Since most of the classes I teach are offered to non-majors, I spend a good deal of time thinking about pedagogical transferability. I have to find a way of teaching that justifies the more-than-usual effort I ask of my students, one which shows that mastering literary tools is worth their while, worth their time and creativity, even if they never find themselves in a literature classroom again. 


I believe that learning to pay a certain kind of attention to texts, that awakening curiosity about those texts' historical and formal situations, and that learning to structure arguments in response thereto will benefit my students in whatever fields they eventually enter. Hear me: I am not saying that learning to read Victorian Poetry, for example, will make them more intelligent or compassionate people, more qualified to participate in democracy, or that it will give them richer imaginative lives to which they can escape from the mundanity of the (likely) more lucrative but spiritually less-rewarding career paths that they may else-wise have chosen, though I think all of those things are true too. Rather, I argue that there are ways of teaching Victorian Poetry, for example, that will make students better/sharper/more original computer programmers, barristers, baristas, or what have you. This teaching is marked by a focus on interpretative rigor, imaginative engagement, and real stakes in student research.  

I emphasize interpretation as a skill-set, nearly as a muscle group, because its imminently transferable: the point of the Shakespeare surveys I teach isn't to teach 40 students all they need to know about the bard, his accomplishments, and masterworks, knowledge that they can then carry into their cocktail parties and lives; it is to show them how to read a text in the broadest sense, how to enter into its world and language in such a way that they can thereafter approach with the kind of confidence that competence grants: that they'll feel their minds lithe and that when they bother--if they bother--to light such a fuse, it won't fizzle but will light up in the intellect, ring out in the sensorium, and I try to teach it in such a way that they'll want to. 

Part of that is predicated on learning to engage imaginatively with a work of art. My approach provides not only the historical, formal, and genetic matrixes by which we situate and size up our literature, but a way of connecting--through class discussion, open-blogging, and student-generated essay prompts, to name a few--what we read to our actual lived lives and memories. When we read that Nana the Newfoundland is the nurse in Peter Pan, for instance, I want students not only to laugh, or to think J.M. Barrie an eccentric, but to recall the pets they owned or wanted to, how central to family life they seemed at a certain age, and to imagine then how the Darlings' actual servant must feel having been passed over for promotion by the family dog. This gives them an "in," a "hook" whereon to hang their responses, intuitions, and questions about the text among the actual furniture of their own stories, where they tend to keep better. 

And unless all this is going to be window dressing, the assignments must be staked in projects that exist beyond the walls of our classroom, which is why I involve my students at every level in authentic research. Students have co-written and workshopped dramatic adaptations of mine that have seen the stage; they've written and released print-on-demand books about art they've encountered; my current class, broken down into series-, volume-, and copy-editors is at work on a scholarly edition of unpublished Scottish mid-Victorian poets. The blog I set set up for my last composition course is now used by area high-school teachers for examples of college-level writing. None of it stops and the bell, and much of it doesn't even stop at the break: students often stay in touch, and my proudest moments are every summer, when I run into a few of them at Shakespeare-in-the-Park, knowing they wouldn't be there otherwise. 

It's a joy to work this way: to teach with enthusiasm and urgency, and to do much of that communally.  Student presentations figure largely in my planning, as do visits to Special Collections, and from, in some cases, the authors of our texts, local professional actors, and once, from a ballet company. Though it takes much more planning and some networking to make these occasions fruit, I believe also in spreading around authority and exposing students to diverse ways to wear one's learning.