On February 13, 1860, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “The Scripture rule, ‘Unto him that hath shall be given,’ is true of composition. The more you have thought and written on a given theme, the more you can still write. It grows under your hands.” My most ambitious aim as a teacher of writing and literature is to show my students that ideas grow in the hands of scholars who ask genuine, unanswered questions and devote time and attention to answering them. In both my writing and literature classes I attempt to describe how texts speak to readers. The two facets of my teaching—writing and literature—complement each other. In learning to write effective arguments, students learn to sustain attention to their own ideas: to write, reflect, refine, and rewrite. The study of literature asks students to sustain attention to others’ ideas: to read (and reread) often difficult texts and ask wise questions of them. To these ends, I teach students to read with close attention to the language, figures, and historical situation of texts, and to write with keen awareness of their own future readers.
I ground my instruction in the Little Red Schoolhouse (LRS) model of academic argument, which insists that writing is primarily a professional, disciplinary act, defined by communities of discourse. I aim to foster my students’ participation in such communities, which initially means bringing a particular class’s writing into dialogue. In my composition classes, I require students to keep a journal, in which they respond both to the class readings and to their classmates’ comments and papers. As they brainstorm paper ideas, I coach students to look back on those entries and think about who in class they agree or disagree with—how and why their argument might persuade some, and how and why it might estrange others. Such conversations reinforce for my students a model of academic argument as persuasion rather than battle, and give flesh to vague notions of “audience” or “readers.” The most substantial learning in a writing course happens in drafts, as the abstract principles outlined in lectures and activities are reproduced, modified, corrected, and perfected on the page. I make peer review and revision regular and expected parts of the paper writing process, both to help students improve individual papers and, more importantly, to model how ideas develop through continued scholarly engagement.
I begin each class with short writing or group assignments that ask students to connect the day’s reading with course concepts, previous readings, important themes, or even events outside of the classroom. In asking students to commit their ideas to writing, I help loquacious students focus their thoughts, give shyer students something concrete to draw on, and encourage all of my students to enter the classroom prepared to work. For instance, late one semester I asked students in my “Thoreau, Walden, and American Culture” composition class to quickly identify and define five technical terms from biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “Nonmoral Nature.” Though only one of my students was a biologist-in-training, I expected all of them to do this easily, because Gould uses concrete images to illustrate his heady concepts. My students quickly realized Gould’s feat, and this exercise prefaced the class’s larger discussion of how style and tone can shape writing for either expert or lay readers.
I likewise ground my literature classes in considerations of audience, style, and reception, weaving contemporary newspaper articles, illustrations, sermons, and related cultural materials into my classes’ reading. I encourage my students to consider the temporal situation of works: the economic necessities that underpin whaling in Moby Dick, or the theological upheavals that preface Emerson’s and Fuller’s essays. I hope to model for my students the excitement of uncovering new and unexpected connections between, say, the reformist rhetoric of the temperance movement and the abolitionist rhetoric in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This modeling culminates in writing and research projects in which I ask students to create digital exhibits (using software such as Omeka) drawing on course texts and cultural materials to illustrate, for example, how The Damnation of Theron Ware appropriates or revises the anti-Catholic rhetoric of mid-century Protestant newspapers.
I also encourage my students to take a longer view of a work’s audience, to think about why and how texts matter to readers over time. I insist on personal and scholarly honesty in my classroom, freely sharing what inspires, puzzles, and angers me about the texts we read. I do this to model the dynamic way that literature shapes my life and the lives of others who value it, in turn suggesting to my students that they might make similar discoveries. I teach literature, in part, because of its ability to move readers, and I would be remiss were I to sterilize my classroom against such reflection. At the same time, I strive to keep class conversations truthful. That is, I will politely but pointedly disagree when students get something about the text wrong, and steer misguided conversations back to the text at hand. Discussion suffers when blanket approval is given to any and all comments: my interventions would be blandishments which students would rightly ignore. By offering polite and pointed correction when needed I can also offer genuine praise to exceptional insights.
Classroom honesty matters for me in part because teaching is a vocation closely tied to community. I don’t want my teaching to begin or end at the door of a particular classroom. I hope to be active in the life of my college and its students, as a faculty collaborator and mentor. One of the great surprises of my early career has been how teaching has become, for me, inextricable from scholarship. I treat my undergraduates as scholars in training, and as such, they are a vital audience for all of the research, writing, and digital work that I do. I hope to continue cultivating all of the themes of my teaching: writing, literature, and personal mentoring. In short, I hope my teaching will grow under my hands, become more entwined with my personal and scholarly identity.