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Lit Mag

I serve as the faculty supervisor for a student literary and artistic journal called Penumbra. The writing and visual art in our Winter 2017 issue is nothing short of stunning! It’s the single most impressive student journal that I’ve seen in 15 years of teaching.

But don’t take my word for it. Decide for yourself by clicking here to view a digital version of the issue. Enjoy!

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Margaret Church Award

Exciting news! I recently learned that my essay on Sylvia Plath received the Margaret Church Award for the best article published in Modern Fiction Studies in 2014. The essay is entitled “Paraliterarly Labors in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: Typists, Teachers, and the Pink-Collar Subtext,” and it appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Modern Fiction Studies

Hamilton Carroll, a professor of English at the University of Leeds, justified the conferral of the award by writing a generous review of my essay. Here’s a brief excerpt from Carroll’s review:

Adam T. Jernigan’s wonderful essay, “Paraliterary Labors in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: Typists, Teachers, and the Pink-Collar Subtext,” asks us to pay new attention to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar by situating it in the context of mid-century labor transformations and attendant gender recalibrations. Jernigan argues that Plath’s focus on the forms of labor available to college-educated women at mid-century not only represents but also intervenes in debates about the gendered division of labor, or “occupational segmentation,” that arose in the newly-developing world of corporate work. […] The essay is clear and lucid, intelligent and convincing, beautifully written and eminently readable. The essay wears its critical ambitions lightly yet persuades the reader at every turn; it is a joy to read and informative in both its close textual analysis and its historical/social context.

Needless to say, I was more than a little surprised — and deeply humbled — to learn that my essay had received this award. If any merit can be found in the essay, it is attributable to the many colleagues, referees, and editors who provided feedback on early drafts. So I’d like to thank everyone pushed me to rethink and revise parts of the essay. I would also like to express my gratitude to Hamilton Carroll for his charitable review!

The Margaret Church Award was established in memory of Dr. Margaret Church, a professor of English at Purdue University and a longtime editor of Modern Fiction Studies.

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The Pedagogy of Attention

As a high school English teacher, I often find myself asking students whether they are paying attention. “Are you paying attention?” Recently, however, I have begun to turn that question back on myself. And what I’ve found is that a teacher’s powers of attention can amount to one of the most potent tools in our pedagogical toolbox. For our powers of attention are what enable us to identify and nourish talents within our students that might otherwise have remained latent or dormant.

The thinker who inspired me to reflect upon the pedagogical promise of attention is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. In a series of essays on “reparative reading,” Sedgwick nudges humanities scholars to move beyond the hermeneutics of suspicion that have organized much recent literary and cultural criticism. While she affirms the importance of critiquing the ideologies embedded within texts, Sedgwick argues that scholars should also approach texts as reservoirs of intelligence that might serve as resources for readers. To approach a text in a reparative manner is to “confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self.”

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How might Sedgwick’s insights into “reparative reading” apply to the practice of teaching? While it is important for teachers to provide students with critical feedback, it is equally important for us to attend to our students’ intellectual strengths and capabilities — perhaps especially if those capabilities remain unrecognized or unrealized.

This dimension of our work can feel tremendously exciting. I love the challenge of identifying and describing talents that students don’t know they possess. And I’m fascinated by how a teacher’s powers of attention — of perception, of description — can provide a student’s inchoate potential with a sustaining form that enables it to flourish.

In the same way that a gardener provides his plants with a supporting trellis that enables those plants to climb skyward, a teacher can provide students with conceptual affordances — that is, with the imaginative scaffolding comprised by vivid descriptions of their talents — that will motivate them to grow and expand those talents.

Although most of Sedgwick’s writing takes the form of literary criticism, I’ve been equally captivated by her experiments in more personal genres: tributes, memorials, autobiographical essays. For it’s there that readers gain access to Sedgwick’s startling gift for celebrating what she refers to as the “piercing bouquet” of each individual’s personality. Like her favorite novelist, Marcel Proust, Sedgwick takes delight in tracing the shape of other people’s idioms and idiosyncrasies. “My way of paying attention to people is additive, non-narrative,” she wrote. “It makes persons my favorite study; makes them [. . .] endlessly broodable-on.”

