What things are taught, those let the teachers impart neither all at once,
not obscurely, but gradually and illustrated beforehand with many examples.
~ grammar school curriculum of Bury St Edmund’s, 1550
Through a number of teaching experiences, from small first year writing seminars to larger lectures, emphasizing critical approaches to thinking, reading, and writing has yielded positive results from my students. For instance, in teaching literary theory—an often daunting subject!—I ask students to take their time with the texts, particularly in their reading, while class discussion focuses on engaging and interrogating the text, making sense of it in relation to students’ own experiences. I have further found it particularly useful to encourage students to understand that the material is often deeply challenging; this acknowledgement that the subject is difficult gives students permission to express their frustrations with the texts, yet at the same time encourages a deeper engagement with texts, whether they be familiar contemporary texts or challenging early modern or medieval texts.
Teaching literature can be a challenging task when one finds oneself standing at the front of a class talking about reading a book. So for me teaching needs to be active and engaged, both for students and for teachers. In smaller classes, my teaching balances lecture and discussion, guided discovery, and small-group work, but even in large lecture classes I leave time for group and discussion-based activities. In large lecture halls, promoting discussion can prove particularly challenging, but I have found that by adopting a more interactive lecture style, moving around the room and into the aisles during such discussion I can encourage students to speak up; in halls where a microphone is necessary, I repeat students’ questions and comments in order for the whole class to be able to hear. As a corollary to this, online discussion forums can be a productive venue for students to broaden their discussions, and those who might not have felt comfortable speaking up in front of 300 of their peers are often comfortable typing their contributions online.
Yet while many of undergraduates belong to the generation of “digital natives,” I have found that a number of these students often don’t grasp the possibility and power of digital tools. To this end, I am working to integrate more digital pedagogy into my classroom. This can range from more advanced annotation and editing through open source projects such as The Modernist Commons (created in collaboration with the University of Victoria’s Editing Modernism in Canada project), to working with bibliographic software like Zotero, creating GIS maps, or seeing what Google nGrams can show us about large groups of texts. The problem-solving, critical thinking, and hard technical skills that are learned through working with these tools are of value to students within and beyond academia.
I enjoy my students in and out of the classroom, and I am happy to work with them to get the most out of any course, but I expect them to be committed to their own work and experience in a course. Learning is an active and engaged process, one that requires commitment in the face of challenges. I am constantly gratified by seeing students find and develop their voices, and by seeing them become confident in their own thoughts and ability to express themselves.
Finally, it is important for me to bear in mind what the educators of the Bury St. Edmund’s grammar school identified four and a half centuries ago: that as a teacher, I must pace my teaching for my students’ maximum comprehension; I must be as clear in my expectations and communications with my students as I expect them to be with me; and I must frame my teaching with examples that make sense to my students. Only then will they be able to take those skills of critical reading, thinking, and writing with them into their future lives.