By: Aspen Grove Collective: Liz Bolton, Audrey Coble, Delcenia Cosman, Tara Knight, Diana Saverin, and Sarah Stanley
April 15, 2022
In the fall semester of 2021, four first-year graduate students, and one adjunct instructor and academic advisor, were connected to team-teach an asynchronous, first-year composition course. Our approach to team teaching used invitational rhetoric as a strategy to help students feel more comfortable sharing their ideas and writing since it deemphasizes argument and emphasizes the sharing of multiple perspectives (Kirtley, 2014, p. 340). Invitational rhetoric, at its core, is a style of writing largely rooted in feminism that encourages experimentation (even fun!), reader-audience connection, and empathy over values of “traditional” (and often patriarchal) academic writing like authority, persuasion, and argumentation.
We embraced invitational rhetoric as a style of writing, but we also expanded it to inform our entire pedagogical approach—with the explicit goals of fostering a sense of community, belonging, and safety among our first-year students. We tried to make these values clear at the start of our course by discussing them openly and encouraging our students to practice these values in their engagements with one another, as well.
We chose Slack to incorporate invitational rhetoric into our large, online class; students were invited to post weekly memes and digital postcards through designated Slack channels. Slack was also used as a private, instructor-only space to hash out ways of respoanding to student concerns.
A few weeks into the semester, an instructor noticed that a student had posted several memes about suicide, suggesting the student was struggling. The below example was taken from the private Slack channel the instructors used to discuss the situation. We include timestamps and profile pictures alongside the discussion to highlight responsiveness; students’ names have been changed, and we have IRB permission to use the private Slack channel for scholarship.
Morning all! Is anyone seeing the memes that Christina has been posting? I think there were 7 this morning, all relating to depression, not wanting to get out of bed, and one even talking about “the one non-suicidal brain cell trying to keep you alive…” I am happy to reach out, unless one of you knows them from your small Aspen group and wants to do it/knows they’re joking?? I haven’t engaged with this person so it’s hard for me to tell what’s happening. Kevin reached out to say, “I get it, things will get easier, not every day is like this,” which I thought was awesome. Just thinking one of us should step in too.
yes private message her Liz
I think ..hey saw your memes…you ok? can I connect you to some resources
Christina is in my aspen channel, and I’ve DM’d her before.
I can reach out. Thanks for letting me know!
Thanks, all. Appreciate you spotting that, Liz!
@Liz Does that work or have you already reached out
“Hi Christina! I saw your memes this morning and just wanted to check in… you doing okay? Beginning of the school year can be tough. If you’re struggling, I can connect you with resources at UAF, people to talk you through big feelings you may be having. Please reach out to me or to Tara, who runs your small Aspen group, if you’re wanting some help or support. We’re very happy to have you in class and want to make sure you’re alright. “
Looks great, Liz.
I suspect this is niche humor, but still support reaching out! If Christina confirms she’s okay, this could also raise a question about writing for contexts/audiences. Students growing up posting/writing to algorithms that show you only to other people who have similar identities/experiences to you may lead to an assumption that your writing is always for an audience that understands your context
ONE HUNDRED PERCENT! She’s a high school student, so it’s actually kind of important information for her before she heads out into the wider world.
Here’s the response I got from Christina: Oh wow! Thank you for checking in on me and I am sorry for causing a fuss! I am just having a little trouble with grades and I decided to send my meme arsenal. Thank you for caring though!
Supporting each other through tiered networks of care
Because the asynchronous delivery method of the course made it difficult to know whether students had a “niche sense of humor” or whether they were really struggling, the emotional labor required to keep tabs on students was sometimes taxing. Like many instructors who taught through the pandemic, we found that our students were often grappling with a host of even more difficult circumstances than usual, including illness, loss, and enormous life changes. We, as a group of (mostly) new instructors who were also dealing with pandemic circumstances, sometimes had difficulty determining how best to show up and care for our students.
However, having a team of other teachers created tiered networks of care, allowing instructors to support and care for each other, granting us additional capacity to care for our students. Additional support helped us be more intentional about our follow-up with students, as we held each other accountable and shared the labor of outreach. Invitational rhetoric also supported the community emerging in the course, which can be seen in the way another student in the course, Kevin, responded to Christina’s memes. Overall, students seemed to embrace the tenets of invitational rhetoric throughout the semester by helping us build a safe, inclusive, and caring online writing community.
Based on the success of this course, we find invitational rhetoric to be an effective method for building community and care into first-year writing courses, and team-teaching helps make the invisible labor that it requires manageable.
Kirtley, S. (2014). Considering the alternative in composition pedagogy: Teaching invitational rhetoric with Lynda Barry’s What It Is. Women’s Studies in Communication, 37(3), 339-359. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07491409.2014.946166
About the Authors
Liz Bolton, Delcenia Cosman, and Diana Saverin are all first year MFA graduate students in Creative Writing. Each was supported by a teaching assistantship their first year in the program and willing to learn through team teaching as peer mentors.
Audrey Coble is a first year MFA graduate student in Creative Writing who also works full-time for the University of Alaska. Audrey enrolled in the graduate seminar and was willing to learn through team teaching as a peer mentor.
Tara Knight is an academic advisor and adjunct instructor of writing, who co-taught with the graduate instructors during the first semester of their teaching assistantship and served as a mentor and resource to one teaching team.
Sarah Stanley is an Associate Professor of English who taught the graduate teaching seminar. This class provided weekly curricular scaffolds for teaching teams to apply in their own classrooms.