Bad Prof On Teaching

I want my students to become the poets of their lives. By this, I mean that I want my courses to help them to become active shapers of their own lives and the worlds they live in, accepting the risks and responsibilities this entails. Or, more precisely, I want them to learn to see that they are shaping their lives and worlds, to recognize how they are already doing so, and to employ course materials, concepts, and the classroom experience to reflect upon and more deliberately choose how they are doing so.

I believe it is valuable for students to know that the materials I share with them exist and how they worked in very different contexts. But I consider their real value to reside in helping students accept the challenge of seeing how these materials work in our world and of experimenting thoughtfully with putting them to work in their own lives. I want them to see the materials of the humanities as, in the words of Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living,” and their educational experience with me as a process of learning how to make use of them as such. This process can be unsettling, filled with doubt, uncertainty, risk, and frustration. But I hope to convey that these elements are inseparable from the confidence, growth, joy and sense of community that can arise when students assume responsibility for their education and its relationship to their lives.

I have offered courses through the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (until 2008), the Arts and Ideas in the Humanities program in the Residential College (since 2008), and the Department of Comparative Literature, at every level of the curriculum and on a diverse range of topics, incorporating a broad and varied body of cultural materials: twentieth century Latin American narrative, especially in comparative context, themes of innocence and experience, and so of growth and transition, in Western literature, protocols and ethics of reading, political and cultural philosophy, and, especially over the past five years, sporting performance and culture. In addition to the variety of topics, my teaching has encompassed great range in the number and academic interests of the students enrolled. A few of the courses have been small, comprising a dozen or so students, a few very large with enrollments over 100, and most somewhere in between with 25 to 30 students. While many students, especially early in this period, had explicit academic interests in course topics, in large introductory courses and, increasingly as I have taught more courses in sports studies, most of my students do not have majors in the humanities and are taking the courses to fulfill breadth requirements.

Within this diversity, however, I view and explicitly situate the specific topics I teach—whether Latin American or world literature, philosophy and cultural theory, or athletic performance and culture—in the broader context of the humanities. And the humanities, in turn, I view as an ongoing, collective project dedicated to better understanding ourselves relationally—that is, to better understanding our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the world—with the simple but challenging pragmatic aim of shaping better lives. By inclination, training, and institutional position I am a professor of literature. And so, at the core of all my pedagogical endeavors is reading. Unlike certain more specialized intellectual skills, reading is something that all my students enter my classes already knowing how to do, at least in some sense. Some students enter my classes with a view of reading as an instrumental activity the purpose of which is the acquisition of new information. Other students appear with a view of reading as akin to a hostile interrogation with a text, in which the challenge is to outwit the author, thereby causing him to reveal his real and often unsavory attitudes. Given that, one of my tasks in the classroom is to trouble their naturalized, comfortable understanding of what it means to read and, at the same time, to introduce them to and give them practice in a more complex experience of reading. I view reading as a relationship and a process. As with many relationships, the greatest rewards of reading appear when we enter into it fully present, attentive, and open to being transformed by the encounter. As a process, reading is best understood as open-ended, often delivering its greatest rewards when we patiently allow ourselves to pause, to savor, to wonder, to puzzle, and to explore even its unpromising aspects just for the sake of doing so or even for reasons unknown to us. Modeling this approach for my students, fostering a learning environment in which they feel reasonably safe enough to experiment with this alternative way of reading and providing opportunities for them to experience its rewards run as a common thread through all my courses, whatever the level or topic.

Still, this variety of levels, topics, course size, and student interests has required me to develop a range of distinct approaches to the classroom. Thus, in a graduate seminar in literary theory, I might appropriately assign reading and writing assignments of greater volume and complexity, as well as assume greater prior expertise on the part of students, while a first year seminar or a large introductory lecture requires that I tailor my expectations of what students know and what they can realistically accomplish. In one course, I might encourage students to master and present outside materials to one another, while in another I might offer mini-lectures to familiarize students with background material that will be essential for them to be able to fully engage course materials. Likewise, I try to attend specifically to the various purposes that students, naturally, bring to courses, often by asking them directly at the outset to share their aims for the course. Of course, even within a single course, levels of experience and expertise and areas of academic interest vary and I consider it one of my responsibilities to perceive the individuality of each student and to inflect course material to where they are.

