Teaching

Upcoming courses (Fall 2017 and Spring 2018)

Senior seminar and graduate seminar on grant writing, delivered online (Fall)
Immigrant literature (Fall)
Creative criticism (Fall)
Gender and Literature (Spring)
Honors seminar on technology studies (Spring)
Survey of American literature before 1865, delivered online (Spring)
1-credit pilot UNF CARES course on environmental outreach (Spring)

Recent courses (Summer and Spring 2017)

Senior seminar and graduate seminar on grant writing, delivered online (Summer B)
Honors seminar on medicine and society
Senior seminar on women writers
Graduate seminar on transnational literature, “Magic and Realisms”

Statement of Undergraduate Teaching Philosophy

As an interdisciplinary teacher-scholar, I make it a practice to synthesize ideas from different fields. So, when I learned about the engineering term “black box” while studying the history of technology, I immediately knew that I had found the central metaphor for my teaching philosophy. A black box is a mysterious kind of artifact: you know how to use it, but you do not know how it works. Most often, this term is applied to electronics. In the classroom, it can describe how novices feel about disciplinary knowledge and practices. Students might know how to write an essay without ever grasping why we English teachers remain so invested in that specific style of argumentation; they might know that we expect them to develop “critical thinking skills,” but not understand what distinguishes a specific thought process as “critical.” By teaching my classes to open up these black boxes and to tinker with what they find inside, I strive to give my students a greater sense of mastery and purpose that follows them from the classroom and into their daily lives. This process involves developing creative and thoughtful assignments that approach learning objectives in playful and unusual ways.

The type of knowledge a student is likely to black box differs from class to class. For example, I regularly teach an Honors version of Freshman Composition that focuses on “Technology and Culture” or “Medicine and Society”—courses that are mostly comprised of pre-med, science, or engineering majors. Many of the students in these courses have not yet connected their excitement about science, medicine, and technology with the study of language. Like any science and technology studies scholar, I ask these students to challenge their assumptions about technological development or biomedical science in order to consider alternative perspectives and models. But I stand apart from other STS scholars by asking students to apply the same critical lens to their own writing. During the first week of class, I often find students in these courses express frustration with writing, because they feel that they have previously been evaluated by incomprehensible and unchangeable grammatical rules. To help students understand writing as a series of rhetorical choices rather than a list of dos and don’ts, I designed a “Reverse-Engineered Grammar Handbook” assignment that requires students to write a short reflection on a rhetorical strategy in each of our readings, and to explain why they find it effective or ineffective. We discuss their entries as a class and then enter them into a class Google Document. This co-authored document is our rhetoric textbook. Students refer to it as they write their final papers, knowing that they had a say in the rules they follow as they compose and revise their papers. More importantly, this practice has helped students see that every rhetorical decision has benefits and limitations. (They might, for example, enjoy a humorous tone but also recognize how it might undermine a logical argument.) By reflecting on rhetorical choices at home, discussing their reflections in class, and then applying their observations to their own projects, students gain a robust sense of the care it takes to communicate effectively in academic, professional, and interpersonal situations.

Students who enroll in literature seminars have a different set of needs and expectations. Most begin the semester with an appreciation of literature, but with concerns about the academic expectations of this field of study. Some resist “reading too much into” texts that they admire; others enjoy analyzing texts, but cannot imagine writing an “expert” interpretation of a literary masterpiece. Unsettling these preconceptions is the first step of opening the black box of literary study. I believe it is my responsibility and privilege to help students see literature as a constantly growing field to which they can contribute. I also demonstrate that the skills we develop in class have far-reaching applications beyond the discipline itself. In evaluations of my teaching, students often comment that I make literary study and critical thinking “exciting” and “relevant to our lives.” Even students who admit to initially “dreading” the class note that they are surprised and gratified to discover that they now “enjoy writing and analyzing.”

These success stories are possible in part because my emphasis on opening black boxes encourages students to approach analysis in innovative ways. In American Fiction, I assigned students a creative project in which they transform a text from one genre into another. They might rewrite Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” as a piece of flash fiction, or translate Sherman Alexie’s “Every Little Hurricane” into a poem. After composing their creative project, students then write an analytical paper that contrasts their text with the original document. This assignment invites students to disassemble a piece of literature and to understand how its component parts—its form, its tone, its diction—shape the overall reading experience. I have found that students complete this project with amazing enthusiasm, taking it in directions I did not anticipate. One student made a documentary film version of Bright Lights, Big City; another created a graphic novel of Beloved; each produced an interesting project and a thoughtful analytical essay about the significance of their creative work. This assignment enabled students to “play” with the elements that make up a traditional essay. They wrote reflectively and critically about rhetorical devices and literary meaning, while enjoying the analytical process.

