Social and textual engagement define my teaching philosophy—in the seminar class, the creative writing workshop, the individual conference session but also in my syllabus design and interactive assignments. As a reader and teacher of texts often considered to be “difficult”—from the sonnets and epics of the English Renaissance to experimental, contemporary work—I share with my students the challenge of coming to language sometimes historically and conceptually removed from the dictions and rhythms of our contemporary speech. The aim of my classroom is to champion this experience of defamiliarity—with texts but also with each other—while providing my students with the critical and rhetorical skills to confidently explore historical, cultural and formal contexts. Students in my classes learn to engage with primary texts of literature in several ways:
- Close readings
- Mapping historical contexts (political, theological, cultural)
- Recitation and performance
- Creative and critical writing
The Devil in Literature, a freshman seminar, demonstrates each of the above forms of engagement. In our first classes, we read chapters from Euan Cameron’s work of Reformation scholarship, Enchanted Europe, to critically frame our conversations about Early Modern magic, superstition, and evil. Cameron’s text acted as a hook into a late medieval and early modern world where priests transcribed testimonies of cat-faced nipples on newborns. With images of “Enchanted Europe” introduced into our class discussions, students then selected cantos from Dante’s medieval epic The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Close-reading Dante enabled to talk about the form of terza rima, the narrative topos of the journey and the “dark woods,” and Dante’s pre-Reformation conception of Satan. From Dante the class went straight to reading Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1588) and viewed the Globe Theatre’s production of Doctor Faustus (2011), directed by Matthew Dunster. This immediately comparative, performance-focused introduction to the course prepared students for reading and seeing performance (and the performative) in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel Good Omens. Mid-semester, on a day when books opened slowly and energy flagged, I suggested we perform Book IV of Paradise Lost as a way of physically engaging with the text. The class responded with enthusiasm and staged an energetic reading of Milton, texts in hand. In enacting the poem this way, my students were able to better understand Satan’s dramatic positionality in the text, the exits and entrances taking place in Milton’s epic poem and the emotional expressions of Milton’s characters. This spontaneous exercise informed many of our class discussions for the remainder of the semester and demonstrated Milton’s dramatic poem to my students (and me) in a way that a seminar discussion could not. The class’s final essays, which we workshopped as abstracts as a “writing in the discipline” exercise, traced influences and conversations between an early modern text and a work of modern or contemporary literature. This final assignment enabled students to work comparatively across-time within a developing narrative of the devil in English literature and to trace conceptual changes enacted through creative texts.
Since language is a social and ethical practice, my classes include multiple forms of accountability—for the instructor as well as the students. For example, students write weekly forum responses regarding the readings, which not only gives them a space to ask questions, but prepares them to arrive at class informed and excited about concrete aspects of the text. This practice also challenges students to be actively thinking about final essay topics and critical arguments throughout the semester. A form of accountability for me as instructor is a midterm questionnaire I give that asks: 1) How is the course going? 2) What can I do to make it better? 3) What can you do to make it better? This questionnaire provides students with a space for self-reflection and me with critical feedback, and I often alter aspects of the course to accommodate specific needs expressed, for instance scheduling additional individual meetings, creating an online workshop to supplement class time (which I have done for student athletes in the past), or setting aside class time to talk about writing expectations and writing center resources. This questionnaire helps me respond to the specific needs of a class in a timely fashion, rather than receiving feedback at the end of the semester that can only be applied to future courses.
The classroom, like Shakespeare’s stage in As You Like It, extends beyond its physical limits. Whether teaching early modern British literature or contemporary poetry, I thrive by finding new ways to explore the space of the classroom with my students (e.g. using it as a staging scene for John Milton’s Paradise Lost) as well as expanding the classroom to explore and include other physical spaces. When the weather permits, my writing classes go outdoors to write—a change of scenery that allows students to experience the direct influence (and privilege) of our writing environments. In my most recent section of Introduction to Poetry, for their midterm projects students visited the Nasher Art Museum on campus to write ekphrastic poetry in front of sculpture, photography, stained glass and paintings. For their final project for the same class, students wrote micro-reviews of contemporary poetry and nonfiction chapbooks published by small and micro presses, which were then published to our class site, The Duke Review. This assignment changed my students’ experience of literature by putting them in actual relationship to their audience—they were invigorated when I told them that the chapbook authors would likely read the reviews they wrote. In the early modern literature classroom, I see this level of engagement reimagined as performance of early modern literary practices, for example: the creation of commonplace books, coterie readership groups, manuscript circulation and avatars (or “pastoral sobriquets”). Through these exercises, students can physically engage with the history of the book, print culture and the “social media” of Shakespeare’s day while learning about the many forms manifested by poetic practices across time.
I have also seen my students inspired to carry their engagement with writing and literature beyond the classroom, for example: several of my former students created The Duke Writers’ Collective, an undergraduate writing group for which I am the faculty advisor. I conducted a workshop for the Duke Writers’ Collective, entitled Politics and Erasure: A Poetry of Resistance. Taking Tracy K. Smith’s erasure, “Declaration,” (first appearing in The New Yorker), our workshop made erasures of the Declaration of Independence. This was the first time many of the medical school and engineering undergraduates in the room had encountered erasure as a poetic form, and the resulting texts were electrifying. This workshop exemplifies what for me is the main goal of the classroom—that when students leave it, they see poetry and writing, literature and art as practices they can implement in their own lives, participating on multiple levels—from journal writing to gallery installations to political and community engagement.