Teaching Philosophy

I mean no disrespect to Paolo Freire when I say that the “banking” concept of education was never as real as even its critics thought it was. Students do not arrive in the classroom like empty vessels waiting to be filled either with the teacher’s “knowledge deposits” or with revolutionary consciousness. The teacher, whether she knows it or not, is always in dialogue with a student’s pre-conceptions about the subject she is teaching, the models and narratives that have sedimented over time. This is especially true of teachers of culture.

This is why teaching American Literature in the United States so often involves an effort to demystify the objects we introduce into our classrooms. We unpack and repack the interpretive baggage left over from high school discussions of Huckleberry Finn. We make them understand all of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and not just that famous bit taken out of context. We present the founding documents in a literary context for the explicit purpose of de-familiarizing them, laying bare their rhetorical elements in order to complicate their status as a secular body of scripture. We direct their attention to the contradictions between the founder’s claims and the structuring impact of race, class, gender and sexuality in American culture.

So what do you do when the pre-conceptions of a particular class can no longer be taken for granted? What happens when you begin to teach these texts to students carrying a different set of historical and cultural baggage? It’s common-sensical to state that teaching an American lit survey in Russia will be different from teaching one in the United States, but at the moment, there is no real conversation in the discipline about how to recognize and assimilate those differences into one’s pedagogy. Is my role in Russia to de-mystify, and what exactly would that mean? How do I deal with the various positive and negative tropes about America that these students bring into my classroom?

For example, Russians are fairly comfortable with the idea that the United States is a racist country whose predominant historical experiences have been shaped by conflicts over race. Therefore, they have no trouble picking out the hypocrisy at the core of the Declaration of Independence. Yet frankness about racism in the United States has historically had propagandistic uses. Indeed, it still does, as state-run TV frequently uses images of protests in Ferguson and Charlotte to suggest that the United States is a hellscape of explosive racial animus while papering over Russia’s own historical and ongoing problems with race. It is my general stance that I should be honest and non-defensive when discussing racism in my home country. But it is also my stance that the teaching of literature ought to provoke no less self-reflection among my Russian students than it does among my American students. Learning about culture and art is a process of confronting the other. It can also be a process of confronting oneself.

For me, becoming a better teacher of literature both in the country of my birth and the country in which I find myself means not only understanding the context in which works are produced but the contexts in which they are received. As James English argues in The Global Future of English Studies, the audience for Anglophone literature is increasingly people who do not speak English. This applies both to students in English departments in non-English speaking countries and to students from those countries seeking educational opportunities abroad. The need to develop a coherent, though not universalist, pedagogy to fit this moment is driving part of my research and is already making its way into my classroom.

The most concrete way in which I have dealt with this is to attempt to bring reception history into the classroom. During the Spring of 2016, I taught a class called “Theodore Dreiser in International Perspective” as an experiment in teaching the works of a single author through the lens of his reception in other countries. In this case, the focus was the Soviet Union. Therefore, in addition to reading and discussing three big novels and a selection of secondary materials (including Dreiser’s diary from his trip to the Soviet Union in 1927), students conducted original research. The first half of the semester was dedicated to finding and translating primary sources in Russian, including reviews and essays by Russian-language critics, user reviews from sites like Goodreads, and interviews with students and family members. During the second half of the course, students developed their own research projects. At the end of term, our International Office produced a small collection of the best essays, all of which underwent blind review by other faculty members. Thanks to the fact that all of my students are getting their degrees in economics, these projects were innovative and richly interdisciplinary, including a Game Theory analysis of an episode from The Financier, a paper comparing Soviet vs. American criticism of Jack London’s Martin Eden, and a study of the financial literacy of reviewers of The Financier on popular websites.

More and more in all of my classes, I see my role as giving students the tools to begin asking and answering their own questions and then essentially turning them loose (in a managed way). Even in composition classes, a significant amount of class time is devoted to discussions led by the students themselves. I designate leaders who are in charge of setting the agenda for and guiding a small group discussion of 40-50 minutes (each student leads at least twice per semester). It has worked enormously well, ensuring that quieter students have a place to speak (and less fluent English-speakers time to prepare what they want to say). Every teacher uses small groups to some extent, of course, but it is the student leadership element – where I am purely a facilitator – that has proven most crucial. Student ownership over the conversation is powerfully motivating and increases their investment in ways that teacher-designed assignments and discussion points simply do not.

The teaching of Anglophone literature outside of the places in which English is traditionally spoken is part of both an old and a new conversation. More and more, teachers of literature across the globe are travelling and becoming aware of one another. There has been a push by transnationalists and world literature advocates to adopt more universalist models of teaching our discipline, throwing out, for example, the national frame. I have come to believe that such models will be unpersuasive (and indeed may not even make sense) outside of the “Anglo-center” unless supplemented with the arguably more daunting and certainly more tedious work of uncovering local histories of reception and tracking how the canon travels. This is an area in which I believe I can contribute as a researcher. And as a teacher, I prefer to set aside universalist models and develop a practice that is responsive and appropriate to the immediate context in which I find myself.

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