In the many rooms in which I’ve taught over the years, from small windowless interiors to cavernous auditoriums, my goal has always been to foster an environment conducive to both individual and collaborative effort. As a committed instructor, I take seriously my responsibility to my students to be transparent about my aims and hopes for any given course; it has further been my experience that as I open up to them about such matters, they open up to me in turn, letting me know their own ambitions and dreams and helping me tailor the classroom experience, so that it can best meet most needs of most students in a given section or semester. If my students have particular passions for modern art, or mathematical abstraction, or scientific discovery, actively designing classroom activities that will allow them to apply their expertise only makes them more confident, especially if literature, or poetry in particular, is something that is unfamiliar (or even mildly terrifying). Respecting students’ knowledge and experience is the cornerstone of a reflexive and ethical pedagogy.
No classroom is ever perfect, but in mine, at least, students rarely go a day without feeling both challenged and supported. My intent is always to set up situations which emphasize the possibility of success rather than any probability of failure—but my purpose is always to further my students’ ability to think critically. I may therefore push my students to extend an analysis of a literary motif or expand upon a connection they are making between a work and its historical context, but because I repeatedly model that behavior in my own interactions with them, and actively demonstrate the kind of observation and questioning that allows for intellectual growth, they are encouraged to do so in an environment where my support for that effort is never in doubt. That constancy is an important part of my pedagogical process; without it, students are less likely to trust in the educational experience. And because I ask my classes to operate on the edge of their intellectual comfort zones—pressing them to engage with the unfamiliar, with the goal of opening their eyes to new theories and ideas of writing, reading, and living—it’s essential that I am understood to be a facilitator and a guide, someone who believes in every student’s capabilities and wants them all to succeed.
When empathy is paired with academic rigor, the results can be limitless. If given a firm foundation, students will often soar; their intellectual growth may well be exponential. In my courses I regularly combine instructor-directed and student-led learning activities, utilizing my skills as a dynamic lecturer (I’ve always been able to tell a compelling yarn) but also letting my students take the lead with one another, often employing small peer groups within the classroom to develop knowledge or analysis that can then be shared with the class as a whole. I also make room for divergent approaches to literary study; in any given session, students might be analyzing related art or artifacts, making their own Moretti-inspired maps or charts of a text, or learning to use a new technology in the service of the goals and expectations of the course. (As I am an avid early adopter of gadgets and apps myself, my courses always have a fully-developed companion web site, and my students often utilize emerging web-based tools in the development of dynamic research and writing projects.) This inclusive approach, when combined with important traditional pedagogies—such as engaging in close reading, building strong argumentative writing skills, or developing and applying a clear understanding of poetic meter—results in a dynamic, engaged, and progressive twenty-first century university classroom, one that honors all comers, but firmly encourages them to expand their capacities as readers, writers, and thinkers.