What I Learned (Fall 2013 Edition)

In the 2.5 years I taught English 272 for FIT, my historical and literary focus was generally quite consistent. My primary intellectual goal for this survey course was to introduce my students (none of them humanities majors) to the ways in which our modern-day understanding of Americanness has been built up over time, be it via the repetition of cultural myths or the actions of our government on our behalf. I did a lot of experimenting from semester to semester on the pedagogical end, eventually moving from a classroom structure I tried too hard to “control” to a teaching practice that better mirrored my hopes and goals for my students. Along the way, I jettisoned a number of previously-held ideals:

I stopped taking attendance. I had a general idea of who was showing up, and who wasn’t. I had one section where most people attended quite regularly, and one section where attendance was spottier, but I didn’t do anything differently between sections. I can tell you that those who didn’t come to class generally had lower grades overall–but that the phenomenon was one of their own devising. They missed out on key content, plain and simple, and that made it harder to succeed, particularly in a course where each week built upon the work of the weeks preceding it. I had a web site for this course, where I was completely obsessed with documenting our work and providing external resources, so the dip in grades for absentees wasn’t as significant as it might have been otherwise. And of course, I did the usual correspondence via e-mail that all faculty do. But I generally held firm: if you weren’t in class, get the notes from one of your peers, not from me. If you weren’t in class, check the web site. Here’s what you should do for next week, but if you want to know what happened today, talk to a friend.

My decisions in this respect created distance–but it wasn’t distance between me and my students. Instead, it freed me from frustration over bureaucracy and perceived student disinterest, and let me put some space between the habits of an educational institution and my own day-to-day practice. It let me stay in the moment, and for that extra room I think I was even more effective than usual.

I didn’t hide my light under a bushel. It’s risky, as a graduate student, to have any focus on pedagogy whatsoever; a search committee will easily misread that as “has no research agenda.” Now, I’ve got one hell of a research agenda, and if you give me five minutes I will tell you ALL about it. But I’m proud to say that I can also be a fine instructor, with a strong classroom presence and a commitment to constructivism, who consistently learns from and alongside all her students. I went in each week confident not only in my material, but in my delivery–and even more in the varied nature of that delivery, where each week was a different mix of lecturing, storytelling, group activities and multimedia. The result was a course where future fashion designers, future illustrators and photographers, and future advertisers and business executives all came together to deal with sophisticated questions about geography, imperialism, and agency in the United States. Facilitating that was an unparalleled joy.

I was flexible about “doing the reading.” In previous semesters, it didn’t seem to matter how little or how much reading I actually assigned for this course; I’d always have people telling me they didn’t do it. Not that they didn’t understand it, which would have been fine, but that they didn’t even do it. There’s nothing more demoralizing than hearing that you are the only one who is prepared for class that day. And because the act of reading is central to my field of expertise, students failing to read can feel like a rejection of the course or a rejection of the instructor on a very personal scale. It’s so very easy for that “I didn’t read” announcement on the student’s part to create near-unshakable resentment on the part of the faculty member–and once instilled, that resentment is almost impossible to completely undo. There are a number of ways out of this pedagogical black hole, however. First of all, I was upfront with my students:

“Come to class whether you have done the reading or you haven’t, but don’t ever tell me that you didn’t read. Let me live in my little fantasy world where everyone does all the reading all of the time.”

(That usually gets laughs, as it should.)

“And know that the in-class experience is designed to help you succeed, no matter how much reading you completed–so don’t ever feel like you have to stay away because you didn’t finish reading a story.”

That last bit is the statement upon which this pedagogical trick rests. If you want to retain any of your credibility, you must follow through on that claim, once you’ve made it. Here are some of the strategies I employed to maximize the availability of the in-class experience:

Instead of opening with a reading quiz (which I was told was a required course component), in which I asked questions of my students, I brought in notecards and had students write down questions they had for me–about the book, the author, the time period, whatever. Sometimes I asked them to write and hand in a card right away, and sometimes I asked them for it after I had spent 20 minutes talking with them about the historical context of the week’s literary work (the better to give them some material). Once completed, the cards function as an additional pedagogical tool–one with multiple applications. You can play discussion question bingo or Jeopardy, you can have students work on paragraphing skills or argumentation by answering another person’s question, you can use them as a means of organizing the classroom (“let’s get into pairs–find someone who has a discussion question like/unlike your own”), you can use them for small group work. One of my most successful weeks was when I asked small groups to act out their best answers to another group’s notecard questions. The cards allow you to adapt each week to better meet the students’ needs–all without disrupting your goals for the session.

I also used multimedia to provide points of comparison with which everyone could engage. Now, my primary employment these days is in instructional technology, so I was perhaps better equipped to take advantage of the resources around me than others might be, but in general, using images, audio, or video that either support or contrast with the week’s reading will allow for very productive small group work. One of my most successful comparative assignments this term was a mini field trip, where I took my students to a local exhibition of Vietnam War photography. Once we arrived, I asked them to work in small groups to write a response to a single photograph–but to write that response from the vantage point of a character they’d already encountered, be it from the poem and short story they’d read in advance of class, or someone they “met” in the documentary we’d watched together. The result was not only collaborative, comparative, and multi-modal, it involved everyone in the class in some way, regardless of the state of their homework. In another session I brought in color photocopies of WWII victory posters. After comparing those posters to early superhero comics as a class, we worked in groups to annotate the posters and understand them as readable “texts” in the modern sense–a project anyone in the room could complete successfully.

As in any course, the more reading that got done, on average, the better a student did on their assignments and in class. But this way, we were all able to focus on future successes, rather than past failures.

Finally, I pushed my students to become content creators. The learning curve in this course could be steep; some students entered it with absolutely no prior study of American history or literature, and many were speaking English as a second, third, or fourth language. On one first day of one semester, a student told me most confidently that there were 52 states in the union. And every single semester I had someone shyly make their way to the front of the room on the first day, and tell me privately how scared they were of this class, because they felt their background in the topic or in the English language was insufficient. I told every one of those students the same thing: participate to the best of your ability, and you’ll be okay.

Now, this was true, but not because the content of the course was anything less than advanced! I had all my students thinking about the politics of translation and editorial practices, vis-a-vis the context of colonization and the genocide of indigenous peoples, by the third week of any given semester. It was true because the assignments for this course explicitly focused on expanding each person’s ability to express ideas, both in writing and in other media. Whether it was drawing comparative character analysis charts in class, or creating digital murals which explained key moments in American history (the Fall 2013 classes created murals on American education and on modern Presidential elections), the focus of all my assignments was less about acquiring a set of facts and more about acquiring or honing a set of skills.

Some students were more successful than others, sure–and that was largely due to choices they made, to do the reading or to attend class. But a focus on skill acquisition not only made my assessment practices more transparent, it made my role as facilitator clear to everyone. As a professor I was no longer a “gatekeeper”–I was a guide. And it meant I came to class each week bearing a gift–a tool, habit, or idea that would have value outside of this specific course. That ethos is one I hope to bring to all my future teaching engagements.

Now in Spring 2014, I’m teaching a brand new class, and I’m only weeks ahead of my students. At FIT, the entire term was already entirely in my head, so being thrown back into an active state of preparation has brought some intense energy to my new semester. And I’m going to miss teaching English 272; it was an important step in my own growth as an educator. But as I move forward I am filled with gratitude–to the Fashion Institute for this opportunity, and to all my students, both for their hard work and for the lessons they taught me along the way. I came into my own in the classrooms along West 27th Street, and I will not forget it.