My approach to teaching is grounded in the belief that students learn best when they find ways to care about what they are learning. In my courses, students to learn to think of critical analysis and sustained attention as forms of care: they learn to look closely at features of texts that they might otherwise overlook; to find meaningful connections in seemingly disparate materials; to think, speak, and write about questions that matter to them.
This is not to say that I expect my students to care in advance about all or even some of the materials they encounter in my classes. Indeed, few undergraduates have significant prior knowledge of the works of eighteenth-century literature that form the basis of much of my teaching. I aim to reinvigorate texts that can seem alien or antiquated—to help students see how the period was significant for the development of discursive modes and concepts that we continue to use and debate today. The long eighteenth century witnessed the rise of the novel and lyric subjectivity; the discourses of human rights and possessive individualism; racialized and gendered regimes of property and personhood; as well as a technological paradigm that cast the natural world as an object of human improvement. In my courses, students develop the skills necessary for locating these emergent forms, ideas, and ideologies in a range of literary and cultural objects—from novels and poetry, to aesthetic treatises and landscape paintings, to works of natural philosophy and political economy.
In the classroom, my strategy is to establish the practice of close reading as the foundation of a shared intellectual endeavor. I believe that students gain the most from close reading when they are able to compare one text or passage with another. Indeed, this is how I teach students to analyze cultural objects: not by telling them what to look for, but by creating opportunities for comparison.
Take, for instance, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. When I teach this text, I begin by providing students with a set of passages that narrate the key event of the shipwreck in very different ways. Over the course of his narrative, Crusoe gives three different descriptions of his experience of being cast away on the island. I pair these passages with the opening of J.M. Coetzee’s 1986 novel Foe, a postcolonial response to Defoe. After reading the passages aloud together, students analyze one of the excerpts in a smaller group, noting features that distinguish it from the others. Students then present their findings to the class and argue for the uniqueness of their passage’s version of events. This comparative framework allows students to discover for themselves how the representation of an event shapes the meaning of the event itself. They also learn from their peers’ insights and develop stronger, more nuanced claims as a result of sustained dialogue. Students come away from this activity not only with a firmer grasp of close reading, but also with insights that become the basis of argumentative papers.
Throughout my teaching, I encourage students to pause over the details of a text before making claims about what a text might mean. I have found that this approach helps students see that close, careful reading is not only a skill for understanding texts better, but also a form of attention that reveals how texts in turn shape our sense of the world. With Robinson Crusoe, for example, my object is to guide students toward thinking about how the story of this supposedly solitary individual might nonetheless have something to say about the nature of community. To what extent does Crusoe rely on, profit from, or invoke other people and living beings? How is his isolation haunted—even underwritten—by the slaves, women, and animals that it seems to exclude? By approaching Defoe’s novel as an object with which to interrogate the very possibility of human isolation, I encourage students to think about the role of community more generally—its limitations, as well as its promises of belonging. In doing so, I aim to provide students with ways of encountering the relevance of a text’s concerns to their own lives—to give them tools for expanding the scope of what they might care about.
Regardless of the particular course I am teaching, I engage students by taking seriously their prior interests, knowledge, and skillsets. At our first class meeting, I ask students to fill out a notecard indicating their familiarity with the course content, their goals for the semester, and any concerns they might have about their ability to succeed in the class. This exercise helps me to cultivate an inclusive environment in which each student’s learning needs are considered from the outset. As I learn their strengths and weaknesses, both observed and self-reported, I am more readily able to recognize when a student is struggling. I then provide extra support both in and outside class time or direct the student to an appropriate campus resource when necessary. Moreover, even such small gestures as soliciting students’ concerns is a way to demonstrate care: mine for the students—for their success in the classroom and in their larger lives.
I design assignments that cater to diverse student interests and strengths. I do this in two ways: first, by using scaffolded assignments and, second, by varying the kind of writing I ask students to do. In my courses, students turn in a range of materials in advance of their final essay submissions. These project components—including paper proposals, research dossiers, annotated bibliographies, and preliminary drafts—provide me with occasions to assess written work and to offer guidance for future writing. For instance, I might ask students to use what they’ve argued during an in-class debate to develop a preliminary thesis for a paper, which would be further revised on the way to a final draft. In addition to providing opportunities for instructor feedback, these multi-part assignments allow students to track the progress of their own thinking and writing over time.
Although I value the traditional essay form, I encourage students to experiment with other forms of writing as well. For major assignments, I like to provide students with a set of options that accommodates their various aims and skills. Rather than writing a standard research paper, students might choose to write a book review or popular press essay that connects a course text to a contemporary issue. These flexible assignments empower students to become agents of their own learning—to develop responses to course materials that reflect their own goals and commitments.
I first learned to be attentive to students’ aims and prior interests as a preceptor with the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Program, an initiative that aims to increase diversity in higher education. In this role, I had the privilege of working with students on independent research projects in fields from across the humanities and social sciences. I found that students benefitted from this multidisciplinary framework since it required them to clarify the stakes of their claims for colleagues who did not already share their values or assumptions. Throughout the program, I worked to aid students in this endeavor, both by developing materials that catered to their diverse interests and by guiding them to think and converse about the differences between disciplines and methodologies. A central part of this task was also talking to students about their own educational and intellectual futures, helping them build toward their goals—whether applying to graduate school, beginning a doctoral program, or pursuing other creative projects.
This is also one of the primary aims of my course “Wasteland: Literature, Aesthetics, Environment,” for which I was awarded the Stuart Tave Teaching Fellowship at Chicago, and which I am now teaching through the Environmental Studies program at Rice. A key component of the class is a multi-part project in which students explore and analyze a wasteland of their choosing. My students this semester, the majority of whom are science majors, have just submitted their proposals, and I am delighted to see that they have selected sites that are both personally and intellectually meaningful: a family farm in the backwoods of West Texas, a set of residential properties hopelessly deep in the Houston floodplain, and an undeveloped stretch of the city’s native coastal prairie, to name just a few. By connecting course objectives to students’ lives, these options motivate students to attend to thinking itself as an object of concern—as a feature of the way in which they care for themselves and for the larger world we share.