Last month (in March), I was asked to be interviewed for a feature in the graduation issue of Graceland’s alumni magazine, the Horizons. They needed 500 words, so, as is my habit, I gave them 1500. Below is the full, unedited version. Now that the semester (and year two on the tenure track) is wrapping up, I’m delighted to have been forced to take time out for reflection on teaching at Graceland.
How long have you been teaching at Graceland, and tell me a bit about how you came to be here?
This is my second year at Graceland and, thus far, I think I’ve avoided the dreaded “sophomore slump.” The Humanities Division hired me on in the spring of 2015, as I was completing my PhD just up the road at the University of Iowa. At about that time, I had purchased a car for the first time in my life. Oh, and then, merely five days prior to defending my dissertation, my first child, Malcolm, was born! So, there I was: a new father, fancy degree in hand, new job promised, new car purchased, new apartment rented, and out to a comfortable lead in the game of life.
Of course, that’s the flash fiction version of my Graceland arrival. From the longer view, I’m in Lamoni via Iowa City by way, ultimately, of New York. I grew up in New York, just not that New York—not the city of Walt Whitman/Frank Sinatra/Jay-Z lore. Born in Huntington, Long Island (that’s “Lawn Guy-land” to the natives), I spent a childhood in the Hudson Valley before moving to Brooklyn to attend Hunter College and then finally back upstate before leaving for graduate school in Iowa City. It’s like two entire seasons of Girls, except I was actually very poor during the whole ordeal.
My wife and I joke that each time we move, we seem to head further west and into smaller cities. Lamoni is the smallest city I’ve ever stepped foot in, and I take it that’s a good sign we’ll be sticking around for a while. We also adore the community—so a better sign!
How I ended up at Graceland University, in particular, is sort of a complicated story. I can safely admit now that teaching is my calling. I think I never really believed in individual “callings” before I walked into a classroom to teach. Then again, I used to work in retail, and anyone who’s manned the returns counter at a department store is necessarily a vocational agnostic.
What’s so complicated about my Graceland origin story, then? Some real talk: graduate school training in the United States isn’t structured to cultivate teachers, its primary goal, instead, is to produce researchers and scholars. This process rests on the outdated and ultimately fabular notion that professors (i.e., college instructors) spend the bulk of their time in archives and laboratories, rather than instructing in classrooms or on the web. In an academic culture that apprizes scholarship as the final arbiter of one’s worth, it’s rather easy for pedagogy to become an afterthought.
I was very fortunate, in this regard, to have attended the University of Iowa. Their English program—and my mentor, Ed Folsom, especially—prides itself on training lifelong and inspiring teachers of literature. (After all, someone needs to spread the gospel!) So, even as a second-year PhD student/fledgling apprentice, I recognized my students as the center of my work. If you believe, as I do, that knowledge is a collaborative, open process rather than an individual undertaking, what else is good scholarship, finally, than excellent teaching?
What is your favorite class to teach and why?
Last fall, I designed and led “Poetry and Social Justice,” a course that uses literature as an inroads to social critique. It is my proudest moment as an instructor. As an upper-level English course 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 the roster’s unfamiliarity with literary history and poetics, worried that it 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 relevant 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 the ideas, histories, and experiences of historically marginalized groups and students.
Ultimately, the knowledge derived from literature comes from any reader’s ability to draw connections from language and narrative to their lived experiences. This social inquiry at the crux of all literature courses emblematizes what critical theorist bell hooks refers to as an “engaged” or “activist” pedagogy. Now “activist” is obviously a loaded and precarious term, so I’ll put it another way: all students and all teachers are potential agents of social change. While that maxim resonates in a class like “Poetry and Social Justice,” for me, the claim has to be true across the curriculum. I don’t want students to leave 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 suppose my identity as an activist is finally inseparable from my teaching, and the wholeness of those projects has a lot to do with why I feel so at home at Graceland—this community devoted to realizing justice through practical and visionary action. There’s an amusing story attached to this part of my homecoming, too. During the initial round of Skype interviews, the Humanities Division search committee lobbed at me, in closing, a very revealing, open-ended question: “tell us something about you which doesn’t show through in your materials.” I paused, puzzled, probably said, “wow, that’s a good question” to stall for time, before finally—against the advice of all how-to-land-the-job tip columns I’d read in preparation—said “well, I guess I consider myself an activist.” From there I spoke almost automatically of my grad life as a trade unionist, hinted at my time spent at Occupy protests, affirmed my dedication to social justice. When I clicked “off” on the Skype window, my heart sunk. I thought, “what have you done? Did you really just tell a potential employer that you’re a labor activist?” Two weeks later, I was offered the job.
What is the best part of your job?
The students—and yes, the cliché answer here is nonetheless true. In fact, in all I do, I aspire to be a “teacher-student,” in those heroic terms set out by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I’ll hazard another cliché then,—and these are inevitable in discussions about teaching—my ultimate goal is to tear down the teacher-pupil hierarchy wrongly assumed to be the hard and fast or “natural” relationship of education. I try to realize a more egalitarian classroom through open-ended dialogue, student-driven research, open and public writing projects, and, of course, self-deprecating humor.
I guess trust has to be the first principle of education. If you trust students to guide their own learning—that is, if you recognize each student as a fully autonomous intellectual with ideas and experiences and interests that matter to you, to the class, and to the course—they almost always respond with care, thoughtfulness, and generosity. With that in mind, I try also to bring the truest version of myself—my experiences, knowledge, understanding—into each class. I never ask students to share a piece of writing, or an opinion, or an experience, unless I’m willing to do the same. This level of transparency, though time-consuming and often daunting, exposes teaching for what it is: a collection of personal (if careful and researched) choices on the part of the instructor.
Finally, the “best” part of this job is also the most demanding and the most significant. Every morning, I wake up and go to defend the contemporary relevance of the humanities—a field of knowledge and an approach to the world I hold dearly. It’s no secret that we exist in a deeply anti-intellectual age. Ours is a myopic, covetous culture where a person’s bank statement seems also a statement of their moral worth; this is a time when outcomes and answers are preferred over curiosity and questions.
A focus on the liberal arts is nothing if not a wide-ranging study of human curiosity and inquiry, and I cling to this rather romantic notion of education. For me, the end of liberal education is intellectual emancipation, and that’s a project with a larger purpose than landing a sweet job after college. Here’s the personal rub: when you teach writing and literature, every moment you spend with students is a de facto argument for the relevance of the liberal arts. When I teach comma usage, I am defending the liberal arts. When I teach Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, I am defending the liberal arts. Citation method, the history of the printing press, Audacity software, Emerson’s essays—all lessons that double as defenses of the liberal arts. If I can’t make them fun, relevant, and usable in students’ lives, I’m a poor defender.