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Last semester, when I initially decided to share my work, my students were working on the visual composition unit in which they could either make a comic or a photo essay, accompanied by an artist’s/reflection statement. The primary goal of the assignment was to enable them to see the kind of rhetorical choices that they make when the medium of composition shifts from the written word to the visual. Despite clearly specifying in the assignment sheet and in the class that they would not be graded on their artistic skills, a number of my students were scared and concerned that they would not be successful in the assignment due to their artistic skills.
At this juncture, I showed them one of my own comics that I had tried making as a grad student for a weekly response paper. Sharing my own work did wonders. Considering my own artistic skills are nonexistent, students realized there was no way I would grade them on theirs. Secondly, it created an instant sense of community and bonding in the classroom and instilled in them the idea that it was OK to experiment, be creative in their approaches and take some risks. They also broke into laughter on seeing that I have not been able to remove the watermark of the website that I used to make the comic.
As we progressed with the semester, I decided to share more of my work with my students. This decision was prompted by a number of factors. One thing that I noticed in my students was their firm belief that they were the only ones who struggle with writing. So, part of my reason for sharing was to reassure them that writing is something that many of us struggle with in our own individual ways and that they are not alone in this feeling. Secondly, since this was my first time teaching writing in the U.S., I did not have an example of an undergraduate essay that I could share with my students (I would have done this with the student’s permission, of course) to demonstrate the elements of an undergraduate final research essay or to problem solve the common pitfalls of undergraduate writing.
Therefore my decision was both ideological, anchored in a practice of pedagogy of vulnerability (on which I elaborate later in this post), as well as logistical, because it was important for me to be able to effectively scaffold the assignment. As I write later in this piece, the essay was used to show my students the structure of an undergraduate essay, but initially my objective was to give them a sense of what it means to work with primary sources. This was not an easy decision to make. As a female instructor of color, I recognized the possibility that sharing my not-so-nuanced undergraduate writing might have made my students question if I was at all competent to be teaching them in a college classroom. But, as an instructor, I chose to cultivate my authority differently -- through my practice of pedagogy of vulnerability.
A pedagogy of vulnerability, as I understand it, involves being open with your students about your struggles, what you find difficult, what frustrates you, what you are uncomfortable doing and foregrounding the idea that you are a person first and then an instructor. Just out of high school, first-year college students often tend to think of instructors as masters. A pedagogy of vulnerability seeks to subvert this notion of mastery by emphasizing that it is human to fail and to make mistakes, and instructors too are not above failure.
However, I ensured a system of checks and balances as well. For instance, when I shared my research paper from my undergraduate days and asked them to comment on the usage of quotations and if the literature review was effective or not (we have already had sessions on writing a literature review before this), I did not disclose to them that it was my paper. I wanted them to be absolutely honest and transparent with their feedback rather than holding back from criticizing their instructor’s paper. When I shared with them at the end of the session that it was my own writing and also showed them a sample of my current writing, especially my “shitty first drafts” that probably had only a few bullet points, they seemed to become more convinced that writing was a process, and it takes time and revision to sharpen one’s writing skills, because they shared with me during my office hours that it has made them open to understanding what revision can do to one’s writing. In the future, I would be curious to see how students would respond to the same paper if I disclose to them before the activity that it was my paper.
Sharing one’s own writing with students necessitates a careful reflection of one’s teaching philosophy, but simultaneously one should consider the pragmatic aspects of the process: What kind of writing should be shared? To what extent can one’s identity be disclosed? Why and how should one’s own writing be shared in the classroom? These are some of the key questions that went into my thinking. I am glad that I ended up deciding to share my writing with them, because it opened up an interesting conversation with my students about writing, revision and the need to be generous and kind to oneself when it comes to the writing process.
Have you ever shared your writing with students? What are your strategies? How have they responded? We would love to hear from you. Please let us know in your comments below.
Sritama Chatterjee is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. She can be found on Twitter @SritamaBarna and on her Medium blog.
Image Credit: Sritama Chatterjee