My first goal as a teacher of literature is to show students that the modes of interpretation and critical reading we develop together are not limited to the study of literature. Interpretation and critical reading help us to recognize and reflect on the particular cultural narratives that shape our experience of the world.
In my classes, readings thus move between the literary and the “non-literary” with texts ranging from Plato’s Symposium to the Letters of Heloise and Abelard to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (see “Tainted Love” syllabus). In moving across genres and disciplines, students learn to recognize the ways literature and literary form participates in the construction of cultural narratives. In an interdisciplinary course that read medieval texts alongside the contemporary, for example, reading Augustine’s Confessions together with pamphlets distributed by American 12-step programs led to an animated conversation about the language of habit and addiction across medieval and contemporary cultures. Students even pointed to the ways that literary form played a critical role in non-literary texts. They discussed how 12-step pamphlets used literary devices, such as metaphorical language of “falling” and “turning,” to construct a narrative of recovering from addiction as a conversion narrative.
Such close attention to text and language requires students to understand critical reflection and the slow development of ideas as necessary to the work of interpretation and analysis. In a class on medieval literature and popular culture, for example, we discussed the meaning of the word “medieval.” Students struggled to generate a single definition, suggesting terms such as “dark ages,” “barbaric,” “chivalry,” “European," "white,” and “fantastic.” When we revisited our discussion at the end of the semester, we as a class were still unable to write a single definition for "medieval." In place of a definition, however, students proposed thinking of the medieval as serving two contradictory contemporary purposes. It functions as a site of nostalgia for a more fantastic and chivalric time, as well as a site of contempt for its barbarity and lack of enlightenment.
In addition to encouraging processes of revision and reflection, I often assign traditional, argument-based essays alongside digital projects that help students practice academic, as well as personal and public, engagements with ideas. Such projects ask students to step out of their comfort zones, work collaboratively, and think critically about the application of their work outside the classroom. In an upper-level literature course, I assigned a group project in which students digitally curated a Wikipedia entry for the medieval crusade romance Richard Coer de Lyon. For this project, students collaborated on historical analysis—researching topics like the sources, manuscript history, and the legacy of the poem. This assignment generated dynamic classroom conversations around topics such as what a text’s manuscript history can tell us about how it was read and the relationship between folklore and historical fact. Likewise, I co-developed a research program for Duke's Data+ in which undergraduates thought critically about questions like: “What does suffering look like?” and “How do images and texts inspire compassion?” Grounded in literary analysis and visual culture, students analyzed how news agencies have narrated the Syrian Refugee Crisis, creating an interactive digital visualization of their research. These assignments traverse disciplinary and field boundaries and allow my students to address just what language can do in the world (see more samples on my Digital Pedagogy page). I want my students to know that they belong to a conversation that extends beyond the walls of our classroom and be attentive to their own participation in that conversation.
I have designed and taught a range of classes for majors and non-majors, from introductory courses for freshman to specialized seminars, and from literature surveys to critical and creative writing workshops. I am adept at working with diverse student populations including first generation and ESL students—experience I have cultivated as an academic writing tutor and ESL instructor. My student and peer evaluations have praised my combination of enthusiasm and rigor. For examples of what peers and students have said about my teaching see my course evaluations page.