My Teaching Philosophy

I. Critics and Curators

I think humanities professors embody two roles. As critics, we encourage students to delve beneath the surfaces of past and present cultures. As curators, we promote their receptivity to and judgement of cultural (intellectual and literary) history. By studying continuities between modern experience and Descartes’s “foreign country” of the past, the humanities teach us about similarities between human experiences that are superficially distinct. Their teachers need to be both critics and curators, choosing and arranging beautiful and important things for public view, while offering and engaging responses to those works.

A few years ago in London’s National Gallery, I was using an audio guide to listen to art historians discuss the pictures I liked–J. M. W. Turner’s play of light, or Henri Rousseau’s dark undertones–when I came across Caspar David Friedrich’s pallid-looking “Winter Landscape” (1811). I was about to pass it by, but I compulsively dialed up the audio commentary. What I heard gave me a strong understanding of its imagery and meaning: here was a glimmer of hope in a grey and Gothic world. I didn’t like the picture any better, but I liked what it meant. Similarly, I hope that students in my classes learn how works inspire legitimate reactions of delight or distaste, and how our initial senses change as our apprehension grows deeper.

II. The Conduit of Language

My teaching style mingles familiar conversations with more formal lectures. Lectures teach students what I think is important to informed appreciation (as the art-gallery commentators did for me). And conversations elicit the plurality of perspectives my students bring to a text.

I ask myself a few questions when I design courses: Which texts will provoke the best conversations? Which speak to other, better-known texts on the course? Which ones are ‘representative’ of their broader communities and historical origins?

When I design assignments and arrange lectures, I ask what kind of course I’d want to take. I think of my own best professors, who were well-organized and intellectually engaging. They demanded oral and written arguments that addressed the material but stepped outside of it, synthesizing new knowledge and re-thinking sacred truths. They gave me the best kind of feedback: not overwhelming and dispiriting, but exacting and encouraging. I try to follow their lead. One of my favourite student evalations said (anonymously), “He makes criticism sound like a compliment.” I offer help and comments at every stage of critical writing, from the gathering of ideas to the organization of arguments to the first and final drafts. What’s unique about studying and writing about English literature is the opportunity to seize the power of language from our readings, and to deploy it in our critical writings. Language is the conduit not just between past and present, but also between minds in this world.

III. The Relevance of Technology

The internet is a republic of letters with a sophist on every corner. My students know that while technology is a great equalizer, it also encourages superficial and distracted reading habits. What Azade Seyhan writes is true: “In this culture, students are likely to consider the time and effort necessary for reading serious books onerous and unnecessary.” But we needn’t overstate the problem, as she does when she claims that the internet “has rendered the need for reflective reading and research obsolete and collapsed all temporal and analytic categories of knowledge into an unedited mass of simultaneous images” (“Why Major in Literature–What Do We Tell Our Students?” PMLA 117, 510-12; 511).

Humanities students and scholars disprove these claims every time they use computers to read and think, to write and revise. Few of us (me included) read electronic texts with the same care and attention that we give to a printed book, but surely that difference owes to the different kinds of writing that thrives in each medium: fleeting, cursory, editable texts onscreen; and long, ponderous, inflexible texts in books. (I’m overstating in each case.) The medium isn’t the message. Skimmable texts were made for the internet: we’re not in the habit of re-reading e-mails, but nor do we typically re-read magazine articles.

Put a searchable Shakespeare play-text online, though, and you have an opportunity to combine mental agility and intellectual focus, allowing you to find recurring terms while lingering over difficult passages. I use this and other technology in my teaching to give students the confidence and the capacity to evaluate received information both inside and outside the university, to determine which authorities are truth-tellers and which are false prophets.