As a scholar, I work across disciplines in order to bring the insights of literary study to bear on broader conversations concerning social justice and sustainability. As a teacher, I extend my ecocritical practice by helping students understand that what they read and write has a life beyond the classroom. I have taught at Winston-Salem State University, Duke University, and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, with course offerings ranging from writing and composition courses to American and British surveys to interdisciplinary humanities seminars to senior capstone courses, and have advised several senior honors theses. In the classroom, I foreground the interdisciplinary contexts and implications of humanistic study, teaching students to connect their scholarship to their own communities and environments.
This connection between class and world operates both in what students read and in what they write in response. For instance, assigning House of Many Gods, an environmental justice novel by Hawaiian author Kiana Davenport, in a sustainability-themed composition class at the University of Hawai‘i allowed my first-year students to see everything from language loss to homelessness as problems of social sustainability. One student used his final research project on the socioeconomics of Hawaiian Pidgin as the basis of an op-ed for the campus newspaper, which subsequently led him to seek out an editorial position at the paper. Meanwhile, the two collaborative projects I assigned to my environmental humanities class at Duke—cooperative Wordpress sites with sustained literary analysis and an Environmental Keywords database hosted by the Fordham Keywords Collaboratory—were available to the public online, and became part of ongoing conversations about the risks and rewards of public scholarship. Students became so enthusiastic about this concept that they asked that we extend the course in order to include the installation of their creative final projects in a campus gallery. In my experience, the expansion of audiences for academic writing does not have to be literal to show results. In the composition course I taught in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke, for instance, assigning a piece of longform journalism as a final research project led students intuitively to understand that successful research-based writing does not simply transmit facts and claims, but also engages and compels the audience. Similarly, the writing of the advanced students whose senior honors theses I mentored at Duke dramatically improved when I asked them to write as though for publication: after open-ended discussions considering the formal and stylistic qualities of the scholarship they had encountered through their research, they became much more comfortable positioning their arguments as scholarly interventions and making confident and professional use of secondary critical sources. In this way, my methods encourage sophisticated and engaged undergraduate research.
Relating academic work to broader social issues and nonacademic audiences and inviting students to work from their passions and convictions are generative methods, but they require the careful enforcement of safe, open, and respectful classrooms. All of my classes therefore introduce students to diverse perspectives and foster respectful peer-to-peer interactions in order to empower students to recognize their own academic identities and strengths. My experiences teaching students from a wide range of disciplines, educational backgrounds, cultures, countries, and economic strata have taught me to be mindful of the diversity of students in my classrooms and the breadth of their strengths and skill sets. My conviction that students are most capable of active learning when they are confident that they all have valuable contributions to make, whether in their formal written work or in their informal class participation, means that I work to represent a variety of perspectives in my classes. At the University of Hawai‘i, for example, texts that incorporated representations of the islands’ vast array of economic experiences, cultural origins, and spoken languages prompted respectful and insightful conversations about students’ lived experiences of diversity. Indeed, these readings and conversations inspired many students to pursue original research on these subjects in their final projects. I also structure in-class activities and assignments so as to promote success among all students by making them feel welcome and supported in my classroom. For instance, peer workshops are framed by conversations about constructing rigorous yet respectful feedback and working with group members to present that feedback in individualized and productive ways. In post-workshop reflections, many courses have independently built on this experience by electing to revise workshop guidelines to accommodate diverse learning styles more explicitly. As a result, my students learn to feel comfortable asking workshop partners in advance for the kind of feedback that is most useful for their particular learning style, whether that be linguistic, visual, verbal, or kinesthetic. As the semester progresses, students have the opportunity to supplement academic writing with creative and multimodal work that builds on this foundation of respect for varying modes of intellectual engagement. These methods foster self-motivated and assertive students who understand their individual experiences and skills as resources that enrich the class as a whole.
I scaffold this dual sense of autonomy and community by incorporating formal and informal collaboration into all of my classrooms. My training in composition pedagogy has given me a wealth of knowledge about best practices for workshops, which I have successfully integrated into literature courses as well. These workshops prove immensely helpful not only in empowering individualized learning (as detailed above) and improving individual papers, but also in teaching students to value input from their peers and to develop revision skills that let them see their own projects as works in progress. Group projects such as the WordPress sites and Collaboratory assignment described above build on this sense of cohesion and the horizontal generation of knowledge, generating energetic conversations about group authorship and transforming the structure of expertise and authority in the classroom. These methods are not limited to small seminar groups; indeed, online writing, collaborative projects, and small group activities can create the experience of seminar-style discussion sections even in large lecture courses.
I have found that the act of making literary study public—even if only by asking students to write as though for a broader audience—produces a vast increase not only in the students’ mastery of the material and methods, but also in the confidence and enthusiasm they bring to classroom discussions. As students discuss and discover the higher stakes of writing that will be made available to more eyes than my own, they become more invested in the merits of the writing they produce than in the grade it earns. Students begin to seek out each other as intellectual resources, teaching each other about proofreading, sensitive close-reading, style and voice, design and layout, and accountability. Those who struggle in early writing assignments work to grow as literary critics. Those who initially tend to hold back in class take on leadership positions and comment assertively. Even as my emphasis on public scholarship means that I hold students to high standards, they respond enthusiastically, I have received consistently positive student evaluations and departmental observations, with students expressing enthusiasm about the way that my classroom teaches them to write in a variety of registers and to work in a variety of media. I have observed that a semester spent honing analytic skills in order to enter broader conversations results in a classroom in which students view their projects as works in progress, eagerly participate and engage with their peers, and demonstrate a willingness to take risks in their work.
I look forward to continuing to integrate public scholarship into a variety of literary classes. I have developed both introductory surveys to American literature and upper-level undergraduate seminars in various topics within literary studies that reflect the many ways in which public scholarship can be productively mobilized. Likewise, I plan to teach graduate classes that ask students to immediately become engaged in academic discourses by training them in the genres on which their careers will actually be made. Particularly in the realm of graduate mentorship, an emphasis on public scholarship does not preclude traditional genres: while digital humanities platforms such as Scalar, Omeka, and Timeline JS—or even simple blogging platforms—offer graduate students the chance to create collaborative work for a broad readership, simply asking students to write syllabi, abstracts, conference talks, and articles rather than seminar papers raises the stakes for academic writing and encourages substantive and organic professionalization. I look forward to continuing my commitment to engaged scholarship and dedicated student mentorship as I work to help students understand the study of literature as a vocation that belongs not only in the classroom, but also in the world.
"Unnatural Nature" exhibition at Duke