In the midsemester rush last spring, feeling overwhelmed by meetings and grading, I received an email from a student that made me pause. “I know that this might be unusual,” Nathan wrote, “but I wanted to let you know that even though I knew where my essay was going, it’s taken me on a journey of its own and made me think about how I look at certain aspects of my life. This is the first time an essay of mine has done this, and it’s absolutely incredible. That’s all I wanted to say. I just couldn’t keep it to myself.” It is easy to forget that an assignment bearing the banal title “close reading essay” could engender what only can be described as the joy that accompanies intellectual discovery, the wonderment of having arrived at the heretofore unknown. But in the space of the 1,200-word paper he wrote for his required literature course, Nathan found in the lines of James Wright’s poem “Lying in a Hammock” a vista that was not simply relevant but transformative.
Such moments are rare, but I have come to understand them as the ultimate aim of my teaching. For what value is it to ponder a literary or cultural text if that contemplation does not provoke in us (often unsettling) self-reflection, the kind that calls us out of our narrow present and leads to a reorientation of our vision? It is for this reason, I think, that Henry David Thoreau remarked that to “read well” is “a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.” Thoreau’s statement, not unlike Nathan’s reflection, has in it a hint of hyperbole. But both nonetheless capture what it means to study and teach literature. To “read well” is to pay close attention to the relation between a text’s content and form, between a work’s message and the particular medium it inhabits. More significant, to “read well” is to assess the implications that emerge from this process, grappling with the pressing claims—moral, political, theological, philosophical, or aesthetic—held out by a text. Accordingly, whether I am teaching an upper-level literature course or a writing-intensive freshman seminar, I help students to realize that “reading well” is both intrinsically and instrumentally good, valuable to their formation as developing intellectuals and to their lives beyond the university.
If transformative experiences like the one Nathan described cannot be forced, they surely can be facilitated. In fact, I think of my work in the classroom as staging an encounter between my students and a text: that is, guiding them through the process of “reading well” by way of oral discussion, varied writing assignments, and individual and collaborative revision exercises. For instance, when teaching the skill of close reading in an introductory literature course, I dedicate an entire session to a group analysis of a particularly rich passage, such as Frederick Douglass’s chiastic formulation of how a slave is made into a man in his 1845 narrative or Kate Chopin’s cryptic account of her protagonist’s descent into the sea in the closing pages of The Awakening. Following a series of guiding questions, students first compile a list of the formal details they notice; they then select a few of these elements on which to focus as they move toward matters of meaning, ultimately evaluating both the significance of the particular passage and its function within the text as a whole. Through this activity, I delineate the components of a systematic literary analysis and demonstrate that comments grounded in specific textual evidence constitute the building blocks of an argument.
In order to encourage students to internalize one of the primary mental models of literary analysis—unraveling the implications of a selected passage—I ask students to prepare for class by completing a short reflection, written on the front of an index card, to a question I post on the course website. Due at the beginning of each class session, this reflection serves as a starting point for our discussion; depending on the lesson plan, students might share their cards with the whole group or offer a written response to a partner’s note card. I have found that this exercise is especially helpful in encouraging more reticent students to participate orally in class. In addition to facilitating the student-to-student engagement that animates the most dynamic class discussions, this activity allows me to gauge each student’s progress with a given text or concept. I read the index cards after each class and often base subsequent lesson plans on the comments raised in this forum.
Beyond these note card reflections, I also employ more sophisticated forms of technology to help students develop the articulation of their ideas in prose. For example, in my survey of American literature, students create and manage online wikis to document their thinking about course texts and terms. Using concepts like “captivity,” they forge original connections between works as far flung in literary history as Mary Rowlandson’s narrative and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and thereby recast the organizing principles of the syllabus itself. This practice of providing occasions for students to create new knowledge is at the center of my course on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In this class, students use assigned works such as Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno or music by Louis Armstrong as points of departure for their own research into the novel’s influences, contexts, and intertexts in preparation for the course’s culminating product: an electronic annotated edition of Invisible Man. To keep such projects from becoming overwhelming, I ask students to complete short assignments—such as sample annotations or class-created wiki entries—and to share their findings with their peers using feedback templates I provide. These exercises thus function as drafts that both facilitate the completion of longer-term work and offer occasions for improvement along the way.
The process of becoming a more sophisticated reader, thinker, and writer is intensive, collaborative, and ongoing. In all of my writing-focused courses, therefore, I schedule regular conferences during which I meet individually with students to discuss the clarity, complexity, and precision of the argument, evidence, and analysis they put forth. I find that by using such language to comment on student work—and by outlining these evaluative criteria on all of my assignment sheets—I demystify the process of assessment. At the same time, I encourage students to become self-reflective learners who measure their own progress in achieving course goals. To this end, I ask them to prepare for our meetings by completing a variety of exercises. For instance, students create a reverse outline of their essay in order to gauge the clarity of their topic sentences, and they delineate their argument as a series of logically related steps to ensure that they formulate a cogent thesis. Serving to measure student learning and to evaluate the effectiveness of my instruction, these activities are as valuable for me as a teacher as I hope they are for students.
I believe that this recursive and reflexive approach to student development is no less crucial for faculty. As a teacher-scholar, I understand my work in the classroom and my academic writing as activities that inform and enrich one another. For example, in a contribution to Approaches to Teaching Charles W. Chesnutt, a volume currently under review by the MLA, I describe a method for pairing literary texts with historical and philosophical contexts that emerged from my experience teaching an upper-division English seminar on democracy and social justice. As the director of the Air Force Academy’s core introduction to literature course, I place a similar emphasis on pedagogical meditations. Recently, I have developed and organized a series of workshops for instructors that target some of this course’s fundamental skills—slow reading and literary research, for instance—in an effort to forge a common language about best practices across the faculty of a class that is taken annually by nearly one thousand students.
In my leadership of this general education course, and in all my classes, I am cognizant of the fact that the majority of the young people I teach, even those who are English majors, will not pursue careers as professional scholars of literature. Accordingly, I try to explain to students how the analytical and writing skills they learn in my classroom will facilitate their understanding of the manifold texts—visual, sonic, political, and practical—that surround them. But I also show students how the works they study in my courses present them with ideas and claims about real-life problems, demonstrating, as Thoreau suggests, that the stakes of “reading well” are quite high. For example, in my seminar on “Slavery and Freedom, Past and Present,” students complete a final assignment in which they define racial servitude from the perspective of a particular text, such as Stephen Crane’s The Monster or W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and, based on this formulation, explore what it would mean to abolish the lingering effects of slavery. Through activities such as this one, I urge students to consider literature as engaged with the challenges and questions facing our world. For what I want finally is for my students to reflect on the ways in which the questions they confront in my class and the realities of the world in which they (will) live inform and illuminate one another.