TEACHING PHILOSOPHY AND GOALS

 

For the Romantic poets, the person of genius does not impart new knowledge but rather teaches others to recognize the talents and abilities—the genius—they naturally possess within.  It is such a process-driven, developmental approach that I endeavor to realize in my classroom: to frame literary critical methodologies as practices that will help students discover and hone their interests, skills and, yes, genius, within and beyond the literature classroom. My goal is to help students develop the habits of thought, ethical and critical consciousness, and technical proficiency in written and oral expression to discover and communicate their own, unique perspectives. 

  Students in my Law and Literature course debate the intersections of history, biotechnology, and who defines what it means to be human as they prepare to put Victor Frankenstein on trial.

Students in my Law and Literature course debate the intersections of history, biotechnology, and who defines what it means to be human as they prepare to put Victor Frankenstein on trial.

With students always at the center of my teaching, I aim to connect what they bring to my courses with what each course is designed to offer them. In writing classes, this approach often means filtering lessons about language and composition through student work. For example, in a writing course designed specifically for student-athletes at Duke, students narrated into an audio recorder, and then transcribed and edited, the rules of their sport. By framing the principles of academic writing through student expertise, and by focusing each student’s attention to her own language, they began to see academic writing as the formation and implementation of logic and organization from a position of authority. Likewise, in first-year writing and English major foundation courses at Spelman, undergraduates learn the principles of argumentation by developing, in stages, original research projects based on their interests. In consultation with me, each student also develops an individualized rubric, which combines her assessment of her particular learning needs with my overall learning outcomes for the class. Reflecting on and shaping evaluation criteria encourages students learn to view grading not as a function of top-down power structures or subjective judgments, but as an important component in refining the skills most relevant to their development as thinkers and writers—to the development, in other words, of their particular genius.

  Partial map of student-generated analyses of  narrative elements and core themes in Alice Walker's short story collection,  In Love and Trouble,  developed in my Introduction to Literary Studies course.

Partial map of student-generated analyses of  narrative elements and core themes in Alice Walker's short story collection, In Love and Trouble, developed in my Introduction to Literary Studies course.

But to fully appreciate their minds and capabilities, it is imperative that students also recognize how their ideas are constituted by larger cultural narratives. To discern such narratives requires strong reading habits, which precisely train us to recognize underlying connections between patterns, concepts, and contexts. To that end, at all levels of my teaching, I frequently use mind-mapping software to visually record the intellectual threads that shape our class discussions. Demonstrating the multiplicity of perspectives that underwrite nuanced ideas in class prepares students to produce equally complex arguments in written work such as close readings and critical essays, as well as in more creative projects.  For example, curatorial projects emphasize how literary principles such as authorial voice and the use of common tropes function beyond the literature classroom. In courses for English majors, students hone skills in research, synthesis, annotation, and web design to build and publish digital collections of primary materials around a social or aesthetic topic of their choosing (you can see examples of this project and a similar one from a course at Duke under the "Student Work" section of this website). In making choices about what to include and how to contextualize it within existing scholarly paradigms, students begin to appreciate how knowledge is organized and how narratives of the past are shaped for the public. Along similar lines, in a generalist course on apocalypse narratives that I taught several times at Duke, students designed a museum dedicated to 9/11 (I taught this class before the 9/11 museum opened in 2014). They drew on theories of sympathy that we studied together to interrogate the ethics of perspective in cultural knowledge production—that is, how institutions speak for the people and events they depict—to come to a broader awareness of how implicit biases shape the ways we see, and are seen by, our communities and societies. By thus emphasizing how the practices of literary analysis shape our interactions with the world around us, it is one of my chief aims that students leave my class with more questions than they came in with, and that they are prepared to tackle those questions independently, using the critical tools they develop in my class. Based on consistently positive feedback from students at both Duke and Spelman, I have thus far been successful at meeting these goals.