Q&A with Teaching Award Winner J. W. Hammond

J.W. Hammond sitting in front of shelves of books.
J.W. Hammond sitting in front of shelves of books.
J. W. Hammond finds inspiration in both teaching and learning from his students.

J. W. Hammond is the recipient of Michigan Technological University's 2024 Distinguished Teaching Award in the Teaching Professor/Professor of Practice/Assistant Professor category.

J. W. Hammond is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition in the Department of Humanities of Michigan Tech's College of Science and Arts. He earned bachelor's degrees in psychology and English at the University of Texas at Austin, his master's in educational and policy studies from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and received his Ph.D. in English and education in 2019 from the University of Michigan.

Hammond's research and teaching center on writing studies, social justice, and science and technology studies. He is interested in examining how writing standards of excellence have evolved and how those standards can unfairly rank students and reinforce social power dynamics and inequalities.

"We are immensely gratified by this well-deserved recognition of James' efforts," said Scott Marratto of the Department of Humanities, noting that Hammond began his work at Tech in fall 2023.

"We have only recently welcomed James as a new member of our faculty, but he is already making a major contribution to Michigan Tech."Scott Marratto, former chair, Department of Humanities

"James' approach to course design and teaching exemplifies what we strive to do in humanities classrooms: Students in his classes are empowered with the tools and the confidence to be more critical thinkers, readers and writers, and to make a real difference in the world."

In this Michigan Tech News Q&A, Hammond reflects on his career journey, teaching style and what he's learning from his students.

Q: What does this recognition mean to you personally and professionally?

JWH: I'm surprised and honored to have even been nominated for the award, and actually being selected for this recognition is a shock that I don't think is going to leave me anytime soon. As someone who only recently joined the humanities department faculty, I'm grateful for the ways Michigan Tech supports and recognizes new instructors.

Distinguished Teaching Award

Since 1982, the annual Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award has been awarded in two categories: Associate Professor/Professor and Teaching Professor/Professor of Practice/Assistant Professor. The award nomination and review processes are student-driven; finalists are selected based on student ratings regarding quality of instruction. Winners receive $2,500 and a plaque at an awards dinner sponsored by the Office of the President in the fall.

Since joining MTU, the courses I've taught have tended to be writing-intensive rhetoric and composition courses, such as Advanced Composition and The Rhetoric of Everyday Texts. The vast majority of my students are not humanities majors, and in my courses' "Getting to Know You" surveys at the beginning of the semester, many students even disclose that they don't think of themselves as writers.

It's immensely rewarding to know how much students value and find personal meaning in the work we do. Perhaps most of all, what this award has helped to highlight for me is how much students of all majors (even those initially skeptical about rhetoric or writing) are hungry for the kinds of insights and experiences that humanities courses have to offer.

Q: Can you share some insights into your approach to teaching and how it has changed over the years?

JWH: While I'm new to Tech, I've been teaching for over a decade — first as a high school teacher, then as an instructor at the University of Michigan, where I taught courses in the English department and in the School of Education. When I started my very first year of teaching, my mom got me a T-shirt as a gag gift to commemorate my new job. I've forgotten the exact words on the T-shirt, but it was something to the effect of, "While you read this shirt, I'm silently correcting your grammar." I think back to this shirt from time to time because I think the intended joke, at its core, speaks to a broadly held (mis)perception about what it means to teach writing: that the purpose of the composition course is to discipline and punish writers, rooting out perceived errors in pursuit of mechanically "pure" prose.

As important as mechanical precision is, I think of my role somewhat differently: I try to design courses where the focus is on thinking carefully, critically and creatively about the choices at work in any text we read or compose. These include choices about grammar and punctuation, but they also involve deeper matters, such as taking up challenging questions about how any text shapes and is shaped by broader contexts and questions about whether and how the things we write can make our local contexts (and the broader world) a better place. This is something that I'm still working and growing toward as a professional, and in truth, I suspect it's something I'll likely continue to work toward for the rest of my career.

Q: What do you think makes for a successful learning experience?

JWH: When I think about a truly successful learning experience, what first comes to mind is a feeling. It's the feeling I have after I watch a great movie or television episode, and I immediately want to share that experience with my friends so we can chat about it. For me, a successful learning experience is one that you want to share with others. Often, this means that a truly successful learning experience will involve changing the way you view something. It might take the form of a lesson that leads you to question things you thought you knew, or a lesson that's helped you to find meaning in something that, prior to the learning experience, you'd largely taken for granted.

All of which is to say that a successful learning experience is one that has changed your life — maybe only in a small way, but in a way that gives you the kind of feeling where you want to share that experience with others, and in the process maybe change their lives, too.

I think that one of the major catalysts for successful learning experiences is seeing something from new, unfamiliar perspectives. This is one of the major reasons I love teaching courses with a multidisciplinary assortment of students. Teaching students with vastly different disciplinary orientations often makes for richer, more complex, more creative conversations. A major goal I have as a humanities educator is to support students with different backgrounds and perspectives in developing better ways to communicate and work together across their differences. It's one of the things that drew me to the humanities in the first place — and it's something I have the opportunity to put into practice at Michigan Tech.

In fact, most days when I come to class, it feels like my students teach me about as much as I teach them. Of course, it's true that students always know things that we instructors don't — but in classes where students are all pretty advanced in their own disciplines, and very few of them are humanities majors, it ends up being the case that my students have a lot of expertise that I don't. It's equal parts exhilarating and humbling to be able to not only teach students, but also genuinely learn with and from them.

