I have really enjoyed reading the accounts of the recent teaching rhetorical criticism conference held at the University of Puget Sound. Part of the reason is that it's always good to hear smart people and good researchers reflect on what they do when they teach. But it's also interesting because this conference, with its focus on pedagogy, may well end up marking a significant turning point in rhetoric housed in communication departments.
Goodness knows rhetoric's "other half"--the half that lives in, or grew up in and moved out of, English departments (UT, UK)--has long thought about pedagogy. To a fault, even. In fact, I'm on record questioning what I call the "pedagogical imperative" that often weighs on publication in rhetoric and composition. Interestingly, a couple of communication people who reviewed my first book ended up scratching their heads at my brief effort to connect that the historical research to contemporary pedagogy. It used to bother me that all research in rhet/comp--or so it seemed to me a decade ago--needed to return to the classroom. That I couldn't give a talk about ancient greek approaches to teaching and learning without having someone say "But what does this mean for our classrooms today?" As I mention in the article cited above, once in a job talk, I actually responded in this way, with a straight face: "It means we should beat and have sex with our students."
But part of the pedagogical imperative is born from another imperative, the first-year writing requirement, which Sharon Crowley has famously critiqued (see Composition in the University). And while the first-year course frames a lot of the teaching we do, it's only part of the story.
So the teaching rhetorical criticism conference is welcome in that (as I gather) it encouraged people to think about the teaching they do across all the levels, from introductory courses to graduate seminars. So far, in reading the outposts from the conference, it seems to me that on the one hand, people are learning that a focus on teaching calls for a different kind of presentation than the typical paper in communication studies (and that the shift is neither easy nor always successful). And on the other hand, the fact that scholars in communication are starting from a different point--or in other words, they don't have a single course structuring their starting point--means that the conversations that follow will inevitably be different from those that take place at composition-oriented conferences.
One thing I envy is the ability to step back and reflect after the fact, later in one's career, on these questions. Those of us "brought up" in English departments were soaking in pedagogical theory from the outset, and so that shaped how we built and approached our courses. As I read some of the reflections from communication, it strikes me that folks in Comm have spent years tinkering with their classes like one would with a car or some software program: you play around and see what works and what doesn't, and you keep the former, and keep playing with that and toss the latter. And now they're sharing what does work. Of course my sense that Communication has been completely free of (from?) theorizing about pedagogy is probably wrong, just as is an intimation that Compositionists don't tinker (goodness knows, I do). But there is a pretty perceptible reverse-engineering method apparent in the few accounts of Puget Sound I've seen so far. And I find that approach attractive, in part because it begins and ends with teaching rather than taking research studies and trying to wedge them into a set of implications that don't automatically follow.
In any event, I'm eager to see how these discussions unfold, whether or not they continue, and whether they will be considered important parts of rhetoric panels at NCA, public address, etc. For now, I want to offer a couple of cautionary points. This comes not from having seen any of the discussions at Puget Sound, but rather from years of cringing at some of the stuff that goes on in composition studies vis-a-vis talking about teaching. It's a tricky business, talking about (and researching) teaching. If communication scholars can avoid these pitfalls, then so much the better.
The first pitfall to avoid is that of teacher-as-hero. I realize that good teaching requires some degree of conversion, but the big conversion stories with the teacher at the center are just hard to take, and the line between reflection and romanticization is a mighty fine one.
Another move to avoid is what my grad school colleagues called "pimping your students." This is when you show videos or share excerpts of their work as a way to evangelize about your own approach. The worst kinds are those that bring those students on to the panels with them. Cringe. This one is tricky, though, because what would serve as data for research of teaching if not student work? I think one way to manage it is to try pretty hard to treat writing or speeches or multimedia work as data. Yes, it can be artful and impressive. But rhapsodizing about that only circles back around to teacher-as-hero, and if the context is your course, it risks taking too much of the credit. It's tough to pull off. (Also, one quickly runs up against IRB issues, so comm folks publishing about teaching will need to be aware of that.)
All that said, some of the best teaching presentations approach their subject matter as idea-sharing, as a set of challenges to be met/thought through/resolved. I prefer to keep the focus--and here I mean grammatical, rhetorical, critical--on the assignments and the approaches rather than on what the students end up producing, but that is just me. Also, a teaching-focused panel is one place where it ought to be okay to talk about failure, but too often it's not.
So those are my thoughts about what works and what doesn't when we talk about teaching. I'd love to hear others'.