Learn more about what makes Northwest college’s faculty truly excellent!
In collaboration with The Committee on Faculty Development and Morale and the office of College Relations, the TLC is excited to showcase the great work of Northwest College's educators! In this faculty spotlight series, we will feature members of our faculty that are recognized by nominations from their peers based on demonstrated excellence in teaching, mentoring/advising, service, or scholarship. Spotlights will also be promoted by the Marketing, Communications & Web office in a variety of media.
When it comes to English classes, Rachel Hanan isn’t afraid to put a twist on tradition. A scholar of Renaissance literature, Hanan describes her interests as “old school”; her Ph.D. research examined how the Gutenberg printing press and 17th century scientific revolutions changed the face of literature. But, as an associate professor of English at Northwest College, Hanan’s classes sparkle with modern technology. For example, her Literature & Science class examines current anxieties about technology, such as those in contemporary dystopias like Black Mirror and Westworld, and her students regularly use Facebook for coursework.
The combination of these interests prepared her to explore something new this semester: teaching Writing for Digital Media, a course that encourages students to think differently about college-level writing. Although communication is critical component of most English courses, it’s not every day students get to take a class centered around researching and writing about the things they love. Hanan, who started at NWC in 2011, hails from Oregon, where she earned her Ph.D. in 2010.
How did you begin teaching Writing for Public Forums?
I draw on the work of Renee Dechert (NWC professor of English) and Heidi Hansen (NWC instructor of English), who developed versions of the class in 2014 and 2018. This is the first semester we’ve had enough students to go ahead with the class. We anticipate that it will become quite popular; hopefully we’ll be able to teach it every semester and create an online version of it, too. The focus of the class comes from my conversations with Renee and Heidi. We were trying to think about public forums for which students would naturally be writing for including blogging, social media promotion and other public relations related work. In a lot of writing classes, the assignments are often divorced from students’ everyday experiences. It’s great to be able to write an academic paper, but once you get a job, you’ll probably never have to write a five page research paper again.
Why did you choose to focus on social media and blogging during this class?
Blogging is something many students already do, but I think this class also prepares them for the types of things they need to think about if they’re writing for digital media in future jobs. For example, you really have to pay attention to your audience, which has the potential to be vastly different depending on who you’re working for. The class has spent a lot of time analyzing audiences of different blogs, and then proposing what an audience of their own blog might look like. They’ve also done a lot of research surveying the current blogs in their field to find their niche. Because it’s a public forum and their websites will go live, students are accountable to real human beings who will be reading their work. I think it’s really important for students to not separate the work they’re doing in school from the work they’re doing in their lives. Students write better and develop more real-world skills when they write about topics in formats relevant to their daily lives.
The other thing I really love about this class is that it’s been my job is to help students be better at the things they already love. They come up with the topics they care about the very, very most, and I get to help them best represent that to people. It’s a real joy to watch them blossom because they get to do what they care about.
Is there anything you’ve learned from this class that surprised you?
It hasn’t exactly been a surprise, but one thing I really, really love about this class is that it feels like a group effort—we’re all working together. The students problem solve, create memes and analyze Twitter posts together. Their flexibility and honesty has been immensely helpful for me. I’m confident that if something isn’t working for them, they’re going to tell me and we can adjust. Their enthusiasm has been wonderful. It’s also really interesting to learn where students are with digital media. Some of them make YouTube videos, while others are not as familiar, so it’s important to pitch the class so nobody is bored but nobody is overwhelmed. I also hadn’t really anticipated how much fun we were going to have, and ultimately I think it boils down to students learning about the things they already love. Plus, we love playing the meme game!
What advice would you give to a student who is considering English as a major?
English majors will place well in any field that requires good communication. Business is all about communication. When you’re a lawyer, you have to be very careful with language. I mean, there have been cases won just based on the Oxford comma! Teachers must have really good communication. In the STEM field, researchers must consider how to make their research more accessible to the average person. What’s really growing right now for English majors is the ability to deal with all different types of digital media. Being able to write well is the foundation for so many different options for future employment. In fact, my work in this class helped me win a position editing for a national blog, and my skills helped me negotiate pay double what was offered.
What do you do for fun outside of teaching?
I garden! I really love growing things that are hard to grow in Wyoming, like bamboo. I grew up in Oregon where you can grow just about anything, so I’ve had a fun time trying to adapt. Learning how to garden in a desert has not been an easy task. I also fostered dogs for many years, and we still take in bottle kittens every spring. We just brought home a Cane Corso puppy; teaching him nose work may be the subject of my new blog!