First-Year Writing Teaching Statement
What are we doing when we study – or, for that matter, teach – writing? Is writing a body of knowledge, a set of ideas or forms that one can learn, recollect, and deploy at one’s choosing? Is writing like, say, playing the piano, a discipline as much of the body as the mind, to be mastered by repetition and the patient accumulation of skill? Is it instead a set of social norms, learned almost unconsciously through minor embarrassments and imitations, as when a few weeks or months after arriving in a city I find my posture on the sidewalk changed, my body somehow fitting more easily into the subway car, making way for itself in a crowded street?
I’ve found a strand of thinking in Plato’s Gorgias – a philosophical dialogue concerned with, among other things, laying out what can and cannot be taught – to be quite helpful in considering these matters. In it, Plato’s teacher Socrates suggests that teaching is necessarily a practice of continuous reflective explanation. Learning carpentry means following a set of steps, the actions one carries out to make a chair, but it also means learning the principles behind those steps, the reasons why one might use this plane here, that nail there. Teaching and learning alike thus involve not just doing something, but doing it and thinking about it at the same time.
The power of this idea helps link together the two things we do every day in a writing class: read and write. I hope to help my students learn how to craft better arguments, certainly, and to feel more comfortable with the conventions of academic writing. But at the same time one of the central goals I have in the course is to help us all be more critical – even more alienated – users of written language. Whether we’re reading Homer, Jamaica Kincaid, or a student paper, we can ask more or less the same questions: why this metaphor here, this digression there, this word rather than another? What purposes might this detail have – what is the writer persuading us of, or obscuring?
I’ve been at Barnard since 2011, teaching First-Year Writing in most semesters. Before that, I was a graduate student at Columbia, where I taught writing and literature.
Courses I’ve taught at Barnard:
in FY Writing: Legacy of the Mediterranean
in FY Seminar: Losing Yourself; Legacy of the Mediterranean
in English: Critical Writing; Colloquium: The Enlightenment
in English/Film: Adultery: Realism and Desire