WhitmanMuralBX

 

It has been a busy and productive two years on the tenure track at Graceland, and through it all I feel like I have just begun to truly find myself as a teacher.

First, the hectic start. While managing the 12 semester hours of teaching per semester, with a scattering of arranged courses, individual studies, and overload classes to boot, I have designed ten new courses, including sections of Early American literature, contemporary poetry, Major American Authors, and the freshman seminar in Critical Thinking—all while working with colleagues to renovate the English major and devise and implement the overhaul of Graceland’s General Education composition requirements: from separate sections of Speech, Rhetoric, and Composition to the more robust, multimodal “Discourse” sequence. In the process, I was a finalist for the student-nominated Alumni Award for Teaching Excellence last year and received high marks on all IDEA course evaluations, specifically in the areas of collaboration, rapport, and student involvement—which probably mean the most to me. Still developing as an instructor, I am trying all the time to achieve a more egalitarian classroom, and the tools of my trade have been open-ended dialogue and student-driven course design, research, and assessment.

In these two years, many of my proudest moments—and those indicative of my growth—as a college instructor have come in two courses: Poetry and Social Justice and (the renamed) Literature of the Early Americas. In the Fall of 2016, I was tasked with designing a course for the new Equality theme in Essential Education. That’s when I dreamt up “Poetry and Social Justice,” a course that would use literature as an inroads to social critique. That first fall, as an upper-level English class focused on poetry, I was surprised to have thirty-two students enrolled, only eight of whom were majors. I’ll admit now that, out of the gate, I was nervous for how the roster’s unfamiliarity with literary history and poetics might hinder class discussion. As it turns out, the seeming “deficit” in disciplinary knowledge proved a catalyst for a different kind of intellectual engagement. Bringing social issues to bear on everything from the canonical verse of William Blake and Walt Whitman to contemporary social poets like Juan Felipe Herrera and Naomi Shihab Nye, we staged open and thoughtful dialogues week after week. I’m especially proud of the way our class centered (and continues to center) the ideas, histories, and experiences of historically marginalized groups and students. While this impulse resonates in a class like “Poetry and Social Justice,” for me, it has to be true across the curriculum. I don’t want students to leave even a composition class with just mechanical knowledge about thesis statements, paragraphs, and transition sentences. I want them to be sharper thinkers and debaters, so that they might convince others to help them bend the world towards fuller justice and equality.

I carry these same aspirations and values into my recent work in the field of open pedagogy. Forever tinkering with different digital classroom tools, since starting at Graceland I have developed various digital writing projects using platforms such as WordPress, Medium, Twitter, Hypothes.is, Audacity, and Storymaps. But it was after attending the 2016 Digital Pedagogy Lab institute that my career was reborn as an advocate for Open Educational Resources (OER). Happening upon this community of scholars has radically altered the way I approach teaching—evidenced most prominently by the OER anthology project I adopted in my “American Literature to 1900” survey course.* The first fall semester I taught that survey, I assigned the giant Norton anthology,—it being the leading text in the field. Yet for all of its helpful background material, framed by the anthology’s wonderfully generative thematic groupings, our class never truly used the book. Admittedly, that’s due in part to the sizable number of students who never even laid hands on it. The latest edition of the Norton American literature anthology retails at $81.25 to purchase and between sixteen to twenty-five dollars for a six-month rental. For many working-class, first generation students, the costs of the text—or, the means to access it (a credit card, for example)—are simply prohibitive.

So, in the ensuing summer, I decided to scrap the paperback anthology and to adopt an “open anthology” project I had learned about through some colleagues. Now in the first half of the survey, we read through the chapters published in the extant OER anthology, which include a potpourri of canonical and “minor” writers, and students complete short reading engagement exercises designed to both guide our in-class discussion and provide “training” in the editing skills needed to build out the anthology. In the latter half, we shift focus to the hands-on project of building on the anthology. We dedicate the final months to reading and discussing Open Education and Creative Commons licensing, learning the software, and putting together materials for the various elements of the anthology—editing texts, locating and annotating biographical and secondary research, writing introductions, developing supplementary materials, and deliberating on how to make the texts “teachable.” Teams of three build entries for authors and texts not yet represented, and, in the final weeks of the term, lead a classroom lesson based on their newly designed anthology chapter.

At its best, an “open” project like the student-designed anthology stimulates the same kinds of intellectual collaboration and growth that I strive for in an inquiry- and dialogue-based class like Poetry and Social Justice, and which I aim to sustain over the course of my career.

 

*Note: Some of the following prose describing the “Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature” assignment has been adopted and remixed from my essay on the project found here.