“If we pay attention to our discomfort and if we’re willing to do political, emotional, analytic and spiritual work around that feeling, it will transform into knowledge, strength and alliance.”
—Eli Clare, “Challenging Our Differences”
I believe that discomfort is a very productive feeling, one that can push us to become the best versions of ourselves. I encourage students to acknowledge and explore their discomfort—whether it is caused by a dense passage of text, a personal difference, a speech, or an essay—in order to turn resistance into a mode of critical inquiry and an opportunity for growth. I often begin the semester by having students read Nancy Mairs’s “Young and Disabled” in class. Mairs’s essay opens by implicating the reader in a visual exchange with a “flawless” woman. When the reader discovers that the woman uses a wheelchair, s/he immediately moves from praising to pitying her. Experiencing this shift together in real time enables students to confront and work through their own feelings about difference—physical, cultural, or otherwise. This activity opens a semester-long dialogue about the narratives that contribute to our own sense of self as well as the narratives of self that we create and impose upon others.
In addition to helping students develop inclusive perspectives, I aim to prepare them for their careers by helping them learn to navigate the communication expectations unique to their field of work. For instance, in my Rhetoric courses, students read John Swales’s essay “Approaching the Concept of Discourse Community,” which explains how certain communities are held together by shared understandings of how knowledge should be produced and how information exchange should occur. Students then research the discoursal expectations unique to their discipline, presenting a speech in which they explain how their discipline meets the six criteria for a discourse community outlined by Swales. In doing this, students learn the genres of communication (and formatting requirements) common to their fields and familiarize themselves with the major organizations, listservs, and publications relevant to their career interests. For another assignment, students identify a problem or unanswered question currently being discussed by people within their discipline. After researching the issue, students write a Rogerian argument essay that neutrally represents the various perspectives on the issue, locates commonalities among the positions, and advocates for positive direction forward by proposing an answer or solution grounded in shared values. For instance, one pre-med student wrote an essay exploring the ethics of doctors making end-of-life decisions when family members disagree, and a pre-business student examined the benefits and drawbacks of technology in relation to employee productivity. This assignment, as well as the in-class activities and lessons surrounding it, help students learn how to handle conflict in the workplace by approaching it in an empathetic manner while also giving them the tools they need to generate thoughtful, productive solutions. By encouraging students to develop projects specific to their career interests, I hope to help them overcome the discomfort of sharing their ideas while also equipping them with rhetorical and interpersonal communication skills that will serve them well as they transition from college to career.
In order to help students master diverse communication genres and build an electronic portfolio, I teach various multimodal composition strategies. Students in my classes engage with course readings through blog posts, podcasts, native videos, infographics, and other digital texts of their own creation. For example, after giving a lecture on WordPress, I asked students in my “Rhetoric of Fashion and Style” course to create and maintain a blog in which they discussed intersections between rhetoric and style that they encountered in their everyday life. One student, for example, published a blog post critiquing the logical fallacies evident in a fast-fashion advertisement. My goal is to enhance students’ digital literacy in a way that will be useful to them regardless of career path and to provide them with critical frameworks that enable them to make connections between textual analysis and contemporary issues, demonstrating how active engagement with a text, however challenging and uncomfortable it may be, can translate into mindfulness and meaningful action in the world.