Teaching Statement

My primary goal in teaching is to create an encounter between student and literature, between student and world, between student and idea. I help my students open themselves up to literature, to build a habit of reading that engages in active dialogue with the ideas and the possibilities of mind that the work affords. In order for them to understand what the text is saying and thus formulate their response, they must have the tools to analyze the work and interpret its meaning. These tools include formal and thematic examination, making connections among works, and, most importantly, articulating and composing their own written responses to the work at hand.

 

The first step I take with my students is simply the practice of reading, and reading actively. In composition and critical theory classes, I generally assign two essays per class. How are students to write about ideas if they don't read about ideas; how are students to learn literary theory if they don't actually read primary texts in the field? In literature classes, I typically assign a book per week or week and a half—a novel, a book of poetry, a play. How are students to learn an author's world view by reading excerpts? I use discussion boards in which students post article summaries or literature responses before class; and then I ask them to informally present their ideas at the start of class. The responses not only compel students to become comfortable with the basics of the plot but also encourage them to analyze the work on their own and thereby broach issues for class discussion. The public forum obliges them to think deeply, critically, and responsibly about their response; and the written aspect allays the anxieties of those students uncomfortable with speaking in class, not to mention that it gives those anxious students a tangible document to refer to during class discussion.

 

My in-class teaching style employs group activities and class discussion in order to exemplify my dialogic approach to reading literature. I generally start a session in a survey course with a short lecture on the period and then ask my students to respond to an essay or two depicting the basic tenets of the period. When I teach a book over the course of two or three meetings, I devote the first day to initial student response like emotion and taste and understanding of the book's plot and style; on subsequent days, discussion moves to critical evaluation of literary theme and authorial world view, aesthetics and literary movement. The first day encourages students of all abilities to participate while the second day gives the exemplary undergraduates and the graduate students a space to engage the work on their own terms. If a text is particularly difficult or over brimming with ideas, I will create an in class group activity to break it down into small, meaningful parts that students can understand on their own so we as a class can put the text back together as a thematic whole on the next day of discussion. Another benefit of in class activities for undergraduate/graduate split level courses is that graduate students can be put in groups with each other and have time to discuss the work with other graduate students. Formal analysis leads to thematic discussion of the work.

 

The initial forays into analysis afforded by discussion board responses, in class activities, and class discussion set the stage for independent thinking in formal papers. In regular composition courses, I often assign essays that promote rigorous analysis about cultural issues discussed in class; I teach Honors composition as a great ideas course. After students practice arguing their own ideas, I add another element to the mix: research. In lower division courses, I assign group annotated bibliography assignments that require both website and presentation components in order to put into responsible practice the habits of analysis and interpretation taught in the course. Groups read a work of literature, research it, and teach it to the class. Annotated bibliographies encourage students to practice reading and evaluating critical sources; and they lead to a final paper, which I emphasize should foreground students ideas and use the research as support. After my students complete such a project with the help of their peers, I find that they are much better able to enter into a longer critical project independently. I encourage my students to pick a topic or author they still have questions about and would like to think more about; they can even compare and contrast it with a work outside the class reading list.

 

Making connections among texts constitutes the final step of my students' dialogue with literature. My final exams require students to compare and contrast the world views of the works authors regarding particular themes. My favorite exam question challenges my students to determine the thematic arc that runs through a preponderance of the works discussed. This encourages the students to think about and summarize the course for themselves. More importantly, in the setting of the final exam, it allows them to punctuate a conversation begun with and about literature at the beginning of the term. For each of my students, my courses commence with the simple notion of active reading and conclude with a dialogue between the self and a work of literature. My professorial philosophy is to teach my students a rigorous method of self- and literary inquiry.