Teaching Philosophy

"The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards."

Anatole France


I once read about an experiment: to encourage children to use more of the playground, the school administration removed the fence. However, instead of exploring the far reaches, the children drew back to the center. The clear boundary of the fence gave the children the confidence to explore; without it, they recoiled. This story informs my own pedagogical philosophy - I try to create a safe territory and simultaneously encourage exploration within it. I create a community of learners, give them the tools to interact with texts and each other, and then I gradually step out of the way.

I encourage community first by knowing my students: during the first two weeks of class, I meet one-on-one with each student. These meetings establish a comfort zone for both me and the students. I learn their names and something about them, and my class is no longer made up of strangers. They learn where my office is, ask me questions they can't ask in class, and are more likely to come to my office again for help. In these meetings I work to discover individual learning needs and develop a rapport that enhances and elevates classroom discussion.

In both composition and literature courses I foster these relationships by conducting one-on-one personal paper revision and grading sessions throughout the semester. In course evaluations, students consistently rate these sessions as the most important and effective writing process of the course: the students get immediate, clear feedback on their writing and have an opportunity to ask questions and discuss specific needs for revision. I extend these one-on-one interactions by facilitating small-group peer editing sessions, building a classroom community and creating a safe environment for students to interact with and educate one another.

My classroom community-building efforts complement my parallel goal of engaging in pedagogical practices that, as Anatole France commented, provoke curiosity in my students. In a class on Virginia Woolf, we read The Waves aloud, experiencing the aurality of the six characters' voices and Woolf's extreme textual experimentation. In a "Modernism and Contemprorary Literature" course, rather than trudging chronologically through literary history, I paired novels and films in conversation with each other: Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 with Blade Runner, DeLillo's The Body Artist with Being John Malkovich, and Winterson's Written on the Body with Memento. Besides fanning curiosity, this juxtaposition broadened my students' definition of "text" while giving them a fresh lens with which to inspect literature. In classes such as "British Literary History II," an established literature survey where quizzes and exams are required, I ask the students to write the exam questions. This both provides an initial assessment of their learning and ensures that the test reflects the course content. In composition courses, my experiments primarily focus on creative course content. As an example, students in a research writing class read selections from Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and then chose a food product to research throughout the semester in order to answer the three questions of the course: Where does our food come from? What are the effects of our foods on the planet? And, what are the effects of our foods on the people who produce them and the people who eat them? Last fall, students in my introductory composition course wrote about the Presidential election, analyzing the rhetoric of politics and the media and more closely evaluating their own political influences and positions. In these classes, students employed the standard writing genres -personal narrative, description paper, argumentative paper, evaluation paper and research paper - to investigate issues current to their personal and political lives.

Whenever possible, I employ an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach to teaching. Last spring, with a colleague in Biology, I taught "Human Body and Identity," considering English literature, biological science, and the interplay between the two to investigate how we as humans understand ourselves as speciecs, race, gender and individuals. Because understandings of identity often begin with origin stories, we first examined various origin models, both literary and scientific, including oral tradition, mythology, the Bible, and Charles Darwin's theories of evolution. We then considered insights provided by modern genetics and genomics, looking at how ideas of identity are changing. Unit one, Identity as Human, incorporated ideas about the scientific method, design, natural selection and phylogeny into a discussion of the following literary texts: Origin of Species, Paradise Lost, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Frankenstein. In unit two, Identity as Race, we considered how we identify ourselves as race, how our understanding of race is reflected in both literature and science, how our understanding of race has changed and how this new understanding of race is reflected in literature. We also studied the eugenics movement, traced our genetic ancestries and explored the novels Heart of Darkness and The God of Small Things. Unit three, Identity as Gender, examined the biological and social aspects of sex (and gender) determination. We analyzed our own chromosomes side-by-side with close analysis of gender identity issues raised by the novel Written on the Body and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. In unit four, Identity as Individuals, we explored biology and literature that tries to explain why we are who we are as individuals, why siblings are more similar than cousins and why "identical twins" are more similar than normal siblings. We identified ourselves in lab using DNA fingerprinting in order to solve a "crime" and contemplated issues of self-determination and the outward expression of the individual in Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as the films Blade Runner and Gattaca.

In daily classroom practice, I prepare my students for exploration by teaching them the necessary survival skills. In composition courses, I require reading of model writers, stair-step writing assignments to emphasize the process of writing, and utilize a portfolio grading system which rewards successes throughout the semester. In graduate pedagogy courses, I join theory with practice as each class session covers one article on teaching, guest speakers, and the students' own microteaching. In literature courses, I stress writing and composition, using a variety of writing assignments from response papers and formal essays to in-class dialectical journals and close readings. I also invite creative and vocational projects in place of a final comprehensive essay. Like the essay option, creative projects incorporate four of the texts from the course and additionally include a written analysis of the project and its relationship to the texts. Many of my students comment that this is the only time in college when they are allowed to prove their learning through a creative project. The vocational project gives students who are preparing to be teachers the opportunity to create lesson plans for the teaching of the texts. In a collaborative course, both the creative and vocational options assess not only the students' understanding of the material but also of the connection between the disciplines as synthesized throughout the course itself.

I believe that good teachers ask good questions. For each text, I provide "The Dirty Dozen," a list of questions my students can use to guide their reading. Often, we vote as a class on which of these questions they'd like to pursue in class discussion, small groups and class presentations. Each day, I list on the board themes and passages pertinent to the next day's reading, preparing students for discussion rather than demanding spontaneous brilliance. As the semester proceeds, I steadily decrease my creation of these lists and instead ask the students to develop their own, teaching them to interrogate a text without my guidance or specific direction of theme, creating in them independent, curious learners.

Once exploration is underway, my goal is to engage students in the text or activity through talking to each other rather than solely to me. As my students gain confidence, I offer them more responsibility for their own learning. Halfway through each semester, I give each class a course evaluation as a means for them to respond to our class structure and to begin a dialogue about their participation grade. Every class I have taught has been divided regarding their preference for small group work versus class discussion. After I explain the evaluation results to the class, students are almost always more willing to participate in both methods of pedagogy, knowing that each practice helps their fellow students.

I came to academia so that I could teach. After fifteen years of teaching, from middle school to graduate school, it still inspires and fascinates me. I am excited to continue this great exploration. I imagine teaching such courses as "Tea and Crumpets: British India from Kipling to Roy," "Gender and Culture," "The Word Made Film: Literature at the Movies," "The Modern Absurd: British Modernism and Absurdist Theater," and "Rites of Spring: Modernism, Music and Movement." I am eager to dispense with grades entirely, and instead provide in-depth, personal evaluations of student performance. Ultimately, I want to "awaken the natural curiosity" of my students because doing so also sustains my own.