Representation matters. Students need to see people like themselves in the primary and secondary literature on the syllabus, at the front of the classroom, and in the seats around them. Students also need to learn how to manage the discomfort of the unfamiliar, which includes encountering voices outside one’s own worldview with an open mind and acknowledging that positionality on spectra of privilege informs the way one experiences texts. Composition, language and literary studies classrooms are important spaces in which stduents learn to interact with the unfamiliar and to make personal connections with a variety of texts.
My teaching experience as the instructor of record is broad and varied, including courses in composition, world literature, and English as Second Language. Across, these topic areas, writing is a constant, and I’ve noticed that students’ struggles with writing often stem from their view of it as a monolithic task. In my writing-intensive literature courses, students spend class time actively engaged in the writing process. As we start the research process, my topic development lesson plan guides students through generating topics in groups, refining those topics as a class to fit the assignment, identifying individual topics of interest, and identifying students’ prior knowledge and the gaps they need to fill with research. Cooperative and individual activities in this lesson help the students who come to class committed to a topic to refine their ideas, and help the students who are unsure to see a variety of possibilities and find one that suits both the assignment and their interests.
In courses focused on language instruction in both second- and foreign-language environments, I balance direct instruction of linguistic concepts with immersive experiences appropriate to the students’ levels of proficiency. Adult learners are often inhibited by their nervousness about making errors in their target language, and breaking communication tasks down into manageable chunks helps to allay their concerns. With the advanced ESL students in a public speaking course, we practiced presentation skills like eye contact and fielding questions as independent tasks before combining them with other discrete skills in oral presentations.
To build fluency, I balance this focus on skills with immersive activities in the target language or culture of study like group conversation sessions, reading of both modified and unmodified texts, and consumption of film and music. In the second language environment, immersion doesn’t end in the classroom, and students have nearly unlimited access to the target language. Foreign language study cannot create such immersion artificially, of course, but extra-curricular enrichment activities in the form of casual conversation groups, dramatic productions, choirs, and film screenings offer students opportunities to exercise both their receptive and productive language skills.
The English-language composition classroom is a particularly challenging place for students. One successful innovation I’ve introduced is to eschew the traditional reader in favor of texts in which my students encounter voices that resemble theirs. At the University of the District of Columbia Community College, a minority-serving commuter school, we used the Anacostia Unmapped podcast project as our class reader. Student essays both imitated the structures and responded to the ideas of the selected episodes. At Marymount, a denominational SLAC, we read articles from Magnificat, the university’s journal of undergraduate non-fiction. I find that my current students are more interested in the ideas of Magnificat’s student authors than they ever have been in the ideas of famous strangers, and they are also more willing to criticize the rhetorical choices of these authors, which leads to better discussion and better reflection on their own writing processes.
My world literature classroom has been a space where mostly American students (earlier in my career) and mostly Russian students (in my current job) encounter the diversity of ideas represented in texts that span the globe. As we survey these texts, my goal is that students will gain the ability to approach something unfamiliar and, rather than recoiling from or criticizing that unfamiliarity, be able to find an aspect of the text to which they can relate. From there, they will be able to explore the unfamiliar text more deeply. For example, in the modern world literature survey, I teach Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground as part of a unit on representations of madness that includes Lu Xun’s Diary of a Madman and Charlotte Perkin’s Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” To my students, each of these texts seems odd and difficult to make sense of. By reading them in succession, students hone their skepticism for dealing with an unreliable narrator—they learn to ask the right questions to discern the space between what the narrator is saying and what the other characters in the story might be experiencing. Reading these texts together also provides the opportunity to talk about literary texts as a response to the disconcerting pace of technological development around the world in the second half of the long nineteenth century.
In my medieval world literature survey, my students and I read texts from around the world chronologically, and I ask them to notice common themes and concerns in contemporaneous texts that are geographically distant from one another. The cluster of heroic epics—Beowulf, The Song of Roland, and Shahnameh—around the turn from the 9th to the 10th century, for example, prompt us to consider the impulse to reach into the past to define the present self. After analyzing the way these texts do so, we turn a critical gaze on contemporary popular culture and its use of the medieval to define who we are today.
In that same course, students often struggle to make sense of Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies, so after a discussion of the agenda that Reason sets out for the dream vision, I instruct groups of students to perform close readings of each biographical sketch of mythological and historical women. These groups then put their findings in shared Google sheet projected onto the board. During this second part of the lesson, the students work to find the common traits in the sketches, and we discuss how each sketch contributes to the overall message that Christine offers her readers. Further, we consider the power of the dream vision as a genre and why so many medieval European authors chose it to express their ideas.
Students in all of my classes are also learning to navigate the technological transition from text to hypertext, from print-native media to digital-native media. I bring digital tools and methodologies into the classroom in order to advance our study of more traditional texts, and my courses also put these traditional texts in conversation with contemporary transmedia texts. As we live through this technological transition, it behooves us as faculty to guide our students through a conscious and contemplative interaction with new texts and technologies.