Prior to moving into administrative academic leadership roles full time, I spent the vast majority of my teaching career at Columbia College Chicago. Teaching has always been source of energy and inquiry for me, pushing me to explore new ways of thinking, doing, and making as a means of creating quality learning experiences for my students. Over the years, I primarily taught multiple versions of the following courses:
- Writing and Rhetoric I – enhanced (developmental) / international / standard
- Writing and Rhetoric II – enhanced (developmental) / international / standard
- First-year Seminar – honors / non-honors
- Writing New Media
- Writing, Language, and Culture (seminar) – Irreverent Rhetorics: Discourse in a Digital Age
- Composition Theory and Praxis (graduate seminar)
I purposefully chose an academic career at a teaching-focused institution and my scholarship and my teaching are deeply interconnected; my scholarship often influences innovation in my pedagogy and my pedagogy and my students’ work often drives my research questions. I believe that my teaching materials demonstrate the intellectual rigor that undergirds my pedagogy as well as the intentionality with which I guide students through assignments to meet larger learning goals.
As an example, I highlight my First-year Seminar Honors course from Fall 2013, which resulted in student publication of work, with me as instructor/co-author, in the Journal of Undergraduate Media Projects (The Jump).
In 2004, I served as a “founding fellow” on the faculty committee that reinvented the previous iteration of our freshman seminar and created “New Millennium Studies: First-year Seminar.” By 2013, we had dropped the “New Millennium Studies” part of the course title, but I was also aware that the curriculum needed a deeper refresh. I opted to design assignments for my honors section of the course around a large-scale, collaborative, digital, public research and writing project called “Curious Columbia” (modeled after the “Curious City” segments on WBEZ in Chicago).
As I designed it, every student pitched a potential “juicy” line of inquiry, and the students voted on three research questions to explore in three teams. All three final projects were excellent, but team that explored food waste had created a mockumentary and researched web text called “Maximus Waste” that was the hit of the class. I encouraged the food waste group to submit their work to The Jump, and over the course of the next several months, I worked with them to develop the piece and meet the requirements for publication, which included additional reflections, rationales, and, importantly, descriptions of visual elements and video transcripts for accessibility. “Maximus Waste” was published in The Jump issue 6.1 Subsequently, the project was included as example work in Joining the Conversation: A Guide and Handbook for Writers, 3e by Mike Palmquist and Barbara Wallraff, published by Bedford/St. Martins.
It was incredibly rewarding to engage students in an experience that extended beyond the parameters of the classroom and the semester, and, further, to see publication of what was, for all of them, their first refereed/juried public work. It was also gratifying as a teacher to read Christine Denecker’s response to the assignments I had designed to prompt a project like “Maximus Waste” (all The Jump publications include two critical responses). Denecker closed her evaluation of the pedagogy that guided the student work by saying:
As Nilson points out, today’s students are “self-confident,” “technologically sophisticated, action bent, goal oriented, service or civic minded, and accustomed to functioning as part of a team” (11). The pedagogy undergirding “Maximus Waste” speaks to all these strengths and more. This no-waste approach to assignment design proves that the Ironclad Laws of Pedagogy need not lead to learning that falls short of expectations. Instead, an assignment designed with social and academic applications in mind can lead to a pretty amazing learning experience—for students and for the audience of their work.
I work to bring that sense of social and academic design to all of my teaching.
As additional examples of teaching materials, you can review the overview of the Fall 2013 version of my 15-week Composition Theory and Praxis (CTP) course, the web syllabus for my Writing New Media Spring 2014 course, and Engaging Communities , an open-access textbook focusing on ethnographic research methods in inquiry-based first-year writing classrooms.