"We are fortunate to have a teacher-scholar like Dr. Hammond challenging our students to think more critically about their writing. He creates transformative learning experiences that have changed students' attitudes and perceptions about their writing and the importance of good communication. Dr. Hammond brings rhetoric and writing coursework to life, making it practical and stimulating for students."Ravindra Pandey, dean, College of Sciences and Arts

Q. Are there any particular teaching methods or techniques that you find especially effective in helping students grasp complex concepts in your field?

JWH: My sense as an educator is that a project-based approach is often the best way to support students in grappling with complex tasks and concepts. I tend to design courses around major project-based units, each of which sponsors a different kind of engagement with a major course concept or writing genre. A major advantage of project-based design is that when students have a clearer sense of the major goal they're working toward and why it matters, complexity becomes less like a series of chores and more like a challenge worth taking on.

Because a major focus of my courses is examining the hidden complexities of seemingly mundane genres and everyday forms of communication, I also work to build activities and discussions where we defamiliarize familiar aspects of education, treating documents like syllabi and university rubrics as rhetorical texts to analyze. For example, in the first week of my Rhetoric of Everyday Texts course this past term, we used my own course syllabus as an example of an everyday academic text. In small groups, students brainstormed lists of ways that the syllabus arguably doubled as a persuasive document rather than simply an informational one. Students rightly observed that the way I described major assignments in my syllabus was, in many respects, intended to persuade them as readers not only to complete certain tasks but also to think of those tasks as meaningful. For my students, treating our course itself and the materials associated with it as kinds of texts to analyze helps to provide a constant reminder that rhetoric plays a variety of roles — big and small, overt and covert — in virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives, including aspects of education that we treat as neutral or normal.

Q: Who (or what) inspired you to become a teacher?

JWH: If you told me two decades ago that I'd be working at a university teaching rhetoric and writing, I'm not sure I would have believed you. For as long as I can remember, I've been a painfully introverted person. Communicating verbally and in writing have long been challenging for me. For much of my life, the thought of presenting in front of a group of people — much less facilitating discussion — would have been mortifying. That I find myself in this line of work is, perhaps, an indication that the universe has a sense of humor, but it's also a testament to the way that my life has been profoundly shaped for the better by three educators who made the decision to believe in me and deeply invest in mentoring me: my high school debate teacher Sally Squibb, who gave me the confidence to present in front of others in spite of my fears; my college professor Geraldine Heng, who inspired me to think of myself as a writer (and, indeed, to love history and research); and my doctoral advisor Anne Ruggles Gere, who has given me the confidence to think of myself as a teacher-scholar.

J.W. Hammond standing outside.
J.W. Hammond

In a visceral way, each of them modeled for me how teaching can be transformative — how everyday acts of care can change the lives of others for the better. Each helped to give me a voice. I suppose that while my younger self wouldn't have expected that I'd become a teacher, it makes sense that I've taken that journey. After all, my heroes have been teachers. And when I think of the kind of work worth doing in life, I find myself hoping that I will make even a fraction of the impact on the lives of others that they have had on me.

Q: Could you share a memorable teaching moment or success story that stands out to you in your career?

JWH: The success stories that stand out to me actually aren't ones that happen in class. That's not to say I'm not excited by or proud of the work my students do; I absolutely am. But thinking back to this past year, my most memorable success stories are when former students, the vast majority of whom aren't humanities majors, have contacted me to let me know that while they signed up for my first course to fulfill a credit requirement, they want to sign up for another course — not because they need my course to graduate, but because they find the work we do thought-provoking and fun. For me, that's what the job's all about.

When I first came to college, I wasn't an English major and I didn't really think of myself as a writer. And I can still remember the courses where my humanities instructors sparked something in me. They shifted the way I viewed the world and the way I viewed myself. Having the opportunity to do something similar for my students is priceless. And the thing that inspires me most as an instructor, the thing I'm most proud of, is having students tell me, at the end of the semester or even months or years later, that something from my course has stayed with them — and they wish they had known sooner that rhetoric and writing coursework could be so interesting, useful and enjoyable.

Q: What opportunities does this award open up for you?

JWH: This is a challenging question! I'm not sure what the future holds. As an educator, I try to use student feedback not only to revise and improve my teaching, but also to learn what students value and want more of — and to plan future courses with that in mind. I'm hoping to develop new humanities courses related to topics students have expressed an interest in learning more about, one of which is the rhetoric of games and critical "game studies." In fact, I'm planning on piloting a new course titled The Rhetoric and Culture of Games, which focuses on the ways digital and analog games of various kinds shape and are shaped by culture — and the ways that games themselves can be rhetorical in the sense of shaping the ways players think, feel and relate to others, to social issues and to themselves. The idea for this course comes directly from my conversations with students this past year.

In one of the courses I teach, a major unit is dedicated to procedural rhetoric. The project through which we tackle this topic invites students to (re)design a rhetorical board game, which is to say, a board game intended to send a message through its rules. This project is one that many students flagged as a highlight of my course, and several of them converged on a shared recommendation: They wanted to spend more time learning about the ways we not only argue about games, but argue through games. Now that I've had a chance to consult with students and get their recommendations for what such a course could involve, I'm excited to put what I've learned from students into practice.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.