up their writing, but would grow to be a dynamic resource for faculty and students alike. By designing professional development workshops on curriculum and assessment, strategies for working with second language writers, disability-inspired pedagogies, and more, the Writing Center became a valued asset for everyone on campus — not just struggling writers. Ultimately, this is what teaching is all about — an individualized, inclusive approach that not only helps people learn to use the resources at hand, but also recreate them by feeling a sense of ownership and solidarity with the wider publics in which they belong. In this way, I see every teaching opportunity as a chance to convene, to bring people together not just so they can do it themselves, but so they can do it together, to reimagine writing as independent but relational, resourceful but ethical, and experimental but accessible.