Even after students learn to dismantle pieces of literature in this constructive and reflective way, the prospect of writing an original interpretation of masterpieces like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” can be daunting. To meet this challenge, I ask students in my survey courses to trace how the field of literary study changes over time. We work towards this learning outcome with two interrelated assignments. The first assignment is a group project, which prompts students to assess various anthologies, questioning (1) what texts are included and omitted and (2) how editors justify those decisions. After discussing various approaches to the anthology form, students spend several weeks crafting their own anthologies. These culminating projects include an introduction that places the student’s definition of “American literature” in conversation with the other anthologies and scholarly work we explored during the semester. These projects also contain an annotated table of contents that explain what texts the student chose include and why.

Much like the creative project in my American Fiction course, this anthology project typically yields critical and beautiful results. Students carefully piece together their anthologies and present their work to the class, gaining experience in graphic design, analysis, argumentation, and public speaking. The projects were so remarkable that even shy students presented to the class with pride and enthusiasm. Most importantly, this project enabled students to articulate how the study of literature remains relevant to them in the twenty-first century—and to propose how they would like the field to evolve. Some of their anthology introductions argued that new media could productively expand the American literary canon. Others contended that literary study is valuable precisely because it enables readers to step away from daily distractions. Many claimed that close reading literature is an important, skill-building exercise that can train readers to focus, to think reflectively, and to wield language more effectively as writers. Ultimately, this project tasked students to think of themselves as co-producers of knowledge, rather than receivers; it urged them to realize that they could set the stakes of their own education.

Given the success rate of these creative projects, I have elaborated upon my teaching philosophy by asking students what black boxes they would like to open. I learned that students were most concerned about interfacing their work in the English major with their career goals, their community interests, and their personal lives. To help students reflect on the personal—as well as the academic—payoff of their hard work, I invited students in my Women Writers senior seminar to engage with their campus and community as we celebrated women’s history month. Students designed installations for the Thomas G. Carpenter library, working in teams to decide what they wanted to convey to their colleagues about women’s accomplishments. They also created an event at the Main Library in downtown Jacksonville, presenting their own work and reflections on the work of women writers. Their enthusiasm and commitment was impressive: Lisa Buggs, the Library Event Coordinator, said that these students put on one of the best events the library had seen. The success rate of these projects involved some extra work, both from the students and from me. For example, I met with the students who presented at their downtown event to help them gain confidence with public speaking, answering questions from the audience, and presenting rather than reading from a paper. But each student left the class with a new set of practical skills and with a deeper understanding of how his or her voice matters.

The narrative responses to this class on my evaluations demonstrated just how moved the students were by this unique learning experience. One student said of my teaching style: “She constantly encouraged us to claim our education, making us feel like we had freedom and power within the classroom.” Another explained that the creative assignments “(displays/events) were fascinating and I really enjoyed them. I would not only highly recommend this class to any/all of my peers but would take it again in a heartbeat. I truly wish that all of my college classes were like this.” Students responded in this way, not because the course was easy, but because it was difficult, personal, and surprising. As a third student stated: “Although her syllabus may have seemed a bit ambitious, it is because she believes in her students so much and gave us so many opportunities to do great things. We were given the opportunity to curate a library exhibit or plan an event/mini-conference hosted at the main library. There were so many unique and unforgettable moments in her class, and I know I will keep the texts and names of the authors we studied.” Indeed, news of this course spread among students in the department, and the English Department honors society, Sigma Tau Delta, awarded me an award for Teaching Excellence in 2015 for the effort I put into these and other class projects, and for the opportunities I gave my students to reach beyond the brick-and-mortar of our classrooms. This feedback confirmed my sense that students reap the most from their classes when they feel a sense of ownership over their education, and when they can experientially learn how their coursework relates to broader communities.

Although my creative approach has been successful thus far, I continue to seek opportunities that will help me effectively and innovatively serve the diverse students who I work with. To learn new tactics and to challenge my own black-boxed assumptions, I consistently position myself as a learner, as well as an educator. I stay up to date with pedagogical theory; I discuss teaching with colleagues; and I seek feedback on my teaching from students and peers. For example, I am currently working as a Community Scholar in the Center for Community-Based Learning, where I am learning how to enhance the community-engagement component of my teaching. As I develop new assignments, explore new teaching methods, and grow as a teacher-scholar, I remain committed to the process of opening black boxes. I prompt students in all of my classes—regardless of course content or level—to question the work of established scholars and to reflect on the stakes of each choice they make as critical writers. This is a difficult challenge that I prepare students to meet by breaking apart one final black box: the class itself. I open my syllabus, assignments, and activities to the same degree of scrutiny that we exercise when discussing primary and secondary sources or student work. I design course materials with transparency in mind, striving to make course objectives clear and connected. Yet—inspired by Patricia Hill Collins’s Another Kind of Public Education: Race, Schools, the Media, and Democratic Possibilities—I also explain that I build my own preconceptions about literary study into my course materials, and I invite my students to raise questions about these assumptions. The ensuing conversations help students take ownership of their intellectual investments; they also help me improve each course, both presently and in future instantiations. Based on the tangible evidence I have seen, including improved papers and lively class discussions, I have found that students are most gratified when they find the field of literary study “open” to their questioning, tinkering, and insight.