Since beginning teaching as a graduate student in 2015, I have solo taught over 30 classes ranging from rhetoric and composition, literature, drama, and the Humanities, broadly understood. These span three institutions with very different backgrounds and students, and each has been important to my growth as an educator. My teaching at all three institutions has been grounded in the core principle that the study of literature can and should be more action-driven. For instance, I have begun to reevaluate what 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 Humanities classes, it is not enough for my students to learn about and write on ekphrasis; I also work to ensure that 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 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 social justice. My hope is that by expanding traditional modes of literary engagement in the classroom, students will begin to see themselves as members of these same traditions, not simply onlookers, analyzing from afar.
I began my teaching career at Auburn University, one of Alabama’s two flagship public universities, where I learned the importance of a student-centered approach and was often encouraged to experiment with content and delivery. In my First Year Writing courses on embodiment, I incorporated yoga, autobiographical portraiture, and autoethnography as non-traditional pathways into thinking about the writing process and students’ relationships to their compositional work. By inviting students to reflect on the physical and mental sensations of their writing process, for example, I helped them to see their writing process as an embodied endeavor and thus to write and revise with more purpose. The methods I learned there in my first two years of teaching have helped 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.
Significantly, my time teaching small, writing-intensive and literature classes at Emory, a private research university, has enabled me to refine some of the assumptions I carried in my early years of teaching Most notably, in March 2020, I was roughly halfway into my “Writing About Literature” course when campuses began to close across the country due to the COVD-19 pandemic. Ironically, the course was on existential writing, both as a genre of literature they could identify and interpret and as a mode of composition with which they would engage and explore. 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 in-class exercises (e.g., peer-review workshops, reflection writing, presentations) were not difficult to translate for the new virtual format. However, I had built the class around the early modern genre of the commonplace book, expecting students to house in their books sketches, significant quotations from texts, reflections, random bits of scrawled poetry or narrative, embedded letters between them and with me, and an assortment of other creative or critical compositions they deemed fruitful. To accommodate the shift online, we turned to WordPress sites that would become our “virtual commonplace books,” and, to maintain cohesive records, my students scanned/uploaded their old entries for the new modality. On the one hand, I found the physical books 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 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. For example, one student was able to model her commonplace book after various social media sites, generic contexts that she understood to be part and parcel to her own identity and capacity for new knowledge-making. This, I reminded her, was precisely how the physical commonplace book operated centuries prior, and discussions of technology emerged that would have otherwise lain dormant. In the end, I realized that my privileging of in-person reflection and composition in the hopes of capturing that same spontaneity I have made central to my teaching had an inverse effect; it was after the logistical 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.
I have done most of my teaching at Atlanta Technical College, a predominantly Black vocational institution where I’ve had the good fortune to work with hundreds of students, most of them “non-traditional” and from a wide array of backgrounds. Many of them have families, dependents to care for, and full-time jobs in addition to their schoolwork. As a result, they are often overworked and spread thin. 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. As a result, I have reframed literary discussions around the “trades” or vocations each student brings to a specific classroom. For example, in Introduction to Humanities, when we discuss the use of false letters and unintended missives in drama, I will frame the discussion as an issue of falsified documentation and identity theft. This resonates with students studying cybersecurity, who often write papers about the literary history of “phishing,” teasing out the ways representational models of disinformation and scams provide real-world learning opportunities. The way analysis and application melds in their compositional practices illuminates the importance—and benefit—of shaping course discussions and assignments around the students, rather than trying to shape them to fit the curriculum. Additionally, in this same course, I teach a unit on the evolution of the sonnet. We trace the tradition from Shakespeare to the contemporary American poet Rita Dove, with John Keats and Gwendolyn Brooks chronologically in-between. Framing the sonnet as a creative production that has come down to my students over time foregrounds their own potential role within that tradition. How they might choose to revise, recycle, and reimagine these histories moves them toward active participation in cultural developments, rather than encouraging then to remain distanced observers.
As with my scholarship, my pedagogical approach has become increasingly concerned with creating collaborative opportunities among students. In my pedagogical interest toward “doing” things with literature and humanities education, I recently incorporated in an Emory class on Renaissance Drama (?) a role-playing game based on the Reacting to the Past (RTTP) platform. That writing-intensive course, named after the game “Stages of Power: Marlowe and Shakespeare,” placed the students within three different historical factions: two competing theater troupes and the privy council, who had been commissioned to grant one company a license to produce their newest play. Each student was given a “role sheet” that gave them historical background about their characters, complete with motivations and secret alliances. Making use of literary as well as non-literary texts from Renaissance England, the game challenges students to turn their close readings, analyses, and creativity toward rhetorical ends, “making” and “doing” with what they were learning in real-time. In vying for their group and individual game objectives, my students had to rely on and persuade others, while expressing early modern principles, values, and strategies. The game itself was in the second half of the term, which allowed my students to embody and “play” with the knowledge they learned in the first half. I hope to expand my use of role-playing and performance opportunities in future writing classes.
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