Dennis Wilson Wise

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Teaching Philosophy for Literature

NOTE: Click here for a downloadable pdf of this literature teaching philosophy. For my composition teaching philosophy, please click here.

“INVISIBLE PEDAGOGY”: Teaching Statement on Literature

In his classic Emile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents a model of education that might be called “invisible pedagogy.” Under this model, perhaps the original student-centered teaching philosophy, a teacher almost disappears, and students dictate the style and content of their own learning. This view of teaching heavily informs my practice. As much as possible, I believe students should develop their own ideas about literary texts. Yes, of course—teach them the standard interpretations (or at least the standard problems). Still, literature’s much more fun, and even more individually relevant, when students can see themselves participating in a one vast conversation with other folk, other readers, both alive and dead: contemporaries as well as those from ages past. This kind of conversation requires a comfortable classroom atmosphere, a situation of friends discoursing with other friends. I try to be attentive to the fact that a teacher’s natural authority always, like some great professorial Eye of Sauron, runs the risk of inhibiting students from following their own intellectual paths and having the freedom to make mistakes.

Whenever I start teaching a new module, especially for longer works, I generally begin with a “contextualization” day—a mix of brief lecture, small group and individual activities, and active discussion. On a practical level, this contextualization gives students time to complete the book or text. Since I almost never require tests or spend class time on quizzes, I help reinforce classroom information through using an institutional digital learning platform—in fact, thanks to my experience with online teaching and developing courses online, my classes often feature an interactive use of easy-to-use technologies. Grading always combines a mix of low-stakes and high-stakes writing.

Class discussion, however, is where the true magic happens—at least if everything works as planned! For a particularly challenging text, especially at lower levels, we’ll often run through the plot as a class, which might take a period or two. Such an activity—which often helps lower division non-majors and ESL/EFL students—is designed to increase reading comprehension, close reading skills, and the ability to draw inferences and connections. Occasionally I’ll have students engage in small group activities to parse a particularly challenging passage or to outline the major points of a section or character. Such group work is something I learned from my composition classes, and it transfers well into the literature setting.

When discussion day rolls around, I generally write a list of potential topics on the board. Students then spend 3 or 4 minutes freewriting on the topic of their choice. After that, in line with my respect for student-centered pedagogy, we simply begin with those topics that earned the most student interest. This results in a freewheeling discussion format, but the prior freewriting helps even naturally shy students participate. My own contributions to this discussion usually involves:

  1. purely factual historical or literary information,
  2. “oh, what about this element from the text?” kinds of comments, and
  3. analogies and pop culture references that help make particular textual problem points seem more familiar, which especially helps students who have trouble articulating their own intuitions

Occasionally I’ll unobtrusively re-direct a certain line of inquiry, but these discussions focus almost entirely on what interests the students, and I never push students to any one interpretation in particular, although I’ll occasionally nudge. Because note-taking can be difficult in a discussion format, I actively reinforce the major learning outcomes intended from every classroom session.

An important part of my classroom management includes inclusion and diversity. I have completed an official “Leader in Classroom Diversity & Inclusion” certificate from my institution’s Office for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence. Skills include reducing unconscious bias and micro-aggressions, increasing micro-affirmations, as well as being attentive to the unique needs of international students, minority students, diverse learners, and others.

Assessment. I have high expectations for written work—mostly because, in my experience, students will often choose to rise to a challenge. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that academic success in college is more often a matter of self-organization and institutional knowledge than intelligence or native ability. As such, my courses give students every opportunity to succeed. A course might require several short essays, of which for example the top 4 (out of 6) are applied to the final grade; clear rubrics or assignment sheets are always provided. So is writing support in all my classes, no matter the level—as I’ve learned in my capacity as reviews editor for Fafnir, an international peer-reviewed academic journal, quality writing instruction is generally appreciated at all academic levels. Feedback is either typed or through recorded audio feedback.

Ultimately, I wish to help my students understand and appreciate literature, letting them develop a sense of their own literary tastes and allowing them to acquire an intellectual autonomy that extends beyond the classroom, initiating them into a lifetime of enjoyment.

WORKS CONSULTED

Graff, Gerald. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. Norton, 1993.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile: Or, On Education. Translated by Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979.

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