by Kate White

As MSU educators strive to support student success, faculty are combining evidence-based teaching techniques in interesting ways.  For Dr. Cheryl L. Caesar of the First Year Writing program in the Writing, Rhetoric and American Culture Department the professional journey from good to great began in Europe using old school pedagogy. 

“The French are very strict and perfectionistic about their language and, as an English teacher, I would have been thought of as remiss if I had not corrected every error I saw. It's very different here,” says Caesar. After 25 years of teaching in France, Caesar joined the MSU faculty in 2009.  “Coming into class to be told ‘this is the right way to write and I will show you how to do it’ didn’t really work for a lot of students. They weren’t bringing me their writing for me to edit it for publication. They brought me their writing because they want to improve as writers.”  

Embracing the diversity of the MSU community, Caesar moved away from the red pencil approach. She began to create a welcoming and inclusive classroom culture, blending influences from the learning goals of the College of Arts & Letters’ First Year Writing (FYW) program and principles found in translingual instruction. Translingual instruction teaches educators to avoid assuming everyone is a native English speaker, which can leave students behind, and cause teachers to use teaching examples that not everyone knows or understands. 

Caesar points out that translingual teaching techniques can be used in all disciplines, from the arts to the sciences. Translingual instruction challenges educators to be mindful of different backgrounds, ask before judging, and meet people where they are to make them feel welcome. Caesar and colleague Dr. Joyce Meierdove into translingual practices and became mentors to a team of undergraduates who create instructional videos on the needs and cultural assets of international students. 

Caesar credits the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (WRAC) emphasis on curiosity, discovery, and the robust exchange of ideas in shaping her pedagogy. She uses a beginner's mindset to relate to her students and is rewarded by being “off the hook for being the expert.” Caesar’s approach to “learning with them” relieves her of the pressure to be all-knowing or perfect. That gives her and her students permission to make mistakes and to learn from them. Reflective writing and active learning deepen the learning opportunities in Caesar’s courses.   

What She Learned From COVID 

“I, along with most of my colleagues in the department, had some sort of absence penalties,” says Caesar. “We talked about it and agreed this just wasn’t fair during COVID. Even if we were Zooming or flexing, there are just too many things that students can’t control. I realized that it was a good thing for me to eliminate. Even a 10% absence penalty for the grade was not a good idea. What is much more effective is my reaching out to a student who’s absent in a caring manner. I might email them even 20 minutes into the class when everyone’ working on a task and say you can still join us. Here’s what we are doing. It’s OK if you’re running a little late. Sometimes I email students after class and share what we did. I tell them we really missed you. I encourage them to talk with me so we can get them caught up. It seems to work better.”  

Personal Development 

Caesar often takes up a new activity or attempts to learn a new skill to keep connected to WRAC’s aspirations of curiosity and discovery. “I am studying yoga. There are a lot of balances that I cannot achieve. The point is not the perfection of a pose. It’s my growth.  It’s what I am experiencing as I’m learning. I try to share that with the students. I can be a human being in the class with other human beings. I can keep learning. It is foundational in my classroom.”  The beginner's mindset allows Caesar to see things from a completely different point of view.  “I think it keeps us alive in our fields; it keeps it fresh.” 

Beyond the Syllabus 

To set the stage for active discussions in her classes, Caesar talks with students about guidelines for respectful interactions and collaboration. Her definition of respectful interaction includes “being present as fully possible and to listen generously, to embrace difference, and to expect to learn from one another. We are making space to stop and pause before reacting.” In Caesar’s courses, students are seen as a source of knowledge. Students share their experience and culture, and it becomes a learning resource. “I think this approach immediately makes the classroom a more welcoming environment.” It also takes students out of the passive learning mode. The guidelines, and her consensus building approach to their acceptance, offers the opportunity to respond kindly “if anything starts to go off the rails.” Caesar steers students back to the class's commitment to seek common ground and empowers the students to answer the question of “How can we do that here?” This builds language skills for participating in discussions with differing perspectives and strongly held points of view. 

Building Connection 

Caesar’s teaching style appears effortless, but it is intentional. “One thing I like to do on the first day of class is get students started talking to each other and making friends. Sometimes I hand out index cards and ask each student to note: their official name (as it appears on the roster); the name they'd like to be called; their hometown; their current location (i.e., name of residence hall or off-campus address); and one piece of popular culture that they are reading, watching, listening to or playing at the moment. Students partner up and introduce themselves, using this info. Then each pair joins another pair, making groups of four. Students are asked to introduce their partners, sharing as much of the info as they can recall (not looking at the cards!). Then I mix up the groups a couple of times and they do it again. At the end of class, I collect the cards, glue each student's roster photo to their card, and use the cards to refer to and make notes on when I have conferences or office hours with that student.”  Getting to know students, spurring them to get to know classmates, and valuing individuals as teaching resources changes the dynamic. Caesar’s classes shift from being a required course to a place where students meet, learn and growth together. “Each of us brings tools or maps for this journey. It’s a journey together.”