My ten years of teaching experience encompasses a wide-range of literature and writing courses. I have taught British Literature survey courses where I and my students read from Beowulf up to Milton. In one of these I designed and taught a sequence on Early Drama (liturgical church drama, mystery plays, mummings, and interludes). I have also taught thematically arranged Introduction to Poetry courses, designed to let students explore how poetry expresses love, grief, spiritual struggle, and humor. My upper-division course on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales emphasized the multi-vocal debating aspects. In all of these courses, I have taught critical thinking and academic writing skills. My experience teaching dedicated writing courses has included argumentation, cultural studies, developmental writing, and business writing.
Teaching Philosophy: Creating Connections to Medieval Literature
When approaching literature in the classroom I focus on the literate practices of communities—how we share words crafted into expressions of poetry, song, debate, drama, and narrative. My pedagogy prioritizes students’ positive first encounters with texts, then guides them in finding their way through a text’s concentric layers of linguistic, literary, and cultural contexts. The final step is to prompt students to find their own interpretations of the text and to be able to present well-informed arguments about it.
Reading medieval and early modern literature requires students to grasp disparate interwoven strands of language, form, theme, and culture. In my classroom, I remain keenly aware how daunting students may find that first encounter, and so I carefully plan rich multi-layered first experiences. Whether by bringing in maps of Raleigh’s voyages when reading sonnets that use navigation metaphors, or taking students to a neo-gothic church to experience the setting for the beginnings of English liturgical drama, I strive to capture my students’ interest before asking them to encounter texts on their own. For instance, when teaching the “General Prologue” of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, I begin by inviting students into the world of medieval religious tourism. We look at medieval London with its crowded bridge and gates that close at sunset. I show my photos of Southwark where the pilgrims meet, and pass around my pewter pilgrim's badge—telling the students to look for St. Thomas Becket amidst its tiny details. We discuss the martyred saint’s miracles and the reasons someone might go on pilgrimage. Only then do we read the opening lines together—that when the weather gets warm and the flowers bloom in April, "Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages." My students expect the Middle Ages to be distant and strange—that medieval people went on pilgrimages for serious religious reasons—such as a cure for leprosy—but they express surprise that Chaucer’s pilgrims enjoy travel in many of the same ways we do. By inviting my students to find both the strange and the familiar, I open up an entrance point into Chaucer's world that helps students create a narrative into which they can place the descriptions of the characters as they read the rest of the “Prologue.” For the next class, I assign questions about the pilgrims. Why is each going on the pilgrimage? What words are used to describe them? Because I have given them a framework in which to put Chaucer's narrative and assigned specific reading tasks, my students arrive well-prepared to talk about the idiosyncratic pilgrims. During our discussion, I ask students to tell me about each pilgrim. At first I encourage them to slot the pilgrims into the idealized stereotypes of the "three estates," then later help them find the satirical details that do not fit—Why is the Monk known for his hunting skills? Together we construct a picture of Chaucer as a writer who subverts stereotypes even as he appears to be reinforcing them. By inviting my students to be wary of reading too literally, I prepare them to encounter the slippery complexities of the following tales.
Carefully contextualizing readings prepares my students to initially read them as generously as possible, while simultaneously building a foundation from which to think critically about the texts. Before reading Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, we look at how both the physical and societal constraints placed on its performance in The Globe Theater can affect our interpretation. For instance, we explore how the gender politics of Shakespeare’s time and our own can affect our reception of the comic elements within it. Most of my students know that the female characters were played by men, but do not realize that the plays were performed in daylight with the audience quite close to them. I share my own experience of seeing plays in the reproduction of the Globe in London, and how the tall circular theater places all the audience members within 50 feet of the actors on the stage. With that staging, when a male character hits a female character in Taming, the reality is still apparent—the scene “reads” as a man hitting another man who is dressed as a woman. Although ready to accept this historical difference, my students express their modern discomfort at laughing at what “reads” to them as a straight man abusing a trans woman. (The Globe addresses this by using an all female cast in their production.) Because I encourage my students to form their own connections to the play—to bridge the gap between the millennial and renaissance—my students feel an investment in the original stakes of the play. Our careful mapping of those stakes, both from Shakespeare’s side of the bridge and our own, prepares students to strike out in various rhetorical directions in their own close reading and analysis of Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy. As we read the witty poetic exchanges between Katherina and Petruchio, and note the stereotypes of gender that are being performed and inverted, our initial conversations about staging and reception continue to nuance our discussions.
As these two disparate examples have demonstrated, pre-modern literature is often deliberately contradictory, forcing us to view conflicting elements—constructing, but also interrogating tropes and stereotypes. Although removed from us in time, these texts ask many of the same ethical questions we still struggle with today—What is right action? What is the role of women? How do we integrate (or expel) the outsider? In particular, these authors often posed such questions in order to provide conversational gambits for their readers. These texts still function as they were designed, soliciting us to find what is relevant and share our own responses. I seek to incorporate this deliberately interactive, multi-vocal approach into my students’ experiences of that literature. I assign a number of response essays throughout the semester. These assignments help students remain accountable for the reading and provide “bite-sized” opportunities to begin thinking and writing about topics that can be expanded into term papers. These reflection assignments, whether done online or as one-page essays, are particularly useful for allowing quieter students a way to shape our in-class discussions, since I begin the next class by sharing insightful observations from them.
Supervised small-group meetings also give each student a chance to find their own voices in talking about each other’s writings—a technique I use in both my literature and writing courses. Students are often initially resistant to peer-review. However, meeting with them in groups of three, I carefully train students to be good readers and responders. I model for them how to read a draft generously—a process with which they are already familiar, since we have begun discussions of primary texts by carefully reading to hear what the author is attempting to do. We begin by picking out the parts of the student writer’s draft that are well done and asking clarification questions to bolster and define the parameters of the author’s project. Only then do we turn to look at areas needing revision. I find that, when given a concrete model of work-shopping, students are both willing and capable of brainstorming and critiquing on behalf of each other’s writing. As most modern workplaces value collaboration, these strategies for reading, thinking, discussion, writing, and productive cooperation will serve my students well, whatever their future careers.
One of my proudest moments as a teacher came when a half dozen students in my Introduction to Poetry class chose, what seemed to them, the hardest of the prompts for their final papers—to analyze poems by Donne, Wyatt, and Drayton. They set up appointments with me and told me that they had chosen this topic for their final paper because they wanted a chance to consolidate what they had learned about poetic interpretation, scansion, meter, metaphor, etc. I was touched by their courage in reaching out to struggle with ideas that they found slippery in their grasp, and was deeply grateful at the trust they were showing in me—that I would help them in that struggle.