Teaching for me is a central part to my be(com)ing an academic. It is the most direct application of my research and scholarship, and in many ways, it is likely the most important. My experience as a teaching assistant and as an instructor has led to many discoveries in the form of both trials and triumphs (the former are more often than not source material for the latter). In teaching others good reading, writing, and meaning-making practices, I have become increasingly aware of how doing so continues to cultivate those same skills in my own work. My engagement with texts is more meaningful and fruitful because of teaching. Likewise, I have become cognizant of my role as student to literature; the best teachers are students first, after all.
Collaboration is key in and out of my classroom. Instead of teaching students things, I attempt to teach them skills that are meaningful to their own interests and to their roles as social beings. And so, my classroom is more like a lab than a lecture hall, where creative invention rules the day rather than rote mastery. Experimental thinking and provocative arguments lead to intellectual authenticity that is both useful and interesting to students. I also do not believe this precludes rigor, which is important in developing writing skills that engage and persuade.
Since beginning teaching in 2015, I have assisted in teaching seven classes and solo taught 25. These span three institutions with very different backgrounds and students, and each has been important to my growth as an educator. At Auburn University, for example, I learned the importance of a student-centered approach and was often encouraged to experiment with content and delivery. The methods learned there in my first two years of teaching have helped to shape a pedagogy built on flexibility and adaptability, wherein I am able to emphasize those spontaneous moments of learning that no roadmap or syllabus can predict. Since teaching at Auburn, however, my time at Emory University has challenged some of the assumptions I carried and privileged in this approach. In March of 2020, I was about halfway into my "Writing About Literature" course when campuses began to close across the country due to the COVD19 pandemic. Along with many educators, I had to make quick, unexpected alterations to a class I had spent months--and an entire pedagogy seminar--carefully crafting. Several of the in-class exercises (e.g., peer-review workshops, reflection writing, presentations) were not difficult to translate for the new virtual format. But, I had built the class around the idea of a commonplace book that would house sketches, significant quotations from texts, reflections, random bits of scrawled poetry or narrative, embedded letters between the students and with me, and an assortment of other creative or critical compositions they deemed fruitful. The course was on existential writing, both as a genre they could identify and interpret and also as a mode of composition with which they themselves would engage and explore. To accommodate this shift, we turned to making Wordpress sites that would become our "virtual commonplace books," and luckily my students played along and even scanned/uploaded their old entries for the new modality. On the one hand, I found the physical books charming and a way for them to think about their physical bodies as an extension and consort in their composition practice, but on the other hand, the change opened up an entirely new set of questions and relationships about what it meant for them, students born after the turn of the century, to see themselves in and through the technologies they grew up with. In the end, I realized that my privileging of in-person collaboration in the hopes of capturing that same spontaneity I have made central to my teaching had an inverse effect; it was after the forced changes to the semester-long assignment that I came to appreciate my students' particular literacies in technology and social media. I learned that to facilitate creative agility in my students, I, too, would need to be agile and spontaneous along the way.
A majority of my courses have been taught at Atlanta Technical College, where I've had the fortune to teach hundreds of students, many of them "non-traditional" and from a wide array of backgrounds. The students I teach across these institutions vary considerably, and I would be remiss not to mention how this has influenced my own sense as an educator. At Atlanta Tech, for instance, a majority of my students have families, dependents to care for, and full-time jobs; as a result, they are often overworked and constantly having to navigate numerous obligations that sometimes pull them in opposite directions. I know that in many ways, these students require my class to give them something they can use in their everyday lives, that the stakes for transfer are higher and more urgent. This experience has also had an impact on how I teach at Emory, where most of the students are between 18-24 and only 8.6% are Black or African American. For instance, I have begun to reevaluate what it is we teach in literary studies, where allegorical, symbolic, or otherwise abstract readings are privileged above the ways texts model and/or resist action--that is, the "doings" of a text or artifact. In my “Introduction to Humanities” class, for instance, it is not enough for my tech students to learn about and write on ekphrasis; they also want to be a part of that tradition, revising and remixing it into something new for the present moment. As that course's final project, my students locate a work of public art, explicate it, and then based on that explication, compose a textual artifact that recaptures their experience of the original piece. Then, those pieces become a part of a campus installation based around a class-determined theme, often marshaling political mobilization and justice. My hope is that by expanding traditional modes of literary engagement in the classroom, my students will begin to see themselves as member to these same traditions, not simply onlookers, coldly analyzing at a distance.
What's more, teaching has taught me much about what we do outside of the comfort of an office or library (or archive). Reading, as my students discover and I rediscover each semester, is both a revelatory and revolutionary act. Undoubtedly, reading critically is about learning history, cross-cultural intersections, problem solving, ethics and good judgment—all these are true. But more than these, literature is prophetic—not simply artifacts of the past—and by engaging with these texts my students begin to question their futures, looking to Milton and Douglass and Woolf as guides. Of course, by engaging with voices of the past, the living become stirred to action, and when approached with an open heart and an open mind, literature exorcises us of our apathy and may transform us into revolutionaries