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Teaching Statement

bell hooks’s “Toward a Revolutionary Feminist Pedagogy” transformed my view of myself as a teacher and what I do in my classroom. Reflecting on one of her exemplary teachers hooks writes, “Miss Moore knew that if we were to be fully self-realized, then her work, and the work of all our progressive teachers, was not to teach us solely the knowledge in books, but to teach us an oppositional world view … to see ourselves first and foremost as striving for wholeness, for unity of heart, mind, body, and spirit.” hooks’s argument that teaching promotes full self-realization through confrontation with oppositional forces irrevocably altered my approach to teaching. No longer did I see myself as an information vending machine, but one of my primary goals was to utilize literary studies and writing to help students come to a fuller sense of who they want to be and provide them with tools for constructing that identity. Exposure to “great books” alone cannot change a person any more than knowing the techniques of communication can make one a responsible communicator. However, the study of literature, when taught in conjunction with the application of critical thinking, lucid writing and verbal skills, and a creative imagination attuned to the richness of diverse personal and cultural experience, opens the door to inspiration, recognition, and reproduction of what Thomas Gray called “thoughts that breathe and words that burn.”

I want all my students to experience the pleasures of the text. This might include fitting a work into its historical and cultural context, grasping the rich nuances of language in a poem, or the shock of recognition that comes from finding oneself in a character you otherwise despise. That is, I want students to be moved by literature in such a way that deepens their understanding of themselves and what it means to be a human being. One of the key ways I foster this is to slow down and read a text multiple times, pouring over the language and letting the text roll around in one’s head. In a second year writing course we only read one poem, Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, but, as Derrida might say, we read it really well. We then applied the same careful and sensitive reading practice to the writing process. Each assignment was broken down into small pieces and vigilantly analyzed in small groups and individually online. Writing became not just a means to an end, but a vehicle for exploring one’s own diction and grammar as indicators of one’s thoughts and desires. In other words, I use the mastery of reading skills as part of a recursive loop that feeds into the development of fluency as a writer, which in turn makes one a more sensitive reader and so on.

In the classroom I advocate for and practice active learning. In sophomore literature survey courses I use a blend of interactive lectures with small group exercises. For instance, after setting up the cultural context of Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” I divide the class into two camps and we debate whether the Wife’s “experience” is a legitimate grounds for her multiple marriages and standing male textual authority on its head. Students must confront their own biases as they attempt to inhabit, if just for a moment, a culturally and historically distant figure. Doing so forces students to stretch and develop either new perspectives or nuance and reinforce previously held beliefs. Students also work on collaborative/team presentations that incorporate the flexibility afforded by the blog’s digital environment. Here students have produced animated whiteboard films and other YouTube shorts, websites, prezis, a mock facebook page for Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina, and many more exciting projects. I have found this active learning approach to teaching in the team exercises and projects engages students in ways that far exceed my expectations and I am continually learning never to underestimate students’ creative energy.

All of my classes, from core classes to senior seminars, integrate digital tools and information technology. Because the world my students inhabit is so intensively mediated by digital technology, and the twenty-first century workplace demands fluency in digital skills, I strive to teach both how to navigate the information world and use its digital tools, as well as the self-directed and independent learning that are the hallmarks of success inside and outside the classroom. One activity I have used is the ‘act of research.’ This assignment produces self-directed research and independent learning by asking students to take an idea that caught their interest, explore it on their own, then report back to the class via the blog with a short presentation. After students both post their act of research and comment on other student acts, we discuss together a few of the more provocative contributions in class. I see two key outcomes from this assignment that fuel student engagement and promote independent learning that will serve them beyond my classroom or the university. First is the self-directed aspect that allows students to have a say in what an idea or concept means because it provides the opportunity for them to seize an idea and shape it the way they see most fit. The second learning outcome is the peer-feedback that extends the topic outside the classroom and creates a community of learners discussing an idea without my intervention. While not yet perfected, the act of research promotes self-directed learning and collaboration that are two essential components of successful learning.

As universities become increasingly more involved in constructing learning outcomes and quantitate assessment, I have reflected on my own methods of evaluating successful teaching. I use both norm-referenced and criterion-referenced grading. Exams are not punitive, but designed to gauge intellectual engagement and commitment. In a survey or upper-division literature course my exams test student familiarity with historical and cultural contextualization, familiarity with assigned reading material, and ability to reproduce interpretive strategies covered in class lectures and discussion. Writing assignments are meant to provide a broad interpretive platform and are assessed on standard academic criteria as well as student performance in the research process and on individual tasks of research. The result of employing various assessment strategies is a more holistic accounting of a student’s performance because it considers a variety of learning styles.

To return to hooks, my commitment to education utilizes the skills I have developed personally and the tools of the literary trade, to create a dynamic learning environment that is both pleasurable and rigorous. At the very least, I strive to help students see that being rigorous yields a pleasure that cannot be contained in the classroom and that will help us confront who we are and transform us into those we want to be.

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