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March 7, 2008:  A Teaching Philosophy with Chicken and Dumplings on the Side

Dear Colleagues, 

I am not only excited to have the chance to share my philosophy of teaching with you, I am just as excited that I will have the chance to read and learn from yours. 

I’d like to dive right in with a metaphor.  I’m sure this will stir fierce debate, but one of my first cousins once-removed makes the best chicken and dumplings in Arkansas.  She was kind enough to give me her recipe and even a little bit of advice on how to make it at one of our family reunions.  I attempted the dish one time on my own after that, and ended up with a gloppy bland mess not even a 'possum would eat.  I thought a lot about what had gone wrong, but the only thing I could come up with was that I didn’t roll the dough thin enough.  This past Christmas, I decided I didn’t want material gifts, so I asked my mom to help me learn to make chicken and dumplings as her gift to me.  When I showed the recipe to her, she thought maybe my cousin had accidentally left out baking powder.  I reasoned that, if we were rolling them as thin as my cousin had told me, maybe we wouldn’t need baking powder.  So we proceeded: my mom and I took turns—she showed me how to mix the dough and then let me take over.  She showed me how to roll it out, and then let me take over.  And I learned some interesting things I probably never would have figured out on my own:  don’t over-mix once you add the buttermilk, cut a paper bag into a square for your rolling surface, roll the dough as thin as you can get it, and throw tons of flour onto the dough as you’re rolling it out.  I was, also, able to teach my mom something:  a pizza cutter works better than a knife.  I have to say, our chicken and dumplings were even better than my cousin’s, not only because I added pepper (if it doesn't have pepper, it's not worth eating), but also because my mom and I will now share this memory.

This story demonstrates the way I think about learning.  In essence, the recipe and my cousin’s advice was like reading a textbook and listening to a lecture on how to make chicken and dumplings.  What I read from the “textbook” and what I heard in the “lecture” didn’t translate to a real-life set of skills that would aid me in making edible chicken and dumplings. We don’t actually learn anything in that model where the “sage on the stage” fills up our little teapots and we pour out all we’ve memorized onto the test only to find ourselves empty again.  Instead, what we need is, first, motivation to learn something new, and, second, someone who will model how to do it and then let us take over.  I really wanted to learn how to make chicken and dumplings (and nothing motivates me more than the fact that my mom is 600 miles away: chicken and dumplings are, as everyone knows, a symbol and a stand in for generations of love from our grandmothers to our moms).  And just watching my mom wouldn’t have been the same as taking notes, asking questions, and getting flour under my fingernails.  Reflection is also a key to the process.  If we don’t reflect on the way we’ve done things or what we’re being asked to do, we’ll always do things the same unproductive way: we’ll always end up with tough, tasteless dumplings.  We have to look back and think about the fact that we might have over-mixed the dough, or not added enough flour, or that maybe we shouldn’t have added the baking powder the recipe didn’t call for.  Another important principle is that it never hurts to put two heads together, even if neither one of them knows what they’re doing.  Luckily for me, my mom already knew how to make chicken and dumplings, but even if she hadn’t, we probably would have been more successful than if I had kept trying to do it by myself—and we managed to teach each other something—even though I’m a neophyte at dumplings.  And finally, the best time to intervene is during the process—not after the dumplings are ruined and there’s nothing else for dinner. 

