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Statement of Teaching Philosophy

By the end of the current academic year, I will have five years’ experience teaching literature
and writing at the college level. I have designed and taught classes on basic composition, world
literature, literary analysis, print and digital poetry, and, for Spring 2010, contemporary
American literature and the second half of the English major’s survey of American literature.
The tools and approaches that I have developed for this range of courses have been shaped by
my two primary pedagogical goals: first, to help my students see that interpreting literature is
something they can do and, second, to assist them in developing their ability to reason and
communicate through writing.

The readings that I assign my students are challenging, but the time spent closely reading these
texts in class provides the students with the skills they need to read effectively and analytically
on an individual basis. For example, in my recent class, “Introduction to Media Theory and
Media Fiction,” working slowly through the indeterminacies of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
prepared the students to be excellent readers of Stuart Moulthrop’s chronologically-complex
hypertext novel Victory Garden. This course not only asked students to read complicated
primary texts but also to connect their themes to important concepts in media studies. As the
students encountered essays by McLuhan, Baudrillard, or Virilio, they wrote one-page
summaries of each article to prepare for class. In class, the students collectively drew
connections between specific essays (say, Derrida’s “The Book to Come”) and specific texts
(Jeanette Winterson’s The.PowerBook) and recorded them using the course wiki. This activity
taught the students both that they had the ability to extract meaningful information from
theoretical texts via careful reading and how interpretation can proceed from those details.

My students’ ability to analyze themes within individual works as well as connections among
multiple texts also improves when they become acquainted with appropriate historical and
cultural contexts. This context becomes especially important in a large survey course such as this
coming spring’s “American Literature Survey II.” Students in the course will each be assigned
two years in this time period and asked to identify eight events of particular political, scientific,
or artistic significance in each year. They will then collaboratively build an interactive and
dynamic timeline using resources I developed as a Fellow in Emory’s Center for Interactive
Teaching. The result was be a class-produced reference tool that provides a backdrop for our
consideration of realism, modernism, and postmodernism.

In helping my students apply this context to interpreting literature, I find it useful to devote a
significant portion of class time to directed discussion. When students have the opportunity to
speak freely about what they have read—either as a whole class or in small groups—they make
new connections about the novel or poem. With the goal of helping students internalize the ideas
they develop in discussion, I have experimented with exercises that connect discursive and
physical learning pathways. For example, after my recent class on American war literature read
most of Whitman’s Civil War poems, I asked each student to decide whether or not Whitman
supported the war. They then sat on opposing sides of the room based on their decision and
engaged in a debate. As the students searched the poems for evidence to support their
viewpoints, they discovered that they could read the poems well enough to develop a claim using
the content and form of the text. As students began presenting these arguments to one another, I
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asked those who became convinced by their opponents’ views to move to the other side of the
room. While students and I moved from one side of the classroom to the other and back again,
our discussion and motion performed the tensions within Whitman’s poetry. The result was that
the students considered the ambiguity of the poetry more closely than if I had simply told them
Whitman’s stance on the war was perpetually conflicted. Following the discussion, I used the
discussion to teach the students how acknowledging opposing viewpoints can strengthen their
writing.

Through experience I have learned that writing is the part of an English class that most students
instinctively dread. In course evaluations, my students frequently comment on how much they
enjoy discussion and how they would prefer to have less writing. I bridge this gap by teaching
my students that writing can work like a discussion in class, where they may argue for any
viewpoint that strikes them as intriguing as long as they base that argument on the text and make
it compelling to their audience. During Fall 2004, I linked writing to discussion in this manner
when teaching Don DeLillo’s White Noise: every day, two students presented a thesis statement
for the paper they would write if they could only use material from the day’s reading assignment.
Their theses—which were almost always excellent—then served as the launching point for the
entire class period’s discussion. Many students refined the ideas they presented in class for the
essays they were assigned to write on that novel. This exercise teaches students how to read
analytically and that their writing can simply be an extension of this accomplishment.

When students learn that the skills that serve them in discussions are the same skills that will
help their writing, their writing almost uniformly improves. Yet, mastering writing requires
individual practice as well. For this reason, when grading essays I highlight two specific
techniques, such as choosing better evidence or sentence structure, for a student to focus on in
the following assignment. A portion of the next paper’s grade is then based on their success in
improving these skills. In this manner, I tailor my writing instruction to meet the needs of
individuals. To help my students better learn the process of revision during this past year, I have
frequently given them opportunities to rewrite their papers after I have graded them. While my
writing assignments foreground multiple stages of revision before a paper is due, I have found
that when students receive a grade for what they thought was the “final” version and then have
the chance to address my specific comments about how to make their sentences, paragraphs, or
the entire paper more rhetorically effective they learn better to identify what separates good and
excellent writing, enabling them to become confident that they can communicate effectively with
others.

My own abilities as a reader and writer have not been developed in solitude, but as part of
various communities of teachers and peers. Passing on the value of writing and reading
communities both assists my students in their college careers and equips them to interpret
difficult situations and communicate their solutions to the communities in which they participate.