Teaching Philosophy: A course in English—be it composition, creative writing, or literature— should serve as a gateway for the student to join a critical conversation already in progress. As storytelling is our oldest form of art, perhaps our oldest form of social interaction, my goal as an instructor is to teach my students how to become better stewards of the world they will be entering.
In my literature survey classes I make a point of telling my students that there is no singular approach to a work of literature, but rather many approaches. I believe in order for a work to be understood, it is important to make it relatable to the student’s own experiences. In teaching Wharton’s “Roman Fever” to a group of students I suggested that the story was rife with polite violence, and the university where I was presenting the lecture being in the rural south, I cast the action of the work in the voice of a polite society of a pair of privileged Southern Ladies. I explained that the sort of barbs that they launched at one another would, in our society, been followed up with a “bless your heart.” I believe that for the student to fully connect with the literature he or she is reading, the student must answer the question that we as instructors require them to answer in their essays: so what? In order for the student to fully engage with and understand the story that he or she is reading, they must come to understand its relevance to their own experiences. In addition, I tell my students that there is no one correct answer or approach to the text. The key to understanding and critiquing a piece of literature is not a matter of right and wrong, but rather the effectiveness of the student’s ability to argue his or her viewpoint. Each story has level upon level of text hidden beneath the surface and by learning to engage with these texts, to be more critical readers, they will not only learn to appreciate literature, but also to become more critical thinkers. I point out to my students that each reader approaches the text with his or her own experiences and ideas. As a result, there are as many ways of reading a text as there are readers.
I see my classroom as a place of conversation, where I act as the facilitator of a discussion about the topics we study. This approach forces students to take an active role in their own learning experience. I encourage students to approach the texts from their own perspectives and to discuss those perspectives with the class as a whole in a safe and respectful exchange of ideas. I can recall two instances where this approach was particularly successful. The first was in a poetry workshop I gave at a Junior College where the class was comprised of mostly non-traditional students. I had them craft poems about their own experiences and at the close of the exercise, one student said “You have me believing that I can really write poetry!” The second instance occurred while I was teaching a literature survey course. At the end of the semester, I received an email from a student, thanking me. She informed me that she was taking the course for the second time and her previous instructor had taught them that there was only one interpretation of a text. In my class she had learned that there is any number of interpretations of a text, as long as writer argued convincingly. It is moments of triumph like these, when a connection is made between the student and me that keep me engaged in the work, even on the most difficult of days.