I have taught in a wide variety of academic settings, from rural and urban K-12 public school systems, to a selective private college prep boarding school, to public liberal arts college, private liberal arts university, and urban comprehensive university classrooms. My experience with students from all educational levels and highly diverse socio-economic, cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds has shaped and developed the way I think about and approach teaching.
For me, effective teaching synthesizes instructional theory and practical experience. Far from taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach to pedagogy, I focus on each class on its own terms. For instance, when teaching writing my goals are to help my students understand, then negotiate for themselves, the tensions between creation and craft; invention and convention; and working towards personal writing goals versus satisfying the requirements for an assignment. My goals in teaching literature and culture are to help my students acquire the critical thinking skills, terminologies and methods, and spirit of discovery that permit them to negotiate for themselves the tensions between “what we know” about a given text, and how an individual reader constructs meaning from and through that text as both a human being possessed of individual interests and agency, and an engaged and informed member of a class, a community, and a society. Regardless of the course, my reflective and responsive approach to instruction results in individualized learning experiences for my students, even as my classroom practices foster community and collaboration.
While as the subject expert I lecture and conduct Socratic discussions as needed, my courses are learning communities. Through instructional practices like student-led discussions, where they take the lead on the questions that are asked, and think-pair-share, where I or they pose a textual problem and then the students work in groups of two to engage that question, and making use of flipped-classroom techniques to give more time in class for hands-on learning activities like those described below, I encourage my students to develop and learn to appreciate the spirit of inquiry that lies at the heart of scholarship and ensures that they will view themselves as lifelong learners.
I view research and teaching as synergistic practices, and I focus on finding meaningful ways to combine them in my pedagogy. This practice enables me to serve as a model of expertise for my students. In a recent section of my freshman seminar on the Arthurian legend, for instance, my students posed questions about the relationship between medieval and contemporary Arthuriana, such as how the character of Merlin in medieval texts compares to his portrayal in the popular BBC series Merlin, and how the episodic nature of television mimics the episodic nature of medieval Arthurian romance. As my answers garnered interest and generated more and more questions, I gradually converted their interest in “how I know so much” into an individual sense of inquiry by showing them how to acquire their own body of knowledge through both casual and formal methods of research. By midterm, they were coming to class eager to share the Arthurian references they had come across in everyday life, what they had discovered about those references through research, and where they had found the information, so that our freshman seminar became a real site of collaborative, student-based discovery. This approach fosters an intrinsic desire to conduct original research.
My teaching includes a strongly digital component that fosters student engagement with Web-based research and presentation aids. When I lecture, I take a multimodal approach, incorporating audio-visual clips and artwork to sustain student interest by demonstrating connections between literature and other disciplines like art and film. I use Google maps to chart the journeys of the various knights of medieval romance, providing critical insight into the geography of the medieval period and how the romances can show us the development of literary traditions across borders. I use databases like Early English Books Online and online resources such as the British Library’s digitized manuscripts to show original manuscript pages and early editions of course texts, so students can explore how different visual presentations and editorial choices affect reading practices. Students in my survey courses develop multimodal research presentations, using audio and visual elements to convey their research findings. Students in my Medieval Afterlives course conduct a digital scavenger hunt for materials that serve as the basis for their research efforts throughout the term, and use Twitter as a discussion platform for sharing photos and links to references they come across in everyday life. In my Introduction to Poetry class, students created digital Commonplace Books by developing WordPress blogs designed to showcase their mastery of learning objectives, an assignment which allows them to learn a digital publishing platform and work with programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and Moviemaker. When I teach dramatic texts, such as Shakespeare’s plays, my students creative digital character archives by posting images of items and places they associate with their chosen character to Pinterest or Google Docs; these serve as the basis for a lesson on direct and indirect characterization, as well as comparative discussions of how differently each of us can receive a given character, character relationships, and even the play, itself, based on our different perceptions.
