As a graduate of a small, liberal arts-oriented honors college, I value the key role played by dialogue in the humanistic traditions that shape my interdisciplinary teaching. I prepare courses, lessons, and assignments that cultivate intellectual development and emphasize reflexivity through rigorous textual analysis, careful revision of written work, and intimate yet challenging conversation over complex ideas and their aesthetic, cultural, and sociopolitical import, facilitated by a variety of digital technologies. These goals proceed from an active pedagogy rooted in collaboration—one that enables students to view themselves as scholars in the making who participate in an ongoing conversation. In all courses—from surveys of American literature to topical seminars—I begin the semester by asking students to consider the title of the course. For example, they might record their impressions and understandings of “American” and “literature.” Before reviewing the syllabus, we come together to share thoughts, combine observations, and debate potential meanings. This exercise provokes a lively and welcoming discussion, and also introduces students to the fact that the meanings we interpret in texts and create in our own writing are subject to revision, variation, and challenge.
This initial assignment lays the groundwork for a collaborative classroom designed to equip students with four related skill sets: creative yet accurate textual analysis, clear and persuasive written argumentation, practicable and multimodal technological literacy, and rigorous yet adaptable critical thinking receptive to conversation with others. I find that students best develop these skills in tandem. For instance, the texts on my Literature and Environment syllabus represent various, conflicting ways in which writers, activists, intellectuals, and others have represented environment (and human relationships with it) over time, often from different perspectives in terms of race, gender, class, and other social forms. John Muir’s “Treasures of the Yosemite” and Evelyn White’s “Black Women and the Wilderness,” for example, illustrate startling yet instructive contrasts among approaches to the US National Parks system. I not only have students work collaboratively in class to construct arguments about the concept of wilderness that takes both authors’ perspectives into account, but also require them to arrive having used digital library resources to conduct research on a detail from either text that interests them. A student might retrieve an advertisement published by the early conservation movement, while another might locate an article that documents the forced displacement of Indigenous peoples from public lands. In gradually sharing their findings in small groups, students bring multiple new texts together to construct, challenge, and progressively refine their arguments about a certain historical moment, literary form, or cultural concept (such as wilderness). This guided debate format lays groundwork for individual textual analyses, acclimates students to interpretive ambiguity, and models the rigorous yet cordial interaction among competing perspectives that characterizes mature writing.
I consider this approach an agonistic variation on what Gerald Graff calls “teaching the conflicts.” Agonistic politics, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe write, comprises an approach to democracy according to which competing yet equal arguments vie for prominence. Authority constantly shifts from one position to others, but these movements build toward greater equality, understanding, and complexity among all parties. This perspective encapsulates the exploratory negotiation of ideas I aim to develop among students who often struggle toward the ability to engage in complex debate over matters of ethical and political import.
This sort of dialogue encourages students to consider how they might use the skills gained in my classroom for civic as well as professional purposes. I cultivate connections with engaged citizenship by incorporating relevant experiential learning assignments in my syllabi whenever possible. For example, my first-year writing students exercise digital composition skill sets in service to real-world advocacy organizations—a project that has helped to place a number of them in competitive internships. The agonistic model enhances other sectors of learning as well: encouraging peer review, responding to oral presentations, and critiquing one’s own work. (It remains viable in online courses as well, when coupled with accessible online fora and clearly articulated expectations.) As I continue teaching, I hope to further develop this active, collaborative approach to humanities instruction, in order to even more comprehensively cultivate the reflexive reading and composition skills students will exercise throughout their professional and civic futures.