Both my research and my teaching share a fascination with the ways in which everyday objects meaningfully shape our lived experience of the world. In my composition and literature courses, I often employ common objects as windows into the cultural ideas and assumptions that, because they are “hidden in plain sight,” are easiest to take for granted. I see myself as a teacher who uses everyday materials and participatory teaching techniques to create an engaging classroom in which students learn to analyze, question, and investigate texts of all kinds. Through teaching the technical skills and tools of effective writing and literary analysis, I aspire to demonstrate to my students that cultivating textual analysis will enrich their daily lives and empower them to make more informed choices. Though it might sound like a cliché, I do believe the argument that liberal arts education produces both better students and better citizens, and this belief drives me to create an engaging, challenging experience for each of my students.
Analyzing common objects, especially consumer goods, is one way I accomplish this goal. The tangibility of something like a disposable Starbucks cup makes it immediately engaging; it is something that most students have used, but probably have not spent much time thinking about, and I have found that beginning with a common object is a good way to make an unfamiliar object, like a difficult novel or complex theory, more approachable. In an argumentation class, I used the text on a Starbucks cup (which praises “you” for buying Starbucks coffee because doing so allows the company to invest in fairly traded coffee), to introduce the concept of an appeal to pathos. Another time, I brought copies of a bank credit card agreement to a professional writing class and asked students to analyze the design choices in terms of the rhetorical situation. I do not always choose the objects that we use in discussion. To begin a class on authorial style in my fiction course, I like to ask my students to spend a few minutes writing about an object that exemplifies their own personal style. Last semester, one of my students shared how she felt her black combat boots, which she wore everyday, allowed her to be tough and feminine at the same time. We went on to talk about how one’s style of dress, more than merely “fashion,” involves a negotiation of cultural and institutional expectations, and this discussion led naturally into a productive lesson on the parallels with stylistic choices made in literature. To put this approach into terms outlined in “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” a report by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, I would say that my teaching especially encourages the habits of mind that the authors refer to as curiosity, engagement, and metacognition. Everyday objects like a coffee cup or a credit card agreement pique student curiosity and engagement by encouraging them to connect their own life experiences to the course’s content. Everyday objects also encourage metacognition, the “ability to reflect on one’s thinking” because they can reveal the extent to which thinking is structured by assumptions that are usually left unexamined. I believe that becoming aware of these assumptions is a crucial step in one’s intellectual development, and so I make it a cornerstone of my pedagogical approach.
While I like to use objects to introduce texts, I have also found it effective to make texts more object-like. We often use the metaphor of teaching students to work with “concrete” details, and in teaching close reading and analytical writing I use a variety of techniques to bring this metaphor to life. For example, to teach close reading in my fiction courses, I often take a day to analyze, in painstaking detail, a single paragraph from a novel or short story. Last semester I did this with the opening paragraph of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In exercises like these, I want students to get physical with the text, so I asked them to circle words related to family, to underline Morrison’s verb choices, to draw arrows between interrelated ideas, and to note questions or observations in the margins. During class I projected a PowerPoint presentation which I animated so that each slide highlighted the next sentence in red font. By taking the paragraph “out of the book” and making it into a dissectible object, I was able to demonstrate how even the smallest details can carry great significance. We noted how the very first paragraph laid out all of the novel’s overarching themes (family, betrayal, love, motherhood), and we discussed how the paragraph’s meaning would alter, slightly, if even as small a change as a verb choice were altered. Students realize that textual awareness enriches their life when they learn to appreciate the significance of little details, so both my composition and literature courses emphasize this skill. My teaching evaluations frequently indicate that the one thing my students learn the most from is this sort of detail-oriented work. In response to “Which assignment did you learn the most from completing this semester?”, one of my composition students wrote: “Essay 3: It showed me that I could write six pages on a single photograph.”
Common objects and concrete details encourage student participation, and I further their participation by crafting a variety of ways for students to participate in the life of the course. Interacting with peers is one effective way of developing capacity for insightful reflection, and for this reason I have learned to increase the number and frequency of peer feedback in my courses. Frequent small group work is one low-stakes way that I ask students to work together, and peer-review of essay drafts is a higher-stakes one. Another way is through peer-responded forums, an assignment I molded after George Gopen’s essay on peer-responded journals in The WAC Journal. For this assignment, I ask students to post informal weekly responses to the reading on a private online forum hosted by our course management system. Students then read their group members’ journals and post a short response to each journal. This assignment has the obvious benefit of making sure everyone has done the reading for class, but more important to me is that they have time and space to reflect on their reaction to the reading as well as their classmate’s reactions. It demonstrates the power of multiple interpretations and shows them the value of dialogue and reflection, and it contributes to a participatory classroom to which students come with ideas percolating.
One difficulty I faced as a new teacher was feeling like I had to be in control of every thing that happened in class. While I certainly never want the class to be totally out of my control, I have learned the value of backing off and letting my students take the lead from time to time. One way that I script this into my syllabus is by assigning each student to lead a discussion question during the semester. All I ask is that they contextualize the question by explaining what they found interesting, problematic, or confusing about the reading and that the question be open-ended and interpretive. When students present their questions, I take a seat at a desk with the rest of the class, and I force myself not to say anything until the class has started to talk about the question. Once conversation is rolling, I will join in the discussion, but I try to keep my role to asking questions and linking student comments; I try, that is, to be a helpful participant in their discussion. I have found that this assignment encourages students to feel a sense of ownership and empowerment within the course, which brings with it a greater investment in meeting the challenges of the class.