A Teaching and Learning Philosophy
All of my teaching begins with a commitment to exploring and advocating for multiple ways of knowing.
Regardless of whether my students are English majors, the ability to move between multiple critical and creative lenses will help them in their lives and careers as engaged thinkers and citizens. For creative writers, this means trying on multiple forms and modes to better understand the possibilities for written representation of our imaginations. For composition students, this means a dedicated attention to writing as a process of examining our ideas in context with a social and material world. For literature, this means reading like writers in order to make and find meaning in systems of thought as represented in literary texts. For all my courses, the work is about creating multiple points of entry to a discussion of writing and ideas so that students practice and implement ways to vocalize their unique sensibilities within broader human contexts.
One of my primary goals in teaching is to foster students’ discovery of themselves as a key text for their own learning.
I facilitate this in a number of ways. In my poetry writing classes, students practice ways of reinventing or reimagining themselves by writing from assumed identities—fictional personas, historical figures, pop culture icons—and writing in the areas of overlap between themselves and their characters. Writing through these persona lenses helps students identify points of common experience with figures who are otherwise largely unlike them, which both encourages a more empathetic view of society and reinforces students’ senses of themselves as individuals who build a larger world. One student, for example, explored memories of her conservative religious upbringing through a playful sequence of poems in which God interviews his replacement for an extended vacation. Another imaginatively inhabited the spirit of Amelia Earhart on her first solo flight in order to write through the emotional tension between comfort and risk she felt as she prepared to graduate. Another explored his relationship with his absent father by writing a letter to himself from the father’s point of view. These exercises help students explore the similarities between themselves and other people without erasing the differences that make their stories uniquely valuable.
In my creative nonfiction writing classes, students explore various modes and forms of essay writing in order to experience in the fullest way possible how writing is a way to acknowledge, value, and express different approaches to thinking and building knowledge. Special attention is given to the ways that narrative and lyric traditions come together to offer a wide range of expressive possibilities. Students write flash essays, multi-modal essays, lyrical essays, meditative essays, and all manner of things in between.
In my composition classes, students practice multiple ways of knowing through a series of projects designed to get them thinking about themselves in various contexts. The goal is for students to practice situating their unique backgrounds and experiences within many cross-sections of the larger world. As one example, students research important events, observances, and/or individuals associated with their own birthdays in an attempt to locate some kind of connection to the world they were born into. A student of Mexican descent, who discovered that Pancho Villa was shot on her birthday, used this event as an entry point to writing about her cousin, who was shot in a drive-by attack. A student majoring in early education learned that the story of the child known as “Genie,” a victim of severe neglect, reached public attention on her birthday. This was her catalyst for a research essay arguing for better practices around identifying warning signs of abuse. This kind of contextualized, personal research shrinks the distance between students and their subjects, which encourages them to see their writing as part of a world much larger than the classroom.
My literature students learn about what makes texts effective by learning to read like writers and write like readers. This means that we read essays, stories, poems, etc. with an eye for how they are made but also what effects or experiences their writers mean to create for us. Then we try out those effects by creating our own versions of those pieces. My literature students study flash essays by writing flash essays, study slam poems by writing and performing slam poems, study storytelling by delivering their own oral stories for the class. This helps students push back against outdated and problematic ideas about what counts as literature in order to see themselves as part of the creation and expression that builds literature as a living medium with a deep, complex history. In service of this goal, I take care to teach texts from a wide range of traditions, aesthetics, and identities.
Students in many of my classes also spend time with genre conventions as ways of knowing. They complete genre transformation projects requiring them to analyze a poem/essay/story and reinvigorate it as another kind of text. For composition and literature students, the goal here is two-fold; I ask students to encounter the text first as a consumer in order to explore how it achieves its expressive effects, and then again as a creator to reimagine those expressive effects in a new medium. One past example was a translation of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” which celebrates the individual songs of laborers at work, into an original musical composition with unique melodic motifs for each worker. Another student reinvented Jack Gilbert’s “Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” which engages abstractly with both the limits and opportunities of verbal language, as a video collage of cultural references for love and longing. These projects prepare students to think of their work as joining both critical and creative conversations, and expand their idea of what it means to engage with a text. The students become, in essence, collaborators with what they read. My creative writing students explore genre transformation on another level by reimagining their own original work in other media. This work aims at the deeper, subtler frequencies of expression that often evade the language itself. One student turned his place narrative essay into a video collage of old home movies. Another student made a poem about memory into a collection of image-containing mason jars, one for each stanza. Another transformed her poem about her experience as a sexual assault survivor into a narrative dance about coming home again to her body.
I know I have succeeded as a teacher when I see my students creating work as dynamic and varied as they are. Teaching, like writing, is an evolving process. Not all assignments or approaches go according to plan. I see those moments as opportunities to rise to new challenges, to work better to construct opportunities for all students to learn about themselves and their own ideas, to work better to know myself and what values I wish to uphold as an educator, mentor, and writer.
Writing is, and always should be, an exercise in multiple ways of knowing. Writing enables us to reach beyond the limits of what we know into the realm of what we can continually discover. This belief is the foundation for all my teaching.