Category Archives: Teaching

Teaching Philosophy

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.

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Talking About Teaching

What follow are a few thoughts triggered by my struggle to draft a “Statement of Teaching Philosophy.” Why is it, I wonder, that so many educators are better at doing the pragmatic work of teaching than they are at articulating the philosophy behind their teaching? Is the gulf between our practice and our theory something to worry about?

I want to suggest that this gulf derives at least in part from the fact that our teaching goals are not only multifarious but frequently contradictory. Yet I’d also like to submit — by way of example — that more often than not those seemingly incongruous goals exist in productive tension.

• On the one hand, good teachers want to provide students with the knowledge and skills that will eventually enable them to become equal partners in disciplinary conversations. On the other hand, we want to model forms of democratic discussion premised on the presumption of equality in the present.

• On the one hand, good teachers try to reward students who exhibit the cool-headed composure characteristic of rational thinkers. On the other hand, we seek to encourage students to cultivate the passionate attachments that motivate innovative thinking and persuasive argumentation.

• On the one hand, good teachers endeavor to help students learn to think critically about literature, cultural materials, and the problems facing our world today. On the other hand, we seek to expose our students to cultural materials that they can feel good about: materials that provide models of a better world, and that function as mooring posts for their optimism, curiosity, and generosity.

Having any one “hand” in the absence of its “counter-hand” would lead to a lopsided pedagogy. I’d venture that the best teachers practice an ambidextrous pedagogy, in full recognition that the benefits of each hand realize themselves only in and through those of the other.

Because my teaching goals are multiple, the classroom formats and teaching methods that I employ in the classroom are likewise multiple. That is, I employ what, in her book Teaching Literature, Elaine Showalter describes as the “eclectic approach” to the classroom. On any given day, I might open class with a thought experiment, or a group brainstorm, or student read-arounds. Then, turning to the texts they’ve read for that day, I engage students with open-ended questions pertaining to the issues raised by those texts. By the end of class, the room is inevitably buzzing with intellectual energy.

In my view, the best teachers make use of eclectic methods to accomplish goals which are not only multiple but often apparently contradictory. And it’s a good thing, too!

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Multi-Ethnic Postmodern Literature

This semester I’ll be teaching a course on postmodern literature written by multi-ethnic American authors. Although “postmodernism” has become the dominant heuristic for investigating late 20th century American fiction, literary scholars like Phillip Brian Harper and Madhu Dubey have observed that the discourse of postmodernism tends to be organized around the “normative subjectivity of the white male.” At the same time, these scholars note that many of the features traditionally associated with postmodernism—features such as textual reflexivity, narrative irresolution, and intertextual parody—had been central components of minority writing long before the late 20th century. What, then, are the risks and rewards of discussing contemporary minority writing under the rubric of postmodernism? To what extent have contemporary authors shared the same postmodern condition? How have different approaches to identity and community been inflected at the level of literary form? Is the term “postmodernism” capacious enough to accommodate the array of experiences and experiments that distinguish contemporary literature? In order that we might begin to situate and historicize postmodernism, I have divided the course into three sections…

I. From Protest to Postmodernism: 1968-1980

Octavia Butler

During the first part of the course, we will explore what became of African-American literature in the wake of the 1960s, when the broad-based Civil Rights Movement gave way to fragmentation and retrenchment. Curiously enough, the 1970s witnessed a resurgence of experimental and utopian fictions by African-American authors. These included what literary critic Kalí Tal has called the “militant near-futurist fiction” of postmodern writers such as William Melvin Kelley and Ishmael Reed. They also included what critic Tom Moylan has called the “critical utopian texts” of science fiction writers such as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. How did the Black Arts Movement influence the early postmodern writings of Kelley and Reed? What would happen to the identitarian rubrics of race, gender, and sexuality in speculative fictions by Delany and Butler?

II. Variable Roots and Routes: 1980-1995

Amy Tan

Moving into the 1980s and 1990s, we will survey postmodern novels and short stories written by Chinese-American authors (Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Gish Jen), Mexican-American authors (Sandra Cisneros, Helena María Viramontes, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez), and Native-American authors (Gerald Vizenor, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie). Since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965—which revoked both the Asian Exclusion laws and the ethnic quota system—the members of these ethnic groups have come to play increasingly prominent roles in American literature, culture, and society. Postmodern authors like Kingston, Cisneros, and Alexie experimented with revising traditional folktales, updating and transforming them in sometimes controversial ways. What do we make of Frank Chin’s accusation that Kingston’s revision of the “Ballad of Mulan” reinforces Western stereotypes about her culture of origin? Is the Mexican legend of the “Weeping Woman” irredeemably misogynist, or does Cisneros’s revision provide a liberatory compass for modern-day Mexican-American women? Does the postmodern playfulness and humor which authors like Kingston and Alexie bring to their writing diminish their ability to engage in moral critique? Finally, what has this second part of the course enabled us to say about whether the study of multi-ethnic fiction requires methods of analysis appropriate to each group?

III. From Multiculturalism to Transculturalism: 1995-2010

During the third part of the course, which focuses on fiction published between the late 1990s and 2010, we will turn to “new immigrant writing” by authors of South-Asian origin (Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lan Cao, Marjane Satrapi) and Caribbean origin (Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz). In recent decades, first-generation immigrants have come to account for over 10% of the U.S. population, many of them being women who arrived from Caribbean countries like Haiti and Antigua, or South Asian countries like India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Yet the differences between the second and third sections of the course go beyond the question of national origins. For whereas the second section of the course focused on authors informed by a “pluralist” imaginary—which takes cultural identity to be rooted in a fixed set of beliefs, tastes, and customs—this third section focuses on writers who interrogate the experience of being bicultural, as well as the dynamic processes of transculturation. What do I mean by “transculturation,” and what questions are invoked in the writings of these authors?

Junot Díaz

Authors like Mukherjee, Cao, and Díaz reflect the shift from “roots” to “routes” that has been diagnosed in recent diasporic and transnational writing. Conversant in poststructuralist theories about the de-centering of subject and nation—for example, theories about how subjects are produced through multiple identifications, some of which become more salient than others at certain times and places—many of these authors join in the critique of what Paul Gilroy has called “the desire to be centered.” Some authors rework the concept of “diaspora,” understanding diasporic communities to be anchored less by the logic of origins—of roots and returns—than by multilocal attachments and lateral connections. Still others embrace the trope of geographic and cultural “borderlands” in order to explore how migrancy might be thought as a permanent mode of being in the world. But when do people need an authorizing past in order to secure a bridge to the future? And how might post-pluralist concepts like “migrancy” and “hybridity” end up reinforcing boundaries and classificatory regimes?

There will also be a coda to the course. For in the very last week, we will take up post-9/11 fiction by Arab-American authors like Mohja Kahf and Yussef El Guindi, asking how the national response to 9/11 has impacted the lives of ordinary Arab-American men and women. How do these authors represent the impact of the global on the local? And how might their writings forecast the futures of American fiction?

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