Dennis Wilson Wise

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Teaching Philosophy for Literature

NOTE: For a downloadable pdf of this literature teaching philosophy, please click here. 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 intellectuals paths and, yes, even from making mistakes.

Whenever I start teaching a new text, especially a longer work, I like to begin with a “contextualization” day. On a purely practical level, this gives students time to read the book / poem / play / short story. For lower division courses, context usually includes the most salient history, cultural, or literary information—upper division courses tend to get more nitty-gritty stuff. Since I almost never require tests or in-class quizzes, I help reinforce this information through D2L or Blackboard online quizzes. These quizzes are open note and open internet; since my expectations are quite high for the written exams, including low-stakes forms of grading into the course is a nice way to encourage active learning, retention, and recall in a low-pressure setting.

Class discussion, however, is where the true magic happens—at least if everything works as planned (!). For an especially challenging text, we’ll often run through the plot as a class, which might take a period or two. Such an activity—which often helps non-majors and ESL/EFL students in my survey or Gen. Ed. courses—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 frequently employ in my composition courses, and it has translated 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. (I’ll nudge them occasionally, sometimes, but they rarely notice.) Because note-taking can be difficult in this kind of discussion format, I’ll often list the main ideas/points on the board. In addition, I encourage students to mark up their texts as we discuss relevant passages.

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, a related workshop on micro-affirmations, as well as ways to be attentive to the unique needs of international students, minority students, diverse learners, and others.

Assessment. As mentioned, I have high expectations for written work—mostly because students will usually rise to a challenge if it’s presented within a respectful classroom atmosphere. A particular course might require several short essays (the top 4 grades out of 6 graded), or 2 to 3 major essays. Assignments sheets make the grading criteria explicit. I’m always looking for clear, well-focused essays that discuss and analyze textual evidence in light of larger thematic or topical concerns. As a means of preserving student ownership over their written texts, I never mark the papers themselves. Instead, I’ll provide global-level commentary on a separate sheet of paper; the grade itself will appear only on D2L or relevant learning management system. I’ve often found it useful to have students compose brief, low-stakes reflections after an assignment, which helps them articulate their own learning/writing process and helps me understand each student’s particular needs.

In addition, if possible, I try to incorporate a few Draft Days into the syllabus—something to parallel the peer review process that works so well in my composition classes. My rationale for this is, again, entirely practical. Students can generally meet even high expectations like mine so long as the how of meeting those expectations has been clearly articulated and broken down. Using class periods that focus on process, not product, especially helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds—and correspondingly little intuitive institutional knowledge—achieve the desired course learning outcomes. As someone who was a first-generation college student from a working class background, I can readily relate to students who wish to succeed but, nonetheless, feel frustrated by a sometimes jarringly opaque educational process.

Ultimately, I wish to help my students understand and appreciate literature, letting them develop a sense of their own literary tastes and 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.