The phrase “If I had it to do again” is always a dangerous thing, applying later knowledge to a past event and so introducing a paradox, and possibly reshaping memory to suit a thing that did not happen and fragmenting the world a bit further every time. But it is an alluring danger, one that seems inescapable, and I have found myself mired in it far too many times. And even when I know that I will not have it to do again, I find myself giving thought to what I would do if I did.
For example, I’ve taught first-year college composition many, many times since I started teaching at the college level in 2006. Often enough, I have had a prescribed sequence of assignments in doing so–more often than not, in the event, whether at a technical college in New York City that is now vanished or at a Big 12 school after I had earned my doctorate. But I have, from time to time, been given broad control over teaching such classes. In one, I feel that I did a fairly decent job of things, shaping assignments such that I was able to teach them well and get good work from my students in return. (Indeed, I remain singularly impressed with the efforts some of those students made; it is why I continue to write letters for them when they ask me to do so.)
It was only in one, however, that I did so. In the other, a first-semester composition class, I ended up teaching essays in the somewhat dated modal tradition, asking students to write description and narrative and the like. They did decently enough, to be sure, but I feel as if I missed an opportunity with them–the more so, now that I look back upon the experience with reasonable certainty that it was the last chance I had to teach the way I would prefer to teach the class. For I am certain that the kind of academic job that would allow me to do so is forever outside my reach (and I am working on getting okay with that circumstance, although I am not at that point yet).
If I had it to do again, I think I would teach first-semester composition as a focus on rhetorical analysis–only. I would guide my students through reading pieces–it doesn’t matter what pieces, really–and distilling from them summaries of content, of expected primary and anticipated secondary audiences, of choices of authorities to employ, of likely effects of those choices, of gaps in reasoning, of deficiencies for other audiences than expected, of the effects of layout choices (such as my listing these ofs in-line rather than in bullets or my lack of pictures amid my text), and of other things whose names escape me at the moment, and into interpreting what those things mean and how they do so. Parsing the information out seems the set of skills they need–that all of us need–and the practice in doing so students would get who sincerely and diligently (issues too often in my classes, to be sure) conducted the analyses such a class would request would help them to do that.
I know it is not exactly a revolutionary idea that I would do such a thing if I had it to do again. I know that many of the trained rhetoricians and compositionists I know and have known do such things when they teach first-year composition. (I also know that it is comparatively rare that they do so; most teaching of first-year composition is done by people off of the tenure track, and, it seems, more by those who specialize in areas other than rhet/comp than by those who do.) And, again, I know that I am not likely ever to have the chance to teach again a class that I have ordered as I would like it to be. But if it is ever the case that I have it to do again, I know what it is I mean to do, and why.