As a teacher of literature my first goal is to show students that the modes of interpretation and critical reading we develop together in the classroom 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, therefore, readings move between the ostensibly 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 with it literary form, informs the construction of cultural narratives. Because so many of these cultural narratives are not only disciplinarily specific, but are also particular to certain historically and culturally distinct moments, thinking critically across literary and non-literary texts also requires a sustained reflection on the historical specificity of cultural narratives.
With these factors in mind, I design exercises and discussions that require students to reflect both on patterns of cultural narratives that persist and develop across disciplines, as well as require them to think about the cultural and historically specific moments that shaped these narratives. In an interdisciplinary course that read medieval texts beside the contemporary, for example, reading Augustine’s Confessions alongside pamphlets distributed by contemporary American 12-step programs, led to an animated conversation about the language of habit and addiction across medieval and contemporary cultures. Students even pointed out the ways that “literary” form played a critical role in non-literary texts. Students discussed the ways that the 12-step pamphlets used literary devices, such as metaphorical language of “falling” and “turning,” to construct a narrative of recovering from addiction as a kind of conversion narrative.
In the process of teaching, I have found that one of the most valuable things I can teach my students is the importance of reflection. In pausing for reflection and asking students to take the time not just to think of the “right” answer or to generate immediate response students are encouraged to reflect on what is confusing, difficult, or strange about a text they encounter. Students thus have the opportunity to dwell on particularly challenging passages—a reflection process that can often lead to some of the most critically engaged questions and classrooms discussions. To lead and motivate students in developing their personal reflections into critical questions and an engaged classroom discussion, I periodically ask students to engage in a short “free-writing” period at the start of class in which they attend to what was challenging or unusual about a text and in which they begin to formulate questions and make connections to other texts we’ve read. Students thus begin class having been given the space to reflect and to organize their thoughts and ideas, thus leading to a more thoughtful and lively discussion. I have also taught a "creative reading" excercise in entry level courses designed to teach close reading through textual reflection (see an example here).
Because I believe that students learn best and are the most invested when asked to revisit and develop their work through processes of careful reflection, I structure opportunities for reflection and outside feedback liberally throughout the semester. Depending on the size and make-up of the class, this can take many forms from drafting essays collaboratively in class, to one-on-one peer workshops, to individual conferences with me. In an upper-level course on medieval literature and popular culture, students were asked to reflect on a group project in which they digitally curated a Wikipedia entry for the medieval crusade romance, Richard Coer de Lyon. For this project, students collaborated on historical analysis, researching such topics as the sources, manuscript history, and the legacy of the poem. They were then tasked with thinking critically about the questions and challenges that developed during their research and analysis. Opening up space for reflection allowed students to examine in greater detail such topics as what a text’s manuscript history can tell modern readers about how the text was read and the relationship between folklore and historical fact.
It is one of my goals that students understand the work of interpretation and critical analysis as a process that requires a dedication to critical reflection and the slow development of ideas as we work through intellectually dense and challenging texts. Through structured exercises that ask students to reflect and develop their own interpretative work, students cultivate the critical skills necessary to formulate their own ideas. At the start of the semester, I introduce a “keywords” exercise wherein we as a class discuss a term or set of terms whose meanings are difficult or challenging in some way. For example, in a class on medieval literature and popular culture, we discussed the meaning of the word “medieval.” In the course of our discussion, students struggled to generate a single definition and suggested such associated terms as “dark ages,” “barbaric,” “knighthood,” “chivalry,” “European/white,” “fantastic.” Over the course of the semester, as students read medieval texts such as Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and Gawain and the Green Knight alongside watching Game of Thrones and reading The Chronicles of Narnia, students reflected on what role the language of “medieval” plays in contemporary culture. When we revisited our discussion at the end of the semester, we as a class were still unable to write one agreed on definition for medieval. While debating the meaning of medieval, however, students argued for the medieval as serving two often contradictory purposes in contemporary literature. In contemporary culture, the medieval is both a site of nostalgia for a more fantastic and chivalrous time, as well as a site of contempt as a less enlightened and more barbaric time.
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. 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.