“To write, to engage in any communication, is to participate in a community; to write well is to understand the conditions of one’s own participation—the concepts, values, traditions, and style which permit identification with that community and determine the success or failure of communication”
– Carolyn Miller, 1978
Students are often wary of the English classroom, particularly if they are non-majors. What is its purpose? As an instructor, the answer to this question is fundamental to my philosophy of teaching, and the answer shifts based on the course itself.
Literature provides a framework through which we can begin to understand narratives, apply theory and criticism, and ultimately understand the implications of those narratives. Through examinations of literary texts, students learn the skills required to recognize and analyze the non-literary narratives that make up their lives. Teaching students to apply theory and critical thought to a text is a skill transferrable to the non-academic world. If students can develop the skills required to understand and analyze the feminist implications of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, for example, they can use those same skills to understand, analyze, and question the role of patriarchy in the world around them. The literary text, then, becomes the basis for practicing and honing those skills. As such, my courses in literature provide students with ample opportunity to develop and demonstrate an understanding of narrative implications with regard to specific critical frameworks.
The world in which we live is largely understood in terms of narrative. Narratives comprise every aspect of individuals’ daily lives, as they attempt to organize their everyday experiences into coherent structures. Narratives are inherently necessarily for the organization of modern life. Everything must be understood in relation to a larger story: television news anchors comment on the goings-on in the world by situating a particular event within a narrative framework; individuals think of their lives in a largely linear manner, understanding specific life events in relation to previous experiences. My goal as an educator, then, is to make my students aware of the narratives that surround them, providing them with the tools and skills required to effectively question and analyze these narratives within various critical frameworks (social, personal, political, etc.). Given our understanding of, and expertise in, traditional narrative forms such as novels and short stories, the literature classroom is particularly well-suited to providing students with the ability to question, analyze, and understand the world around them.
Teaching Rhetoric and Composition
Writing and rhetoric courses are similarly important and foundational to students’ academic and professional futures. Students who take courses in first year composition are largely non-majors who may be frustrated with the core curriculum because they don’t understand how an English course will help them with their nursing major or their sports administration degree, for example. However, the fact of the matter is that writing courses help students in several ways, including the development of communication skills, research methods, and critical thinking. In all of my Writing Program courses, I have my students keep blogs or contribute to an online class discussion board each semester. For their final posts, I always ask them to address the same prompt: what was the point of this class? Each semester, most of those same, disgruntled, non-major students who at first hated the idea of being forced to take this “throwaway” class walk away having learned something about the value of writing, rhetoric, and research. In my basic rhetoric course, one student concluded the semester by stating that the class taught him “how to convey and analyze an argument, to break it down and really find out how and why this argument convinces others to at least consider your position. It gives me lasting skills that I can honestly use for the rest of my college career and into my future.” In my research-focused class, one student summed up her takeaway like this: “I also learned a lot about research methods. It’s okay to have different ways of researching information . . . Synthesis was another key aspect about which I learned. There is a difference between having a lot of random knowledge and being able to combine and construct that random knowledge into something that sequentially makes sense to an audience.” I strive to ensure that these students learn how to apply the principles of writing, research, and rhetoric to their future careers and majors.
The Importance of English Studies
In terms of the broader importance of English studies, I am also of the belief that the university, and particularly humanities departments, does not exist merely to provide students with a foundation of facts and a particular set of marketable skills. Instead, our purpose is and should be the pursuit of intellectualism, inspiring students to love learning for the sake of learning. While vocational preparation and training is a large part of the college experience, my job as a teacher is to help students understand the value of our field beyond what is marketable. Literature in particular allows readers to become connected to their cultural history. Teaching a particular text requires context. One cannot understand Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises without also understanding the historical and cultural context in which it was written – understandings of World War I, the lost generation, and the expatriates are necessary. As these ideas broaden, students should develop an understanding of the connections between literature, culture, and society. As awareness of these connections become clear, students become well-informed, well-rounded members of society. To this end, I provide students in both my writing and literature courses with a variety of readings – canonical texts, non-canonical texts, critical and scholarly articles, as well as popular publications – that teach students to look for, understand, and think critically about the world around them.
The Need for Diversity in the Classroom
Further, as my own education in English studies has a distinct multicultural influence, I believe instructors have an obligation to expose students to a multitude of cultural ideas and experiences through relevant texts. My own undergraduate professors often expressed the importance of representing subjugated groups in the classroom. Doing so allows students to become aware of the inequities that still abound in the academe, as well as in society at large. Being able to recognize and grapple with culturally-prominent conversations, such as LGBTQ rights and representation, racism, feminism, etc., will not only teach students how to approach these discourses with well-informed opinions, but will also open their eyes to the experiences of marginalized groups.
The Importance of Interdisciplinary Pedagogy
Finally, as my master’s in liberal studies suggests, I believe that the English classroom can and should be seen as an intersection of disciplines. At the foundation of my philosophy of knowledge is the idea that knowledge grows through interactions among disciplines. Each discipline may approach an issue from a different perspective, and together can provide a stronger, more well-rounded understanding of that issue. English courses should teach students the necessity of cooperation and the depth it can bring to knowledge.
The Student-Centered Classroom
My pedagogy is founded on a strong belief that the classroom should be student-centered. As an instructor, I cannot produce learning; I can only facilitate it. To that end, I believe that students’ readings, interpretations, ideas, and questions should form the basis for course content. In my experience, both as a student and an instructor, small groups and full-class discussions best facilitate environments in which students can hone their critical and interpretive skills, as they lay out their readings, interpretations, and frustrations with texts. Students can work together to demystify the complexities of the readings. Further, as students engage in dialog with one another over a literary text or scholarly articles, they are making clear intellectual and interpretive moves that allow them to join and understand discourse communities. Many of the greatest discussions that have come out classrooms, in my experience, have been derived from student writing. As such, I often require students to write short reflections on the readings before they come to class. These reflections require students to respond to the texts, identify themes, symbols, ambiguities, etc. The goal is for them to begin forming interpretations of the texts that can be used as the basis for in-class discussions and activities. My role as their instructor is to guide these discussions through probing questions to ensure that they that they stay on track and are constantly moving in such a way that students are mastering course goals and objectives, such as the ability to conduct close readings to form solid literary interpretations.
This is not to suggest that my role as an instructor is entirely behind the scenes and facilitative. Instructors, particularly in lower-level courses, must also be prepared to model the intellectual moves we desire to see our students make. In cases where the desired moves may be too complex for students to understand on their own, or if the class simply isn’t understanding what is expected, I am prepared to show students how to work through those moves. For example, I once taught Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” near the beginning of the semester. Students were unsure of how to analyze particular aspects of the text – they wanted to talk about “what it means” in the broader picture. Instead, I modeled for them how Delia and Syke’s changing physical positions gradually foreshadow the ending, and how that relates to female empowerment, a theme the students themselves had identified. I explicitly explained each step of these interpretive moves as I went through them. Through this modeling, students were able to better understand how to engage in the interpretative process.
In addition to meeting the course goals as outlined by institutional and departmental policies, when students leave my course, they should be able to: identify, analyze, and negotiate the narratives that make up their lives; empathize with individuals and groups who are different from themselves with the understanding that definitive readings and interpretations are almost always impossible; and recognize and appreciate the inter- and multi-disciplinary advantages that an education in English can provide. As an educator, I believe that students are the center of the classroom. Learning cannot occur without their direct involvement and participation in the shaping of the course. Any course, then, becomes a negotiation between the students’ engagement and participation and the instructor’s ability to model intellectual moves and allow students to take ownership of their own educational experiences.