The more traditional dimension of my teaching, perhaps, is in graduate courses for the Department of Comparative Literature. Graduate students in Comparative Literature today are expected to have mastered a broad and seemingly ever-growing corpus of interdisciplinary material in history, philosophy and literary theory. I have designed my graduate seminars to offer students an opportunity to closely study the works of some of the difficult and influential thinkers they feel, often times correctly, they are already expected to have mastered. Thus my seminars on Karl Marx, William James and John Dewey, Baruch Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari emphasize a painstaking, close engagement with the texts themselves. Though we attend to the received understandings of these thinkers and the uses to which they are conventionally put in contemporary scholarship, I try to encourage students to prioritize developing their own original understanding of the texts and their own sense of how they may (or may not) be useful to them in their studies. I share my own ongoing struggles to make sense of authors, despite two decades of experience reading and rereading them. In this way, I seek to relieve students of the burdensome feeling that they must already know what an author means, where to fit him or her in a predetermined matrix of positions, and what they will do with his or her text. In place of this, I push my students to share their own confusion and uncertainty (and to respect one another’s) and to work with (instead of resisting) the essentially incomplete and ever evolving process of understanding better. At the same time, I also share directly with them my desire to make these texts works practically in my life and work, conceived as interrelated. And I encourage them to experiment with ways of doing so for themselves, through their presentations, the papers they write, or even simply in class discussion. I want them to feel empowered to put what they’ve learned to work and to take positions, but also free to hold such positions lightly and flexibly.

At the other end of the curricular spectrum, I’ve found the experience of teaching first year seminars in the Residential College extremely rewarding and I have found that exploring themes of innocence and experience in these seminars to be a powerful experience for first semester college students. They are, after all, in the midst of a series of transitions that, while multifaceted, can certainly be explored through the lens of innocence and experience. In these seminars, I expose students to a broad survey of Western literature ranging from the Book of Genesis, through the Christian middle-ages, to Romantic poets like William Blake and Lord Byron, to more modern European, American and Latin American classics by Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Herman Hesse, Albert Camus, Mary Shelley, William Golding, Gabriel García Márquez, and Phillip Pullman and including some films, both familiar (Toy Story) and less so (I’m Not Scared). I also make these seminars, which fulfill the First Year Writing Requirement, into laboratories through which they can explore, practice and come to some level of mastery of a variety of genres of writing they will be expected to use in college. But I suffuse all this properly academic work with a regular, if not constant, insistence that the students tie the themes they are exploring to their own current experiences navigating the transition from home to college, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. I am careful, in doing so, to share myself, openly modeling for them in the classroom the ways in which the materials we are engaging pertain to my own experiences of innocence and experience in the past and, despite my different stage in life, in the present. In this way, I have found, students create a strong sense of trust and community within the classroom, even as they develop a shared intellectual vocabulary for articulating their experiences.

Though most of the courses I teach, as is the case for most literature courses, are on the smaller side, I have had several opportunities to teach somewhat larger “gateway” courses for the Department of Comparative Literature. In these courses, which are organized on a lecture and discussion section format, I have regularly had well over a hundred students enrolled (in Comparative Literature 240: Introduction to Comparative Literature, which I taught from 1996 to 2003 and more recently in Comparative Literature 100: Global Sports Cultures). In these cases, I try to use my lectures to provide students both with essential information and also with a particular way of seeing and approaching the materials in question and I encourage them to practice using that information and to experiment with that way of seeing in their discussion sections throughout the week, with the aim of equipping them to develop their own considered viewpoints on the topics. I am, in this, particularly excited to continue to develop my Global Sports Cultures gateway course, which I inaugurated in Fall 2014. Though I consider the course a success, I see opportunities to continue to refine and improve my use of the lecture format. While many students enjoyed my lectures, others found them too challenging or, in a few cases, boring. I’d like to address this in the future by relaxing the structure of my presentations to more actively build them around student interest and input. While daunted by the challenge in my first go round with the course, I now feel eager to exploit the possibilities to “flip the classroom,” as the current parlance goes, in order to incorporate students more actively in the lectures. I believe that informal exchanges with students are a strength of my teaching and I am seeing how these exchanges can be a more regular part of lectures, which I expect will help activate the students, cultivate their invested engagement with the ideas, and better prepare them to fully avail themselves of the opportunities for more intensive small group conversations in their discussion sections.