The most difficult task for a teacher is motivating students.  Unfortunately, in Writing 1310 and Writing 1320, we serve a population mostly lacking intrinsic motivation; they don’t come to us with a burning desire to improve as writers or to learn to write academic prose, so we have to try to create motivation externally.  I do this by balancing fun with responsibility.  I try to make my classes active and participatory with freewriting, discussions, read-arounds, peer review, activities.  And they’re constantly working together—one on one, in groups of three or four, with Writing Center tutors, or with me.  So they’ve got a sense of audience, and they’ve got people who can respond.  Students will often say mine is their favorite class because their other classes are just boring lectures.  Okay, so I’ve motivated them to be there, I’ve engaged them once they are there, and I’ve gotten them to put their heads together.  But the other side of the coin is that they have to be responsible for their own learning because I’m not brewing their tea; I’m asking them to make chicken and dumplings and bring them to class to determine whether or not they’ve made a taste of heaven or a load of buckshot.  And as much as it may hurt someone’s feelings, if it’s shotgun- and not dinner-worthy, she needs to know, so she can make it better next time.  But, like I said, I want to intervene before dinner is ruined.  So I model freewriting, revise an introduction of my own on the document projector, or show them how I would research the isolating nature of technology.  And then I turn it over to them, let them give it a try, show them or let them tell each other where they’re doing it exactly right and where they need a little work.  And we reflect on what we’ve done, together, by keeping self-reflection logs:  “how do I feel about the grades?” “how do you feel about your grade?” “ why did this paper make a D?” “ what could I have done better as a teacher?”  “what could you have done better as a writer?” “how can I help you on this next paper?”  “how should we spend our next class meeting?”

So that’s my teaching philosophy in general, but what about teaching writing in particular?  I have two main goals for students in Writing 1310 and Writing 1320 (I like to keep it simple).  They are as follows: 

  • To understand that there are three things that drive every piece of writing:  who’s writing, for whom are they writing, and why they’re writing (writer, audience, purpose—the rhetorical triangle). 

  • To experience the writing process at least six times in the course of their lives, even if, ever after, they will continue to write something the night before it’s due.

As a rhetorician (not really an expressivist, not really a cultural/critical theorist), that first goal pretty much encompasses and sums up succinctly three millennia of work from Gorgias to Derrida.  Gorgias, being the Leontinian ambassador to Athens, said that he couldn’t write for Athenians the way he wrote for the people of Leontini.  Plato said the writer had to be ethical and knowledgeable in all subjects—“credible” in another word.  Aristotle taught that the writer had to find all the available means of persuasion:  facts don’t speak for themselves and what might convince the aged will have no impact on the young.  Skipping a few centuries, theorists like Burke and Derrida made it clear that the writer is divorced from her text once it lands in someone else’s hands—so make your purpose clear because you can’t speak for your written words.  And most people know that you won’t get the job if you use text-message style in your résumé, and if you write erudite, stodgy prose in your personal e-mails to an old friend, she might take it the wrong way (and, yes, I was the one who took it the wrong way).  The second goal is closely related to the first:  if a writer doesn’t give herself time to write, reflect, get feedback, revise, edit, and proofread, she’s probably skimping on one or more aspects of the rhetorical triangle, and that triangle will be incomplete:  kettle-breaking dumplings.  So the strategies I use to help students learn are pretty much the same strategies I use to help them become better writers:  They develop themselves and their repertoire through freewriting and reflection.  They gain an understanding of audience and purpose through peer reviews, read-arounds, coaching sessions with me, visits with Writing Center tutors who’ve graciously agreed to come to my classes across campus.  They work on higher order concerns—proving their point to the reader through solid reasoning—and lower order concerns—developing a style or a voice appropriate for the purpose.     

That, in a nutshell, is my philosophy of teaching.  I’m enclosing two recipes with this letter:  one for chicken and dumplings from my cousin (with additions I dictated from my mom), click on the thumbnail above, and another for the writing and feedback process I use with my students.  Enjoy!




About Me
I teach; cook; write; hike; read; dally; canoe; eat; write; rock 'n roll; eat some more; tumble and fall; dawdle; complain; bento; write; organize; watch movies; ignore e-mail;  renovate; write; curse computers; brew my tea dark and bitter; herd cats; live in Arkansas; Plato, Derrida, and rhetoric (yes, those are verbs); remain overly cautious; persuade; imbibe; GTD; and oh, yeah, I write a little. 


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All images and text copyright © 2004-2008 by Jennifer Deering.  All rights reserved.
E-mail me at sanslenom at msn dot com.