I view the English classroom as a dynamic space in which students creatively and critically develop their reading and writing skills by actively engaging with diverse cultural traditions of literary expression. Students in my courses approach texts in a manner that remains cognizant of cultural history as they become analytical thinkers in the context of emerging digital modes of textual production in the twenty-first century. In all of my courses, I promote intellectual development through sustained critical dialogue among students and through the direct mentoring of individual student compositional and intellectual advancement. Overall, we examine culture as a rich, changing landscape within which all students need to situate themselves.
First, to encourage students to approach course texts with a healthy mixture of critical caution and receptive creativity, I introduce a variety of relevant historical and contemporary genres. This approach invites students to be confident and patient in interpreting and producing modes of expression that may be somewhat unfamiliar. Over the course of the semester, students develop a keen sense of how cultural context shapes the production and limits of writers. As a result, students also gain confidence in their abilities to construct original observations and arguments based on textual evidence, cultural context, and historical awareness.
Likewise, my courses encourage this attention to cultural context by requiring students to complete both creative and critical projects in communal groups. In addition to traditional argumentative literary analysis, I frequently ask my students to adapt a course text in the context of another genre. For instance, my Introduction to Literature students select a scene from one of the course’s assigned dramatic works. I then ask students to craft a brief analysis of this scene that explores their theoretical interests, often through the lens of gender, race, or class. After I provide feedback to the students on these essays, I then direct them to relevant historical texts that will enhance understanding of their selected theoretical tradition. Next, students propose a genre that they would like to utilize in order to adapt the scene in a manner informed by their critical perspective. For example, some of my students adapted a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a brief film exploring contemporary gender politics, while another group used Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as the basis for a digital comic highlighting American class division. By the end of this project sequence, the students’ digital adaptations allow them to explore their critical interests, build awareness of genre conventions, and ultimately gain a deeper understanding of the dynamism of literary texts.
This experience in traditional classes solidified active and communal learning as the foundations of my online courses. In facing the challenge of transferring these core values into contemporary learning spaces, I seek to create a distance-learning environment in which students receive the same benefits fostered through critical interaction as in my traditional courses. While designing these courses, I consider the possibilities of emerging digital technologies in order to promote new avenues of student intellectual development. Additionally, I typically design online courses in which students are divided into small reading communities of four to six members for the entirety of the semester.
In my online offerings, I place these learning communities at the center of the student experience. For example, I ask every group member to post an analysis of an assigned text at the beginning of each week. The other group members respond to these interpretations by mid-week. At the end of the week, I facilitate a live video chat with each reading community in order to solidify the critical momentum established earlier in the week and push students into new interpretative spaces. This approach creates a dynamic distinct from the traditional classroom that nevertheless maintains focus on building critical skills. For my efforts in developing this online course structure, my offering of ENG126 (Introduction to Literary Genres) was awarded the Honorable Mention in the campus-wide AT&T Faculty-Staff Award Competition in Instructional Technology. This course has continued to serve as the model for future online offerings by other instructors in the Department of English at Michigan State University.
Finally, a methodology of continuous feedback is also vital to my focus on building critical skills. While directly responding to student writing, I act as a facilitator and guide by asking students critical questions and directing them to relevant outside texts. Consequently, students refine their ideas within the context of embeddedness in a broader cultural and literary context, thereby promoting consideration of their subjectivity in a postmodern era. This process particularly aids the development of rich writing and reading skills for non-English majors. More broadly, I tailor goals and activities of my courses to meet the disciplinary expectations of both English majors and non-majors. I believe that the skills traditionally fostered in English curricula—analytical reading, attentive analysis, and creative production— have much to offer in liberal studies courses. Students embarking on a non-English career path, as well as those in literary studies, will cultivate their skills in close reading, develop their talents as writers, and practice creative and innovative thinking. These classroom experiences will help students navigate the wide variety of situations they will surely face in new twenty-first-century contexts.