The turn in my research to sports studies has shaped and been shaped by an expansion of the repertoire of courses I teach in this area. In addition to Cultures of Basketball, which I teach as an upper level Residential College course (RC Humanities 334: Topics in the Humanities) and Global Sports Cultures, I inaugurated in Winter 2015 a Comparative Literature course entitled “Writing the Sporting Body” (Comparative Literature 334: Literature and the Body), in which my students and I explored the special linguistic, literary, social, and philosophical challenges of writing descriptions of sporting performance. I find many rewards in these courses, beyond their obvious relationship to my current research interests. To begin with, they tend to draw students from disciplines outside the humanities. Having arrived at literary study rather late in my own college career, I can recall and sympathize with the attitudes, and, especially, the fears these students bring to the humanities classroom. Engineers, biologists, economists tend to be more comfortable with inquiries that yield clear cut answers or, at the very least, codified methodologies. Reading, for many of them, if not an onerous chore, is at best an unavoidable means to the end of acquiring necessary information. I love to introduce such students to the joys of reading as relationship and process, as a voyage of exploration of world, others and self. It is gratifying more over to show students how to identify the narratives of sports culture as narratives, to show them how to interpret them critically, and, most of all, to help equip them to produce new narratives of their own. But I relish the defamiliarizing effects their own fresh perspectives on materials familiar to me have on my own naturalized ways of seeing. I know that few of them will become literature majors, but I also know that almost all of them come away from my courses with a new appreciation for the subtle complexity of language and the value of thinking critically about that which presents itself to them as self-evident. By the end of my semesters, I can see the energy and joy with which they try out their newfound powers in class discussions, in office hours, and in their written and creative projects.

But perhaps the most unexpected and deeply gratifying reward of teaching these courses arises from facilitating and witnessing the sense of community that develops among students. Typically, these courses include some varsity athletes, including some from high-visibility revenue-generating sports like basketball and football. And typically, most of their classmates are their fans. Most of these athletes are African-American and most of their classmates (like most students at Michigan) are white. On the first day of class, students self-segregate, shying away from one another. The students who aren’t athletes in revenue-generating sports appear star-struck to varying degrees, somewhat disoriented by the flesh and blood presence of these young men who until now, as fans, they’ve primarily seen on a television screen or from the stands in the Crisler Center or Michigan Stadium. The basketball and football players, meanwhile, tend to sit together (as do the varsity athletes from other sports). But unlike those other athletes, the basketball and football players seem shy and almost suspicious, or at least cautious. Perhaps they are aware of their status in the eyes of other students, aware that they are—on this campus anyway—public figures, who must weigh their words and actions carefully. Perhaps they have internalized or are at least sensitive to the common public view that they are somehow not “real students.”

I take delight and pride in helping these young men and women, all students in my class and at the University of Michigan, to recognize each other as peers and so to break down the barriers dividing them from each other. I enjoy challenging the athletes to recognize and identify with their intellectual and academic abilities and to experiment with improving them. And I likewise enjoy challenging the fans to drop the objectifying tendencies that sporting culture encourages in them and to allow themselves to empathize with the experience of elite athletes. I make them work together, side by side in small groups and in collaborative creative projects outside of class (and, in my Cultures of Basketball class at least, on the basketball floor in the now-annual tradition of a student-organized intra-class 3 on 3 tournament). I share openly with them my own biases and the means I use to check and overcome them. And I encourage them to do the same, with themselves and with one another. I am proud that by the end of the semester, they become friends with one another on social media and that they seem to have overcome their fixed, prior identities in the process of all becoming young people and students sharing the experience of enriching the pleasure they already take in an aspect of the world (sports) with the deeper joy of exercising their intellectual abilities in the task of understanding its history, the ways it works on them, and the ways it can work better.

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