My Teaching Life: Rebecca Walton

Member of ATTW since 2007

Occupation: Assistant Professor in the English Department

Institution: Utah State University, Logan UT


My desk is piled with books (right now it’s Spinuzzi’s Network and Feeberg’s Transforming Technology, among others) and paperwork. Taped to my credenza are handwritten lists and reminders. There is a tiny alcove with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, which frees my office walls for cityscapes: watercolors of Paris, greyscale photos of New York and Seattle, a huge pencil drawing of Sao Paulo, a museum print from London. The top of my credenza displays travel-related doodads (nesting dolls from Ukraine, papier-mâché elephant from India, leather yurt from Kyrgyzstan) and college diplomas awaiting framing.

Currently reading

To support my teaching, I am rereading How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. This book is a great resource because it distills an impressive range of learning research (empirically driven theory) and conveys how to apply this research in the classroom (practical application). I particularly enjoyed the chapter on student motivation. Understanding the factors that affect student motivation (goals that are valued, expectation of success, and a supportive environment) has enabled me to be more intentional and effective in encouraging students to learn. I highly recommend the book!

Favorite teaching technology

A digital projector is great for focusing attention and generating class-wide discussion. For example, when teaching a document design class, I use it to show video clips, images, websites, and software interfaces, and the students discuss how they see certain principles at work in the example. I think that projecting examples onscreen is better for generating class-wide discussion than conveying examples in handouts or individual computers. With examples onscreen, I can physically direct students’ attention to the relevant location as they verbally, visually, and intellectually engage with the same artifact.

LynneCooke_0Teaching inspiration

I feel an affinity with many of our students at USU, since I was a small-town girl myself and the first in my immediate family to go to college. As a student, I wasn’t aware of the range of amazing career opportunities in technical communication, much less how to go about selecting and pursing them. Lynne Cooke (at that time, an assistant professor at the University of North Texas) taught my first technical communication class, and that is what she did for me. Now I do the same for my students: helping them to broaden the range of possible futures that they envision for themselves and then helping them to narrow in on and prepare for specific professional goals.

Her teaching philosophy

My approach to teaching is in many ways similar to my research approach: ideally, it is dialogic and focuses on helping diverse stakeholders meet their own goals. If research and teaching are dialogic, I see the key role of researchers as respectful listening and of teachers as respectful speaking. As with research, teaching involves stakeholders with a variety of goals. My teaching goals vary—e.g., grade assignments fairly and quickly, cover all of the scheduled material, scaffold students in practicing new skills—but my primary focus is helping students meet their own goals: e.g., develop a good portfolio piece, don’t look foolish in front of people, make a good grade, learn a new concept or skill.

Favorite class to teach

Our undergraduate capstone class is my favorite class. The main reason that I love teaching this class is that I get to facilitate a rather dramatic professional maturation. In our first class meeting, many students are nervous about entering the job market; they are uncertain how to articulate what they offer an employer. By the last class period, they have researched job postings; developed a better understanding of hiring professionals’ perspectives; identified their professional goals; and practiced articulating their professional identity in elevator pitches, mock interviews, resumes, and print and web portfolios. They mature from students to professionals, and it makes me so proud of them.

What students say about her

I went to for this one, since it seemed like the closest approximation to overhearing my students describe me to their peers. Students say that I’m passionate about what I teach (True! In fact, I was once described as “too enthusiastic” in a course evaluation; is that even possible??) and that I “will go above and beyond to be sure you succeed.” But, they warn, my classes are not easy (Good! Neither is the job market). I was delighted to “overhear” that they find my classes professionally relevant: “I felt like I have really come away with knowledge I can use in the career.”

Best reason for teaching

I like helping students to develop capacities they didn’t know they had. Many of our undergraduate students love the written word but find information technology or visual design to be intimidating. I teach design and technology classes. In teaching, I love to empower students with research-based principles for design and an adventurous, problem-solving mindset for technology use. I love to hear students describe their newfound confidence in using design and technology skills to supplement great writing and editing, but I am proudest when they wield these new skills to secure jobs and internships.

Greatest teaching challenge

My greatest challenge is incorporating into my classes new skills that correspond to trends in the field. Our field is both broad and fast moving. Industry blogs like those of Tom Johnson, Sarah O’Keefe, and Scott Abel convey some of the trends that are affecting technical communicators in industry. But getting a sense of trends and corresponding skills is the easy part. What I find really challenging is 1) prioritizing those skills and selecting which make the cut for inclusion; 2) determining how to model, teach, enable practice opportunities, and grade progress on those skills; and 3) developing the skills myself. Whew!

If you weren’t a technical communicator, what would you be?

Hmm, I must be in the right field. Most jobs that come to mind fall under the umbrella of technical communication, broadly defined. For example, my first thought is that I would work for a humanitarian organization, but the types of work that appeal to me are project management and communications. If I could just choose a way to spend my time (not necessarily a job) well outside the broad umbrella of our field, I’d say international travel. There is nothing I like better than exploring a new place on foot—walking through open-air markets, people watching, and trying new foods.