How I teach English has everything to do with the nature of the discipline as I see it. There is no one reason why we study literature, of course, but the major function of academic literary criticism today is to investigate literature as a space in which a culture can define, refine, question, and challenge its own beliefs. Literature—as well as related forms like film/television and the web—is essentially a public conversation and often a contested one that implicitly indicates, or even depicts, a struggle between differing ideologies or belief systems. Often, this struggle is entirely one-sided, advocating a particular ideal, but equally often, the struggle indicates genuine ambivalence about a major issue or problem that is in the public consciousness.
Given that understanding of literature and literary study, I seek to inspire this same struggle in my students by involving them in an active, critical process. Thus, my most basic goal is to create a space in which students can and will question their pre-existing beliefs. They are not required to adopt a new set of beliefs or even necessarily change the ones they walked in with, of course, but studying literature leads, almost inevitably, to a good-faith reflection on one’s own attitudes, and this usually results a new perspective. The nature of the reflection depends partly on the level of the class. In lower-level courses, I push big ideas: rhetoric, ethics, political structure, gender, nationality/ethnicity, and the power of media, but the goal—good-faith self-reflection—remains, and more advanced courses usually come back to complex conceptions of the same big ideas with which I confront my lower-level students.
To achieve this good-faith self-reflection, I primarily employ discussion-based pedagogy and constantly push conversations such that the class can never settle for an easy answer. I set a problem, a question, or an issue in front of the students and act as half secretary and half Devil’s advocate, helping them to think through the problem(s), but also asking fresh questions that further complicate the problem. As much as possible, I avoid offering my own solutions or resolutions simply because the word of the teacher often ends the conversation. The goal is to constantly confront the students with their own presuppositions so that they can re-evaluate them—or potentially evaluate them for the first time—in light of basic critical notions of logic, evidence, and ethics, while always, of course, maintaining an equally critical eye towards logic, evidence, and ethics as belief systems. Lecturing to large classes can achieve similar kinds of self-reflection by teaching the debate, setting up what appear to be reasonable beliefs and demonstrating their internal contradictions, or juxtaposing two or more concepts that all seem tenable but are at, in fact, at odds with each other.
The goal in my classes is, then, to walk students through an analytical and inquisitive process, not just to teach facts, but to involve them in an on-going conversation.