My outlook on teaching is an extension of my outlook as a learner. One of the most influential moments for me as a student occurred in my junior year of high school. I was struggling in a large public high school, trying to find an academic identity. As long as I could remember I enjoyed a love of language, with a corresponding confidence and fluency. But math was especially difficult for me, until we began to study programming using the Apple IIe. I had a IIe at home, and spent much of my free time reading books on programming, starting with BASIC, but gradually – if fruitlessly – groping toward machine language. All of this pre-internet era programming was self-taught, and I desperately looked toward my math teacher for mentoring. Mostly, I sought approval of my coding skills from a teacher whose subject area had long excluded me. I sought disciplinary authorization.
In retrospect, I grimace in thinking of how much influence I handed over to this one overworked man’s opinion.After several units in IIe programming I had established credibility with my classmates as an “expert” in programming. But my coding solutions were always my own, reflecting my mishmash knowledge of code, commands, syntax, all learned outside of class, while the solutions my peers developed reflected a mathematical sensibility of one correct solution to be dispensed by the teacher.
I found in coding the power of mathematical analysis in the form of language – an interdisciplinary connection that I still explore today. My pursuit of authorization came to a close when the teacher announced a list of students who could tutor others in programming. When another student raised her hand and asked if students could see me, the teacher responded “Only if you have some kind of weird problem the others can’t solve.”
I carry this moment in learning into my life as a teacher for several reasons. Firstly, I memorialize it to recall just how much influence a teacher can have in a student’s world. Though students at the post-secondary level differ from high school learners, I am motivated by the fact that if I am doing my job I well, I will have a profound effect on my students’ lives. And while I’d like to say that after that formative moment in high school I quit seeking authorization of my learning style from any particular discipline, it’s simply not true. Sadly, it has taken years for me to quit seeking approval for pursuing ideas which don’t readily fit in the academy’s current classification of knowledge. I try to give students the authorization to explore their ideas as well as erode my own ability to authorize them. My learning style, which called for the ability to experiment with various disciplines, predisposed me to the humanities. It is for this reason exactly that I teach an exploration of the humanities through technology.
My students will apply their writing skills in an environment I can scarcely imagine. The more I know about changes in technology, audience, and disciplinary boundaries, the more I value the humanistic principles of community located in the rhetoric of thinkers like Aristotle, and the more I teach critical thinking, reading, and writing skills, sound literary analysis, and the flexibility to transfer these skills into new environments. Law professor Yochai Benkler observes that if, in a networked society, knowledge is publicly accessible and the costs of writing and publishing are fairly flat, then the sole remaining scarce resource for productivity is human creativity. I develop my students so that they may provide that creativity. The best way to do so is to train them through English studies, but with an ability to think beyond disciplinary boundaries. I want my students to know a love of language. But I choose to develop that love of language where we find it, whether it be in rhetoric, composition, literature, or programming, and doing so is the development of that very creativity students need from a college education. They will live in an age with unparalleled possibilities for these pursuits to inform each other, and I feel that my own approach to language will serve them well.