MLA: Teaching Lives, The Civic Art of Rhetoric

The Civic Art of Rhetoric: Teaching First-Year Writing through Service-Learning

Geoffrey Bateman, Ph.D.
Lecturer, University Writing Program
Interim Director, Gender and Women’s Studies Program
University of Denver
[email protected]

What kind of work does the teaching of writing entail, especially for a faculty member who works primary with first-year students at a private university in Denver, Colorado? As a writing professor, I help students cultivate a rhetorical awareness of the effects that language has in their academic, civic, professional, and personal lives, and invite them to see writing as a combined social practice of critical analysis and public action. Now, this may seem like lofty goals to have for the eighteen year-olds who arrive on the University of Denver’s campus confident that their high school AP English teacher has taught them all they need to know about writing. (To be clear, I very much respect these teachers’ work, for my students come to college well prepared for the next phase of their education. It’s just that despite their previous successes as writers, my students certainly don’t know everything about writing, especially within the context of the university, but also in the larger professional and public worlds for which we are ultimately preparing them.) But one of the more effective ways I’ve found to engage first-year students meaningfully as writers is by integrating service-learning and civic engagement into my courses.

This approach has proven successful for a few reasons. First, creating opportunities for first-year students to develop authentic relationships with community-based organizations and having them both write about their service experiences and write for these organizations promote their growing rhetorical sensibility. When students write for real public audiences—something they have tended not to do prior to taking my class—it powerfully activates the rhetorical concepts I strive to teach them in ways that writing for me as their professor, and even their classmates, often does not. Second, the students I’ve been teaching in the past five years at the University of Denver want their writing to be relevant for multiple audiences and putting their writing in service to others in our community not only helps them see the value of their writing, but also challenges students to write better. It’s one thing to turn in a shoddy final draft to your professor, but quite another to do so when a staff member at a local non-profit organization depends upon your piece for its quarterly newsletter. Third, rhetoric and writing are not neutral, transparent practices, but are and should be tied to students’ ethical growth and their evolving social agency. In my classroom, writing is not a discrete set of skills; rather, it represents a much larger set of social practices and intellectual habits that has significant consequences in the world, both on campus and off. Finally, as a teacher, service-learning and civic engagement pedagogies have provided a meaningful context for my own evolving professional identity. Although challenging and time-consuming, this kind of work has required me to build relationships with community partners, engage in my own public work as an intellectual, de-center authority within my classroom, respect my students’ expertise more fully, and design alternative writing assignments that more effectively represent the course outcomes. All of these strategies have helped me teach writing more robustly and convey to my students the rich variety of possibilities that the term “writing” suggests.

Geoffrey Bateman, Ph.D.
Lecturer, University Writing Program
Interim Director, Gender and Women’s Studies Program
University of Denver

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