I strive to push my students toward not just the “what” but the “so what?” I believe that it is always important to discuss not just the material, but what’s at stake. As scholars of literature and writing, we are charged with the serious task of preserving and critiquing the written record of our culture. Our love of books demands our attention to their craft and the ideas of our society that they reflect, and I believe that much of what we value as a culture, and much of what we hold to be true and beautiful springs from the stories that we share. I encourage my students to exercise their agency as readers and to embrace their roles in these processes of preservation and critique. This directive informs my teaching of analytical reading, as well as my teaching of composition.
Former students have said that I bring a lot of energy to my classroom, and I like to think of it as a space in which learning can be engaging and fun. I strive to get my students as involved as possible by cultivating an active production of knowledge. Although it is necessary in any classroom to have a balance between lecture, discussion, group work, and student-driven inquiry, I believe that the best way to learn to do something is to do it, and my pedagogy includes many exercises in which the class and I can work through new material together.
When my class is in conversation with texts, I strive to teach my students not to repeat my answers, but to be able to ask productive questions in order to support their own interpretations. In teaching literature and critical reading, I stress the reader’s agency in making meaning in a text, emphasizing to my students that they have a stake in our literary heritage. One introductory exercise that I have enjoyed using over the years in both literature and composition classes is close-reading Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” with students, asking whether this is a text about the love between a father and son or if this text documents a scene of child abuse. We do a close-reading together, parsing out the text for one interpretation, and then another, ultimately ending in a debate between students in either camp. I resolve this debate by telling my students that they are all correct—if they can back it up. We work through texts of increasing narrative complexity, from the poetry of Gertrude Stein to sound poetry, asking what it would take to support an argument. By working through the defense of a critical reading as a class, my students become better equipped to take on analyses of their own.
I apply this method of active modeling to teaching composition as well. When I teach a unit on manifestos, I model the manifesto format as a new method of argumentation for my students at the beginning of the unit, giving them the basics of the form. After my students understand the general framework, I have them work through the format in groups using an exercise in which students close-read the back of soap boxes to give a “Soapbox” manifesto speech, representing the values of a core group and tailoring those values toward a specific audience. Through this exercise, students have to engage with the group that they represent, envision themselves as representatives of that group, establish a core set of beliefs, consider the ways in which to provide evidence for how those beliefs are evident in their work, and call the audience to action. Essentially, my students have written a manifesto before we even start to read and critique a sample of famous examples, and this makes it much easier for them to ascertain how a given reading exemplifies or plays off of the generic structure.
This concept of learning through doing also informs my teaching through process pedagogy. We learn through writing, and we learn to write through revision and experimentation. I tell my students that every second draft is stronger for having written a first, and it is often much easier to articulate main ideas in writing once having worked through them. I believe that it is also valuable for students to gain experience in editing other students’ work, because the questions that they ask in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of another’s work can guide them in asking questions as they edit their own. I like to practice skill modeling on smaller levels of craft as well. For example, one exercise that I like to use with my students is a game I call “thesis pieces,” in which we work together to construct the main features of an argument. I have also steered my students to consider voice and audience through short writing exercises geared toward different readerships and purposes. Ultimately, I want my students to see writing as both a dynamic process, in which ideas evolve over time, and as a dialogic process, in which students frame a certain relationship to a text and engage with the text as part of our written culture.
As I grow as a teacher, I strive to keep my students’ interests at the heart of my pedagogy. I tailor readings and class discussions to mesh with my students’ interests, and I always stress the wider applications of the skills we practice in class. I take great pride in knowing each of my students’ names, interests, and dreams, and in doing what I can to make my class as useful and relevant for everyone as possible. As an educator, over the years, I have begun to lecture less and to invite my students to take a more active role in discussions, and in getting students to ask “so what,” they learn to make sense of the world and words that matter to them and to appreciate the place of narrative and poetry in their lives. I take my role as a teacher very seriously, because I see myself as holding a real power to impact my students’ futures—as readers, as writers, and as consumers of culture, but also as future leaders and innovators. In addressing my students, I emphasize that our ways of making sense of the world define the ways in which we can change it, and it has always been my sincere hope and primary concern to prepare my students to question the language that influences them and their interactions with the world.