“Welcome to the Monkey House”: A Teaching Philosophy for Literature
With all due apologies to Kurt Vonnegut, who inspired my title, my teaching philosophy is perhaps most influenced by Timothy Aubry’s Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures (Harvard UP, 2018). Aubry argues that the aesthetic enjoyment of texts—generally considered the long-dead purview of New Critical practice—has never truly disappeared, and instead New Critical criteria such as irony, ambiguity, and paradox have simply survived underground in later methodologies like New Historicism and deconstruction. Now, most undergraduates, I suspect, rarely take an English class, at least initially, hoping to produce outstanding culture or ideology critique (although they often end up there). Rather, their first motives are more probably centered around how much they enjoy novels, poems, stories, movies, and other related cultural artifacts. In my view, this motivation is probably one of the healthiest things in the world. Guilt-less aesthetic pleasures, in other words, drive them to study their favorite books or films fervently, to post reviews on Goodreads, or to engage in Twitter debates about the nuances of a particularly beloved narrative or storyworld. As professors of literature, we have the enviable position of teaching objects of study that are intrinsically fascinating, and my first step in literature classes, before delving deeply into cultural analysis or ideology critique, is always to nurture—even cultivate—for my students a sense of literature’s sheer awesomeness.
Even though my primary areas of academic research already enjoy much cultural popularity (i.e. science fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird fiction), I believe that nurturing enthusiasm for any form of literature begins with connecting what students don’t know—in this case, the literary texts under study—with what they know intimately well. This usually means popular culture. Thus, whenever I begin a new unit in my literature courses, I spend a contextualization day or two simply sussing out what students already know, often without realizing it, about our topic. For example, at first glance my students usually find a text like Beowulf intimidating and strange. But Beowulf, let us remember, is also a poem about vengeance … and revenge culture is something already known to students through mafia films, gang violence, and the like. Likewise, the flyting episode in Beowulf is a cultural precursor to “playing the dozens” and the famous rap battle at the end of Eminem’s movie Eight Mile. So, for any text being taught, I always prepare students for what they’re about to experience before diving into the deeper stuff.
In general stuff, this “deeper stuff” revolves around my course’s Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), General Learning Outcomes (GLOs), and Module-level Learning Outcomes (MLOs), which are all framed using measurable or observable skills. To give just one example, my Nonhuman Subjects class contains the following module-level outcome: apply critical questions that interrogate the idea of monstrosity within a text. This tactic of citing measurable outcomes has been drilled into me through my certification in applying the Quality Matters Rubric—for what it’s worth, Quality Matters is a non-profit quality assurance organization designed specifically for online courses, but its core criteria apply equally well for in-person classrooms.
On a more day-to-day level, my classroom—whether virtual or face-to-face—usually features activities or discussions designed to let students practice utilizing a particular concept or to help them keep up-to-speed on basic subject knowledge. Whenever possible, I like to take advantage of technology. Sometimes this only entails showing brief clips or relevant memes, but using a Learning Management System (LMS) also helps me avoid wasting valuable class time on things like quizzes. For my classes, quizzes are basically designed as low-pressure self-checks of knowledge, but most LMSs grade and administer them automatically. That leaves open classroom time for activities that emphasize annotation skills, close reading, peer review, and targeted discussion questions that reinforce the stated learning outcomes. Occasionally, short lectures are a necessary evil. My lectures, though, are brief (usually under 10 minutes) and typically include a Powerpoint or Prezi.
An important part of my classroom management includes showing compassion for diversity and inclusion. To help with this, I have completed an official “Leader in Classroom Diversity & Inclusion” certificate from my institution’s Office for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence, which includes training in reducing unconscious bias and micro-aggressions, increasing micro-affirmations, Universal Design, and being attentive to the unique needs of international students, minority students, diverse learners, and others.
Assessment. My expectations for written work are high—mostly because, in my experience, students often choose to rise to a challenge. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that academic success is more a matter of self-organization and institutional knowledge than native ability or intelligence. As such, I provide students with detailed rubrics or assignment sheets with clearly stated expectations for written work. A particular course might require several short essays or a few longer ones. As a legacy of my days teaching composition, my literature courses—even the non-writing-intensive ones—always emphasize the writing process: drafting, peer review, reflection, and the like. Other major factors include an emphasis on the conventions of academic writing and addressing the expectations of one’s audience. Overall, all my courses offer writing support; I never expect my students to simply know what a good essay looks like. In my capacity as reviews editor for Fafnir, a peer-reviewed academic journal recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award, I have also learned that writers at all academic levels appreciate good writing feedback. Feedback is either typed or through recorded audio.
Ultimately, I wish to help my students understand and appreciate literature—to let them develop a sense of their own literary tastes and to train them in an intellectual (and critical) autonomy that extends well beyond the classroom, initiating them into a lifetime of enjoyment and reflection.
- Aubry, Timothy. Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures. Harvard UP, 2018.