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Teaching Philosophy

For more than five years I’ve taught an array of language arts to students at different levels in different cultures: in East Asia I spent three years teaching essay writing, creative writing, grammar, conversational English, business English, professional speaking, and literature courses to students age five through 50; in the United States, two-and-half years teaching a first-year composition course at Purdue University as well as one-and-half years in a writing lab conducting one-on-one writing tutorials with undergraduate and graduate students and university faculty. In all these endeavors, these are some of the core values which shape my instruction:


Relational pedagogy. The radical Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi would welcome his students every morning with warm water for their cold hands, walk them home during inclimate weather, discreetly provide soup and bread for those students who had insufficient or no school lunches, and buy school supplies in bulk so that his lower-income students would never be at a material disadvantage within his classroom walls. It was this ethos of concern for the quality of his students’ lives beyond the classroom walls that opened Makiguchi’s students to the lessons that happened within them. His example reminds me of an adage my college roommate, Benjamin, an extraordinary science teacher, has told me time and time again: “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Indeed, the best student evaluation I ever received simply stated, “He cares.” Another student: “It was obvious MT was interested in my writing, so I began to take my writing seriously.” I believe students crave an education that will help them critically interrogate their political situation, create value and meaning, and in general enhance their quality of life. In order for education to have this impact, theory must be kept close to the ground and course content must be personalized and related to students’ particular contexts, both their pasts and projected futures. One way I do this is by bringing students’ latent knowledge to consciousness. Contrary to what some curmudgeonly op-eds may opine, students today are often hyper-literate: they are reading and writing incessantly across an astonishing array of platforms. Accordingly, I draw on their past and current experiences to show that they are often already savvy rhetoricians, employing a range of linguistic styles and persuasive appeals as their audience and discourse community shifts. Another way I individualize learning is by creating space in my assignments for students to research and write about the social issues that matter most to them so that they can make…


Rhetorical impact. Many students enter class with the presupposition that English is equivalent to literature, i.e. the purview of bookworms and the Muse-visited few. In requiring students to research, write, and design media about contemporary crises they care about, however, I want my students to see how writing—theirs included!—can be both art and instrument, and in their case, a catalyst for social change. Language may be humanity’s most significant tool, and texts are one of our oldest technologies for altering reality, as Aesop’s fables, the Magna Carta, and MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail all demonstrate. Beyond venerable historical examples, I examine with my students a diverse collection of texts from numerous genres across media to show how, even on a more quotidian level, masterful uses of language can generate interest, raise awareness, challenge dogma, change behavior, and even mobilize people en masse to respond to some highlighted exigency in the world. In addition to traditional academic writing like research reports, white papers, and peer-reviewed journal articles, we look at PSAs, tweets, emails, satirical news, letters to editors, infographics, résumés, Kickstarter campaigns, graffiti, and Facebook event invitations to see how writing in various guises is useful for getting things done. Likewise, I task students with composing in multiple modes for multiple audiences so that they come to understand that writing is always a situated and messy production that demands attending to many interdependent factors. Given the complexity of any rhetorical situation, to be effective, one must first go through…


Experiential learning. To write well one must first write, period. Or as the Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende phrases the first three steps of good writing: “Show up, show up, show up.” I’ve seen many students enter college with an entrenched habit of procrastination surrounding writing, often stemming from anxiety, especially when it comes to larger projects. While procrastination may have its benefits, one of them is rarely good writing. Writing is thinking made visible, and thinking takes time. Quality writing results from questioning, hypothesizing, seeking, listening, collecting, weighing, synthesizing, responding, experimenting, sharing, testing, troubleshooting, and incorporating feedback, hardly any of which can be completed the night before a deadline. To that end, I view my students developmentally, i.e. as apprentices—writers-in-training—trying to master a craft. I structure my courses so that students settle into the habit of writing daily, whether it be in response to assigned readings, to peers’ drafts, or as piecemeal exercises that contribute to larger writing assignments. Additionally, I try to equip students with the necessary vocabulary so that they can address themselves as writers and critically reflect on their writing process. Finally, I build off my previous experience as magazine journalist and writing consultant by integrating regular workshops and conferences into class time. In these one-on-one interactive sessions, student writing takes center stage as students build the capacity to articulate and defend their rhetorical strategies, learn to give, receive, and respond charitably to criticism, and transform their takeaways from such collaboration into revision possibilities. Ultimately, students come to understand the arduous, iterative, and largely invisible effort that goes into polished, publishable writing, which, like any impressive performance, only comes from hands-on practice, again and again and again.

Student Feedback

"He cares...He once sent me an article about the topic of my paper that he stumbled upon and took the time to highlight some main points and discuss how it related to my series of papers. I felt he really cared about developing my writing ability." --Fall 2016 Student

"Overall an excellent teacher. Does a really great job explaining." --Fall 2014 Student

"His course was fantastic. His use of presentations and other ways of getting information across instead of only relying on the textbook was very beneficial for me. He was engaging and kept things fresh. Overall I loved his course." --Spring 2015 Student

"Mitchell works well with everyone and is able to relate content to each and every student. His personality brings a lively atmosphere to class and made learning fun. He is engaging and a great resource when any help is needed." --Fall 2016 Student

"This guy goes out of his way to help you with your writing and gives you clear pointers when you're struggling. --Fall 2014 Student

"Mr. Terpstra is one of the most effective teachers I know in terms of participation and fairness. He really encourages us to open up and contribute to the class, yet he understands the viewpoints of students and didn't work us to the bone. I felt very well disciplined yet comfortable in his class." --Fall 2014 Student

"Focuses on students very well." --Spring 2015 Student

"Very engaging in the classroom. MT motivated students to do great work." --Spring 2016 Student

"I appreciated that MT presented the material in a way that was relatable to my career." --Fall 015 Student

"Mitchell is very approachable and easy to talk to, whereas some other professors make you feel stupid whenever you ask a question." --Spring 2016 Student

"Thankful for this teacher...He provided the most nutritious classes at my English Academy." --Fall 2011 Student

"I liked his style of teaching, very friendly. He tries his best to get everyone involved. I found the conferencing times very effective." --Fall 2014 Student

"His class was fun and not boring as I expected going in. He's very helpful and interested in your writing and shows that he actually cares. --Fall 2015 Student

"His class discussions really help in learning and engaging students with the material. His enthusiasm also made this course better." --Fall 2015 Student

"Very organized and with assignments that were relevant." --Spring 2016 Student

"I loved that Mr. Terpstra used an 'Action Campaign' throughout the entire course. Instead of just random projects, all our assignments were connected and I feel as though this made us much more engaged in class and interested in our own work. This professor is also super-approachable and reasonable in what he demands of students." --Fall 2016 Student

Sample Documents

Environmental Writing Syllabus
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