Social and textual engagement define my teaching philosophy in the seminar class, the creative writing workshop and the individual conference session. 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 encountering language sometimes historically and conceptually removed from the dictions and rhythms of contemporary speech. The aim of my classroom is to champion the experience of texts (and each other) while providing my students with the critical and rhetorical skills to confidently explore historical, cultural and formal contexts. Students in my classes engage with primary texts of literature in several ways:
- Close readings
- Mapping historical contexts (political, theological, cultural)
- Creative and critical writing
- Performance and visual art, in and beyond the classroom
The Devil in Literature, a freshman seminar I taught fall 2017, 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 frame our conversations about early modern magic, superstition and evil. Cameron’s text acted as a critical hook, drawing students into a late medieval and early modern world where theologians recorded testimonies of misbirths (e.g. a newborn with cat-eyed nipples) and other supernatural phenomena. With descriptions of “Enchanted Europe” introduced into our class discussions, students then read selected cantos from Dante’s medieval epic The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Close-reading Dante enabled the class to discuss 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 read 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 texts from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman. Then, mid-semester, on a day when books opened slowly and energy flagged, I suggested we perform Book VI of Paradise Lost as a way of physically engaging with the text. Texts in hand, each of my students brought their unique voice to a performance of Paradise Lost Book VI. 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. The class’s final essays, which we workshopped as abstracts for a “writing in the discipline” exercise, traced influences and conversations between an early modern text and a work of modern or contemporary literature, enabling students to work comparatively across-time and to explore conceptual changes enacted through creative texts.
In addition to the above practices, and reflective of language being a social and ethical engagement we have with each other, my classes include multiple methods of accountability—for the instructor as well as the students. For example, in all my classes students write weekly online forum responses to the readings. This weekly writing assignment not only gives students 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, before midterms and finals. A form of accountability for me as instructor is a midterm questionnaire that asks my students: a) how the course is going, b) what I can do to make it better and c) what the student can 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 or students with health needs 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 creative writing, 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. My writing classes often 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 Writing 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 projects, 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 relationship to a specific audience and writing community—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 practice 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”). These projects enable students to physically engage with the concept that “all the world’s a stage” through their exploration of book history, print culture and the “social media” of Shakespeare’s day while learning about the many forms manifested by poetic practices across time.
My students have been 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 Writers’ Collective, entitled Politics and Erasure: A Poetry of Resistance. Taking Tracy K. Smith’s erasure, “Declaration,” (first appearing in The New Yorker) as creative model, 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.