Being a student in my class is not unlike finding yourself at a long dinner table that has been laid for a feast. The cuisines in front of you may be ones with which you are familiar. Or, they may have been cooked with spices with which you are unfamiliar. There may even be dishes that reminds you of dinners with your family – though you never expected to see these familiar foods here. During this meal, my students and I will have respectful and meaningful conversations. This is not a meal where I am at the head of the table. Rather, it is a place where their values, life experiences, and thoughts are not only folded into the conversation but seriously considered. Over our courses, I ask them not only to eat the food, but to also notice where it has come from, how it has been presented, and how the spices are working upon them. In doing so, I challenge my students to become more aware of what is on the table and how it relates to the larger world around us, to each other, and, most importantly, how it pertains to themselves. As with any meal amongst strangers, we start from a place of discomfort and end with ease and laughter – all of us appreciating the other a little more. It is, at its best, a space where we can seriously, yet playfully, engage with those topics which are, at their heart, the most important that they will encounter in their lives.
In the classroom, this metaphor becomes an active practice through which I offer my students a diversity of interpretive lenses and works. Over the course of the semester, the undergraduates become not only familiar with a diversity of perspectives through their readings but also philosophical, sociological, scientific and cultural theories. Among many other exercises, together, we examine passages from Frankenstein to show how Victor Frankenstein’s tone reveals his character or how the absence of female characters in the novel uncovers Mary Shelley’s deeper philosophy regarding creation outside of God. After engaging in close reading together, the students eventually have the means to critically interrogate the text together. They do this using introductory concepts from critical race theory, gender studies, queer theory, and key aspects of psychoanalysis. The students and I apply these interpretive approaches to a variety of writers across history including James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Danez Smith, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, and Carmen Maria Machado. Beyond working with me in class to take apart a piece of literature, the students also use these concepts in small discussion groups, identify these ideas through writing close reading papers, and are analyzed whenever a group of students leads the class in discussion. The hard skills that I hope to teach my students over the course of the semester are critical thinking, developing a water-tight intellectual argument, and the capacity to dive deeply into a text in order to analyze it. But, these are just the quantifiable skills. By acculturating them to these new perspectives and ideas, I am working with the students to develop a range of critical approaches. By the end of the semester, I am able to sit amongst them as they ask questions of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and challenge one another’s reading together. At the core, my teaching does not only focus on intentionally introducing the students to a vast spectrum of experience that they may not have encountered before but also aims to give the students hard skills that they can take with them for the rest of their lives.
By the end of our course, students who initially felt as if they had no place at the table – or, at least, were shy to join it – are comfortable in sharing their ideas with others. It is then that I step back and watch as the students begin to engage in uncomfortable conversations. They either kindly challenge each other to consider new perspectives or they work with each other to, verbally, take us to new nuanced examinations. At the end of the class, they recognize that they have not only had their perspectives challenged by all that was laid before them but they have also been able to have friendly discussions with people with whom they may not have otherwise spoken. Once the course is complete, these students will take these ideas with them for the rest of their lives. It is there that they will need to best tools possible to recognize how systems are overtly or covertly working upon them. It is then that they will need the tools to dismantle those systems that are not in their, nor in anyone else’s, best interests. After all, these students will move through the world and find themselves at different tables. These dinners may be as intimate as eating with a loved one day after day. Or they may find themselves at longer tables where they share meals and speak to people whose experiences do not mirror their own. They may even have to take the table apart themselves. It is my sincere hope that if they are ever called upon to engage in this work, then their approach will always have the investigating tools from my course at their center.
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