I see narrative awareness as a tool for empowering student agency and enhancing critical thinking. Therefore, I have three priorities in all of my courses:
1) to enable students to think critically about the narratives they create and encounter through critical reading;
2) to encourage diversity by incorporating texts authored by marginalized people including women, Native Americans, and African Americans;
3) to incorporate technology, the digital humanities, and community partnership projects into my courses in order to establish real-life applications for course content and skills.
I want my students to be intellectually curious, to think critically about the narratives they encounter, and to consider how narratives — from novels to research essays to business memos — reveal and shape cultural values.
Based on these goals, I include readings that challenge students to see the value of writing and reading with respect to their larger academic interests. For example, in my freshman composition course I introduce students to a variety of critical reading strategies, including re-reading and annotating, and, after having read an essay while using those strategies, students have consistently reported that they find the ability to think critically about their readings unexpectedly beneficial. For example, after reading Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” one student realized that the drafting process is valuable to both writing and programming. In a journal entry he wrote,
“Not only did this article help me become a better writer, but also it unexpectedly made me a much better programmer. I realized how much programming and writing an essay had in common, when it comes to starting one. You read the problem/ prompt and just start coding/writing. Then you look over the code/writing and change the errors and try to make it as good as you can. I was so glad that I read ‘Shitty First Drafts’ because programming is something I want to do for the rest of my life and now because I read the article I have become so much better at it. This article also helped me realize how many things I have learned from reading.”
I don’t lecture about effective reading practices; instead, I enable students to experience the benefits of engaged reading as it applies to their studies.
I also build a diverse array of authors and texts in all of my courses. In the syllabus I have created for the early American survey pre-1900, for instance, I not only include canonical authors such as Anne Bradstreet, Jonathon Edwards and Benjamin Franklin, but also valuable texts by Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Samson Occom (Mohegan), and William Apess (Pequot). In order to bring in a diverse range of voices, I also incorporate texts from a variety of genres, such as medical treatises, letters and diaries, and even material objects. Furthermore, my survey course syllabus includes a poster project I call the “Canon Buster.” This project requires students to read a text authored by a woman or person of color, research the text and author, and make a case for why I should include the text in the next iteration of the course. In addition to introducing the class to around twenty additional texts by diverse authors, this project builds student awareness of how each text speaks to and/or challenges the themes and topics discussed in the course. Students thus display mastery of the course material by arguing for the inclusion of additional voices that illuminate and interrogate themes and discourses in American literary history—from American exceptionalism to manifest destiny, abolition to women’s suffrage—while simultaneously considering the requirements and curricular restrictions of a survey course.
This assignment fits with my larger pedagogical goals of fostering student agency through praxis because it blends demonstrable skill acquisition with an awareness of how the narratives we tell about ourselves, our history, and our communities shape our understanding of the world and our place in it.
Finally, I use technology and work with community partners to give students real-world experience. In my business writing classes, I have worked with the Purdue Veterans Success Center in order to create and advertise innovative programs that supplement the Center’s mission. This project required students to communicate professionally, to practice problem setting, to research and compose documents in a variety of genres, and to formally present their work to the client. In the future, I will partner with archives and special collections, as well as local museums and historical societies, thereby creating opportunities for students to engage in primary and secondary research, digital humanities, professionalization, and public education while also participating in service to the community. For instance, I am currently collaborating with the director of the Carpenter Museum in Rehoboth, MA to enhance the museum’s online content. Through this partnership, students in my future literature courses will research items in the Museum’s collections; in this way, students will not only draw on the knowledge and skills they learned in class, but will also apply them to further the missions and goals of the Carpenter Museum and the Rehoboth Historical Society. As part of the collaboration, students in my survey class will research material objects, create blog posts for the museum website, and compose educational materials—including contextualizing material, annotated bibliographies, and activities appropriate for diverse stakeholders—to enhance the organization’s education and outreach efforts. This project also opens up potential opportunities for publishing undergraduate and graduate student research.
Ultimately, my pedagogy is focused on creating opportunities for students in my classes to experience for themselves the value of an English or Liberal arts degree by challenging them to develop professional communication and writing skills, as well as encouraging them to think critically about how course content and themes connect with and challenge cultural narratives.