My goal as an English teacher is to foster the skills that enable students to read and think critically, to write and speak persuasively, and to engage in cooperative discussions about a diverse range of literary and cultural materials. In order to meet this multi-faceted goal, I practice a student-centered pedagogy that combines structured exercises with inquiry-driven discussions. By bringing a spirit of inquisitiveness to the classroom, I challenge students to grapple with difficult questions while cultivating their appreciation for a spectrum of intellectual and cultural viewpoints. In the following paragraphs, I will address what I seek to accomplish by incorporating exercises into my teaching, how I foster dynamic and enriching discussions, and how I underscore the value of diversity in the classroom.
Because I believe that teachers have a responsibility to create a frame for students’ encounters with the course materials, many of my class sessions incorporate guided exercises related to the primary texts. My aim in using exercises is to provide students with strategies for reading closely and writing clearly, thinking critically and arguing persuasively. Examples of exercises include quotation analysis, thesis building, response essays, and reciprocal critique. If my exercises sometimes call upon students to offer strong interpretations of literary texts, my intent is not, of course, to push students toward analytical closure, but rather to familiarize them with disciplinary standards for making interpretive arguments, framing evidence, and so on.
Yet if I use exercises to foster in students a set of disciplinary skills, I use discussions to draw students into open-ended engagements with the course materials. Put more strongly, I approach discussions as an opportunity to foster what feminist theorist Ellen Rooney has called an “opening to the as-yet-unthought.” In the traditional classroom, it is often the teacher who poses the questions while the students give the answers. This frames the teacher as having all the answers, and risks stifling the interests and inquisitiveness of students. Following Gilles Deleuze, I practice a “problematizing” pedagogy that encourages students to participate in constructing the questions that we address in discussion: that is, “to constitute problems themselves.” At the center of my teaching is a desire to kindle the curiosity of students, to help them articulate complex questions, and to use their questions as the basis for collective inquiry.
At the same time, I approach discussions as an opportunity to ask questions about aspects of texts that I still find complicated or contradictory, enigmatic or elusive. In my experience, students learn something valuable when they are allowed to witness a teacher’s susceptibility to “a-ha” moments, discovery of insight-bearing contradictions, and arrival at new avenues for scholarly inquiry.
Whether choosing course materials or facilitating discussions, I am always cognizant of nourishing an appreciation for the value of cultural difference, intellectual diversity, and constructive disagreement. My teaching is grounded in the belief that the classroom is a place where the opportunity to think collectively—to deliberate, discuss, and debate—can push students to refine their thinking in ways that would be difficult to accomplish on their own. Like education theorist Eleanor Duckworth, I am excited by opportunities to help students “build their fascination with what everybody else thinks, and with the light that other people’s thinking might shed on their own.”
In sum, I seek to create exercises and facilitate discussions that will place students at a crossroads, then get out of the way so that they can sit with their own thoughts, discover their own voices, and challenge one another through lively exchanges. In my view, the goal of humanities teaching should not be to avoid the likes of risk, vulnerability, and difficulty, but rather to create the conditions for such experiences to feel manageable—perhaps even transformative.