But Sedgwick’s account of the utility of attention has implications that go beyond the identification of students’ preexisting talents. For a teacher’s attention might also take the form of what Jason Edwards has called “speculative generosity.” As this delightful phrase suggests, the question of whether the talents that a teacher identifies are empirically verifiable or merely “speculative” may not matter very much in the long run. For what a teacher adept at identifying students’ talents really does is provide those students with what a Kleinian scholar like Sedgwick would refer to as positive “internal objects.” That is, the teacher provides students with affirming self-images that those students might then choose to identify with and amplify.

Of course, the word speculative has a second meaning that also resonates here. To “speculate” is to invest one’s resources in something with the hope of eventually reaping some kind of return. The pedagogy of attention amounts to a form of speculation because the effort that teachers invest in buoying their students yields real benefits for themselves as well.

Indeed, the pedagogy of attention can foster a special kind of economy that is not predicated on loss. It can instantiate an economy in which students’ intellectual growth yields benefits for everyone in the school: teachers, classmates, and so on. Whenever possible, I try to support the kinds of economies in which the production of a gain for some people doesn’t come at a cost for others. Maggie Nelson gets at this kind of economy when she asks, “Can it be that words comprise one of the few economies left on earth in which plenitude — surfeit, even — comes at no cost?”

And so we are returned to “plenitude.”

Before concluding, I want to acknowledge the importance of Carol Dweck’s warnings about how complimenting a student for being “smart” — an over-general term that frames intelligence as innate and unchanging — can instill a “fixed mindset” that forestalls intellectual growth. Dweck provides compelling evidence that teachers should instead compliment students for being “hard-working” and “persevering” — words which instill a “growth mindset” that facilitates intellectual risk-taking and perpetual improvement.

While Dweck’s insights have been game-changing for teachers, I hope we won’t abandon the practice of celebrating students for particular skills and aptitudes. Doing as much not only enhances students’ self-esteem, self-awareness, and self-direction, but provides them with an appreciation for the many different forms that intelligence can take. And an expansive appreciation of personal difference is another thing that we would all benefit from.

An appreciation for personal difference was Sedgwick’s first axiom: “People are different from each another.” The axiom is arresting in its obviousness. “It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for dealing with this self-evident fact.”

What might happen if we were to attune ourselves more closely to our students’ latent capacities and incipient talents? What might become possible if we were to cultivate a deeper curiosity about when and how each particular student raises her voice, responds to certain kinds of problems, or generates new ideas and concepts?

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New course

Here is the new senior course that I’ve designed for the 2015-1016 school year. I intend to offer this course as a year-long interdisciplinary elective…

Emotionology: Hope, Fear, Love

What are emotions? Do emotions reside in the body or in the mind? Which aspects of our emotional experience are universal, and which are culturally specific? This interdisciplinary course draws upon insights and methodologies from the core disciplines of science, history, and English. During each week of the year, we will explore recent breakthroughs that researchers across those three disciplines have generated about particular emotions: hope, laughter, fear, love, surprise, disgust, Renaultand so on.

First, we will examine recent insights into emotion generated by neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists. Do emotions have an evolutionary purpose? Do people control their moods and passions, or do people’s moods and passions control them?

Second, we will explore what social scientists have revealed about the role that emotions play in people’s social and political lives. How have norms related to the expression of emotion changed in recent years? Which emotions are most important in modern democracies?

Third, we will examine how various literary and cinematic fictions are able to generate emotion in readers. How are fictional texts able to “move” readers emotionally? And how can fictional texts move people to take action within the real world?

The readings for this course will include articles by scholars working in fields such as neurology, psychology, history, sociology, legal studies, and media studies. The literary texts will include novels, stories, and poems by authors like Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Allison, John Edgar Wideman, Gish Jen, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Brenda Shaughnessy.

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Article on James Baldwin

My article on the short stories and novels of James Baldwin was just published in the Spring 2014 issue of literary journal Arizona Quarterly. You can read the full article by clicking here.

Pictured below is a detail from a portrait of James Baldwin by the Harlem Renaissance painter Beauford Delaney. Baldwin said that it was Delaney who taught him to perceive beauty in the modern metropolis.

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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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