As a medieval literary scholar, I have spent much of my career exploring the diverse ways in which audiences across periods engaged with, interpreted, and composed different forms of literature. I came to find in my work on thirteenth-century hagiographical documents that literature is not only a catalyst for and response to cultural shifts, but a space for critical engagement with the world around us. Literature is a lens into the zeitgeist.
I believe that curiosity is the catalyst for learning, and as a teacher-scholar, I must cultivate curiosity in my students by modelling learning through research. St. Augustine writes that interpretation depends upon two processes: “discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt.” As a teacher-scholar, I must leverage my experiences as a researcher in my pedagogy. My approach to instruction is two-fold: to foster an inquisitive mind by asking challenging questions, not only by asking questions but by teaching how to ask questions; and to present new knowledge through different mediums in a well-structured manner. Learning should be cultivated through systematic inquiry moving from the concrete to the abstract, from the simple to the complex. In my experience teaching first-year English classes, this process begins by having students describe their initial observations about a work — what the text looks like, sounds like, — before having the students ask questions about their observations — why does the text look like that, why does it sound like that. Through this process, I model the best practices in research, and take every opportunity to present students with a wide array of disciplines and areas of research that might pique their interests fostering in them a sense of curiosity about the world around them.
I believe that, in addition to the vitality of individuality, there is vitality to collectiveness. Learning is naturally collaborative and is built through accretion. Because of this, I encourage peer-to-peer interactions in my classroom, through carefully designed exercise which cultivates collaborative learning.
In one exercise, I provide students with similar but distinct short pieces of text and direct them to locate a peer who has a similar text: for example, a paragraph from a news article and its headline. While the objective is simple: find your partner, the process is complex: they need to perform a close reading of the text, identify the important details of their text, and extend their understanding of what the text means. When students have matched with their partners, they must discuss what they thought was important about their text and work together to identify why their texts are related. This activity serves three functions: first it evaluates a student’s ability to close read; second, it models the research process of working from the concrete to the abstract; and third, it encourages collaborative reading. One benefit I have found working through this type of participatory activity is its expandability: I have used it to explore ideas ranging from Victorian preoccupations with criminality to political rhetoric with equal effectiveness. My students’ responses with this type of activity are typically positive as it departs from the traditional lecture and encourages students to move freely around the classroom.
Another method I employ in the classroom as a teacher-scholar is through the practice of peer-review. Because knowledge is collaborative and because I believe that literary studies is best understood as a dialogue, it is important that I employ in my teaching the practices of professional literary scholars. During the writing process, I divide students into peer-review groups and have them provide detailed constructive feedback throughout the writing process and present critiques of each others’ work. Initially, there is resistance to providing thoughtful criticism because of insecurity, but I have found that through practice, the quality of the subsequent work following peer-review is improved significantly. When I begin this process, I provide students with a set of questions that they can answer about their peers’ work. However, I have found that many go above and beyond and provide incisive commentary. However, because students are learning, I believe it is important that this process is moderated, as such I utilize digital platforms to facilitate the process, like Blackboard. This way, I can ensure that the feedback my students provide to each other is on topic, critical, but ultimately helpful. Since I moderate the peer-review discussions, I can intervene in exceptional cases.
I am a firm believer that instructors ought to be adaptable in their approach to instruction. Traditionally, this meant that instructors should not be bound to script, lesson plan, or the syllabus, but navigate the course according to the needs of the student. In short, teach the student, not the syllabus. I approach this by encouraging my students to ask questions early and often about the course material such that I can integrate their ideas into my lecture plans. During the Covid-19 pandemic, I was forced to take my adaptability to the extreme by shifting from my face-to-face, synchronous classroom design to remote, asynchronous digital settings. Because many of my traditional approaches to literary studies focus around conversations and dialogues, I was forced to re-evaluate how to best facilitate discussions in a digital asynchronous setting. By utilising digital platforms like discussion boards, I was able to maintain a high level of student participation through consistent encouragement, and close monitoring of discussions by participating myself. My decision to rely on discussion boards was based on my student-first approach to learning. I took into serious considerations the needs of students who were, in times of crisis, not always able to meet through video conferences, did not have the resources to meet face-to-face digitally. My students have expressed to me following the Covic-19 pandemic that they valued the discussion boards as an outlet which encouraged both the process of learning and the process of presentation.
Evaluations are a cause of anxiety for students, and moreover, they can have long lasting impacts on a student’s academic trajectory. While it is important to provide consistent and appropriate evaluations to students, I believe it is my responsibility as the instructor to consider a broader portrait of the student’s performance. I believe that performance should be rewarded in addition to product, as effort and growth are demonstrable signs of the learning process.
Given that I have high expectations of my students, I also acknowledge that learning is a life-long journey and does not end after a final exam or after a term paper is submitted. Therefore, I give equal weight to my formative feedback as I do my evaluative feedback. I have found that comments and advice prove more effective than a numbered grade on assignments. Because of this, I provide students with substantial written comments on all assignments. This serves two purposes: first, it provides students with rationales for their grade; and second, it provides substantial details for areas of improvement.
Throughout lessons I will provide oral feedback to student performance in the form of encouragement and challenge to ideas presented in class discussions. By integrating feedback into lessons and course design I provide different outlets for feedback so that each student receives the type of feedback their require in a timely fashion. However, it is not my sole responsibility to dispense feedback. Throughout the semester, I provide students with opportunities to evaluate both themselves, each other, and myself in different formats. Using the “stop-start-continue” activity periodically throughout the semester, students are able to evaluate my instructional methods so that I may improve the quality and effectiveness of my instructional practices. From my experience, students appreciate the opportunity to voice their needs.