As I struggled with a drawing in class one morning, I finally threw down my charcoal in frustration. Without saying a word, my instructor turned my canvas upside-down and stepped back. I sat, stunned and somewhat appalled. Then I looked at the canvas. It was a different drawing upside-down: intriguing, uncomfortable, flawed, but suddenly filled with possibility, somehow not the same drawing that I’d been wrestling with. I looked at it for awhile, turning it first on one side, then the other. When I finally righted it, I could see the drawing afresh, no longer hindered by my preconceived notions of how it was supposed to look. I was suddenly open to the possibilities of what it was.
This simple gesture and its aftermath encapsulate what I believe about the learning process: I bring to the classroom a desire to shift perspective—both students’ and my own. Nothing pleases me more than when a student’s unique interpretation of a text makes me see an old friend in a new and sometimes uncomfortable way. It becomes my responsibility to guide students as they explore new perspectives, to encourage them to have enough faith in their ideas to pursue them with academic rigor, and to give them methods that will enable them to continue to do so on their own.
My teaching practice encourages students to develop their critical thinking skills and, in doing so, evolve from complacent absorbers of information to active participants in their learning. Having worked as an editor and writer in the business, science, legal, and technical fields, I know intimately the value of what we do in the classroom out in the broader world. Regardless of a student’s major or interest, the processes of close reading, scholarly curiosity, analytical thought, research methods, writing as exploratory thinking, and writing as clear presentation all serve as foundational to their education, their scholarly lives, and their vocations. Essay topics arise from the students’ interests; while I will specify the formal parameters of an essay in terms of research or scope, I almost never assign a topic or question, requiring only that students remain within the purview of the course content. I find that students of all levels become more invested in a subject of their own choosing, one that ignites their passions. But students need support in developing their interpretations and understanding how the process of research fits into their scholarship.
To support students as they wrestle with their own interpretations, it is essential to provide multiple venues for their development and expression. While I mix lecture and discussion, the latter is emphasized in order to better engage students of all levels. We make extensive and regular use of online forums, which allow us to extend and expand classroom discussion, allowing even students who are shy to have an active voice in the conversation. My job becomes that of guide, and providing access to and encouraging the exploration of what James Weldon Johnson calls “collateral information”: the rich political, social, and cultural contexts that ignite interest and provide a firm foundation for rigorous investigation. Students have expressed excitement over digital and physical reproductions of special-collections materials—song sheets, broadsides, manuscripts, first editions, periodicals and newspaper clippings—and have enjoyed listening to both modern interpretations and period recordings of texts, speeches, and songs. My Southern literature students were particularly moved by a family heirloom, a Civil War soldier’s Bible that I brought in to aid their understanding of Augusta Jane Evans’s Macaria. My American literature survey students enjoyed tasting a Depression-era cookie recipe served in my grandmother’s Depression-era tin, helping them to connect with the real people who lived in the period we were studying and to think about the small changes people must make to adapt to larger social and economic forces. But more, their enjoyment of these materials leads to exciting research of their own, which they learn to synthesize with close readings of the texts we study.
To support their own scholarship, I work to help them see that effective research must arise from their own questions. One method I use is a three-part assignment that begins with taking line-by-line response notes for a passage that piques their interest but that leaves them with puzzling questions. In the second part, they decide which questions would be most fruitful or significant, then look for historical or cultural sources to help answer them. In the third and final part, they write a short, formal exploration of the passage in the light of their interpretation and research, working toward a synthesis of the two that enriches their understanding of the passage and the work as a whole. Their research has led them to explore digital archives, period databases, the special collections library, and the microfilm rooms, where they have found letters, diaries, periodical articles, artwork, war reports, government documents, and speeches that have offered insight into the questions they have raised. These assignments have helped prepare them to write rich essays, infused with research. I have enjoyed reading their work and discussing with them how such research materials expand and challenge our views of the literary voices we relish together.
Quizzes and exams focus on encouraging students to develop their own interpretations of the course content, honing their analytical and argumentative skills. In a literature course, I often will require students to write the final exam, breaking into groups to formulate three questions for submission to the class as a whole. Together, we critique, revise, and approve a final list. The discussions about the scope, content and wording of the exam questions offer students a chance to view the course from the other side, to consider fully what they should have gotten out of the course. Students then become responsible for synthesizing the semester’s work even before they take the exam.
For the writing process itself, I offer students a variety of exercises drawn from my own career experience as an editor and writer; no matter what the course, students think better as they learn to write better. Such an exercise might require a student to physically cut paragraphs or sentences apart so that they can be easily reorganized and focused. Another exercise might ask a student to highlight evidence and interpretation in his or her paper, eliminating superfluous prose. A third might involve simply reading the paper aloud, or having another student read the paper aloud, to change the writer’s perspective and force him or her to hear the written words, improving clarity and eliminating many errors or awkward phrasings. All formal writing assignments in my composition courses are accompanied by self-evaluations based on the rubric; their purpose is to impel students to reflect on both their process and their finished product, to take responsibility for learning to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of their own work.
Such assignments shift students onto new ground, asking them to move out of the comfortable role of absorbing information from an authority figure; instead, I ask them to work toward becoming authorities themselves. Turning their canvasses upside-down makes them uncomfortable, yet the fresh perspective enables them to envision new possibilities and expand their potential.
As I search here for the words to describe the foundation of my teaching, I realize that what I am expressing is the foundation of my scholarship as well. One of the greatest strengths of the human mind is its ability to categorize experience and to abstract to principle. One of our greatest weaknesses is our reluctance to break free of the categories and generalizations that we find comfortable and affirming. To set ourselves or our canvases askew, to shift perspective and really look at the world around us and how we fit in it, is both liberating and empowering.