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Interrogation as a Teaching Philosophy

A problem-posing approach to

student writing agency


Who? What? When? Where? Why?

No matter what course I’m teaching, the first day is dedicated to answering these questions. We answer the “Who?” with a shrinking autobiography exercise, the end goal a written-in-15-seconds blurb that serves as both icebreaker and proof of substance in specificity. We break down the “What?” by defining as a class what the class’ title means, borrowing parts from each student’s individually-generated definition to create a comprehensive one, which we’ll continue to shape over the course as we start to shed assumptions students have about the nature and shape of writing. “When?” and “Where?” are simple: same time, same place, every week. “Why?”, though, is where class opinions diverge most, and it serves as a springboard to jump into the entire semester’s implicit question: “Why do we sit down to write?”

The key purpose of the first day’s activities and discussions is to emphasize student engagement and agency in the act of writing. A question demands answering, and by starting the class with this series of questions, I begin to sow the seeds of self-interrogation and engagement in the learning process, which are key steps towards authorial authority. In order to have agency, writers first have to be aware that they are constantly involved in the creation of something, and the very first point of involvement is also one of the most important: “Why create?” The answer, of course, is student and class dependent. Some write for themselves, especially in creative writing classes. Some write to make an argument in front of an audience, whether that argument is “The poem is an allegory…” or “You should hire me.” Regardless of the reason my students are writing, by inviting and valuing individual and unique answers to this question, I begin to cultivate an environment that allows students to shape their understanding and appreciation of writing on a personal level, where they can then make adjustments based on what they want to achieve.

The next step is to convince these students, some of whom come to my classroom on the first day already self-diagnosed as “bad writers,” that what they have to think and say matters.  While interrogation is fine in a decentered mode like a class discussion over what the course title means, individualized and targeted questioning in front of the entire class might make students uncomfortable, especially those without much writing or social confidence. This is a risk worth avoiding in my teaching approach: while I employ a Freirean-style decentered classroom that emphasizes student empowerment and risk-taking, asking direct questions of students would improperly suggest that I as an instructor have total control over their learning and, therefore, writing.

The best way around this potential pitfall is by providing incentives for students to ask the question themselves, using grading and assignments as tools to demonstrate the value of self-reflection. I assign a mix of homework responses to readings and articles—responses ranging from direct analysis to drawn summary to creative reactions. Each of these assignments requires an additional short paragraph explaining the student’s choices as a writer throughout the process. These paragraphs serve as the implicit “Why?” to each assignment, and answering forces my students to clearly demonstrate their writing authority.

Once students have become comfortable with questioning themselves, we can move forward naturally into examining different modes of writing and our assumptions about them. The interrogation model creates a functioning and welcome method of conversation; rather than immediately dismissing digital writing, for instance, my students ask questions of each other and their tools to invite meaningful boundary-pushing and, in further drafts, revision. In asking-centric creative workshops, students build out a collaborative process of reviewing authorial intent without dismissing reader interpretation and reaction. This critical lens, built around reflection and questioning, helps my students to become not just better writers, but better thinkers. Regardless of what career they pursue, I can feel confident that my students will be able to process and articulate intelligently in their professional and personal aspirations.