I view medieval literature from a multidisciplinary perspective—focusing on material aspects like paleography and manuscript studies alongside visual features such as art, landscape, and archaeology—and in the classroom I use this approach to bring the unfamiliar medieval period into my students’ realm of understanding through hands-on activities that double as scholarly inquiry. When I teach Chaucer, I bring my facsimile of the Ellesmere manuscript to class, along with materials used for the creation of manuscripts. After they examine the manuscript and I review the materials used in its creation, my students try their hand at recreating a page from the manuscript. This fosters an appreciation for how much time and effort went into copying texts by hand in the medieval period, enabling students to understand the importance accorded to a writer like Chaucer, whose work appears in many extant manuscripts. Another innovative lesson which I use both with majors and non-majors is a text-speak activity based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Students translate different passages from the Tales into the 21st-century argot of text speak; then they exchange their translations, re-translate the passage into modern English, and try to locate it in the original Middle English text. This exercise gives them insight into language shifts and pushes them to wrestle with materials that initially seem unfamiliar and difficult. My essay describing this activity was published in the Spring 2015 issue of Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching. My “Chaucerian Miscellany” assignment has received international attention, most recently mentioned in a session on “Campus Chaucers” at the MLA Convention and reblogged at the Global Chaucer website, as a creatively and critically demanding yet personally satisfying and meaningful act of pedagogy.
My commitment to helping students to bridge the divide between academic and personal approaches to literature is demonstrated in an activity that combines scholarly approaches and creative interpretation in a dynamic exploration of the Arthurian legend. We first analyze representative Arthurian tales for their structure, content, and cultural views of King Arthur and his knights. Then, my students develop a knightly persona, listing their strengths and weaknesses and choosing two to focus on. They invent for themselves an Arthurian moniker (“the Knight of the….”), design a shield, and write a narrative poem in a recognizable medieval meter featuring their strengths and weaknesses and a prose romance in which they interact with other Arthurian figures and reference at least one established Arthurian adventure. In class, students read through their peers’ tales, noting aspects that stand out to them—for instance, “I hear the Knight of the Dragon once beat a chimera in combat without a weapon.” They use these comments to write an encyclopedia entry detailing their important deeds. Finally, they write a scholarly essay comparing their persona to two Arthurian knights, using both their original work and course texts as quoted source materials. Through this unit, students develop skills in creative and academic writing, literary analysis, genre recognition, critical thinking, and comparative cultural studies, while gaining an understanding of the incremental nature of the legend’s development gleaned through their own, original contributions. Several colleagues at other institutions have adapted this lesson, which is featured on the pedagogy webpages of the journal Arthuriana.
Mentoring and advising are crucial to student success, and I take this responsibility very seriously. Rather than assuming all of my students know how to succeed, I serve as a resource for how and where to acquire needed information. For instance, in introductory courses where most of the students are freshmen or transfers, I take time at the start of each class to ask them if they have questions about things like how to add or drop a class, or the learning services available to them. I also devote time to working with my students on building professional skills like delivering presentations, writing abstracts, and creating job documents. I support my students’ success in my classes by encouraging them to reach out for assistance and to articulate their learning struggles. I recently had a student in my College Writing course who regularly came to class but did little work. When I met with him one-on-one to discuss an assignment that he had not yet started but that was soon due, he told me, “Don’t pretend that you really care about how I’m doing in your class.” This gave me insight into his recalcitrance; he was a student who was used to instructor indifference to, rather than instructor interest in, his success. During our conference I explained to him why I wanted to help him succeed in my class, and encouraged him to ask for help. He then confessed that he did not think he had any good topics to write about. We brainstormed together, and he settled on an idea that interested him and was able to finish the assignment on time and successfully.
I also engage with my students regularly in activities devoted to their professionalization. I encourage English majors taking medieval subject courses with me to attend medieval programming at area universities such as guest lectures and invited talks, where they interact with other students working in medieval literature and culture, learning how to engage with others beyond the classroom in an academic and social manner. Students conducting research for my advanced undergraduate courses are encouraged to participate in the student research conference, and I work with them on how to write an abstract, develop a presentation and deliver it to a general audience; most recently, students in my Chaucer class gave an award-winning roundtable on “Chaucer’s Women” which was based on their individual research papers for that course. I believe that my commitment to their professional development, my ability to recognize when students are struggling, and my willingness to provide those students with the support they need are major factors in my success as an instructor.
I approach teaching as a manifestation of inquiry that is supported by and benefits my scholarship, and this approach results in instructional practices that are demonstrably dynamic, student-oriented, challenging, and effective. The assignments I develop find wide interest and use in university classrooms across the country, and both professorial observations and student evaluations of my courses attest that I am a dedicated, innovative, and generous instructor possessed both of high expectations and standards, and the necessary pedagogical skills to foster student success not in spite of, but because of, those high expectations and standards.