Reflections on Twenty Years of College Teaching, Part 2: Pedagogy

The most important question you can answer for your students, not just after the fact, but from the beginning, is why?

Things I wish I’d learned my first year of college teaching that would have made me a better teacher:

First, the subject matter you’re teaching is indeed important. I already knew that. But you know what else is important? In fact, just as important to your students’ education as the subject matter itself? The instructor’s answer to the why question: why do I have to take this class?

I’ve spent enough time teaching non-majors that I simply accept the need to sell gen ed classes to my non-major students. Why do first year writing classes matter? Because oral and written communication skills have been among the top ten skills desired by employers in all employer surveys conducted over the last twenty years, usually in the top three. More immediately, because you need the skills you’ll develop in those first year writing courses in your upper division courses.

Why do your literature courses matter? Because you need narrative in everyday life: you need narrative to sell yourself to graduate programs and employers, to sell a product or service to customers, to explain the importance of a treatment to a patient, the guilt or innocence of this person, the history and intent of this contract. And you need character study as well for similar reasons. In addition to the fact that literature is virtually a lab for the study of the diversity of human experiences, feelings, and ideas, literary study teaches you that not everyone is like you. In other words, literary studies approximate real life: you’re observing people’s words and actions without being told what they mean, but you still have to make sense of them. You have to collect and construct evidence into a coherent argument about these very things. Welcome to everyday living in your personal life and in business and professional environments.

More of the why has to do with the purpose of college classes. Now more than ever, students and parents tend to think of college courses as job training, which is an understandable reaction to an environment of economic depression. But they can never completely be that. No college can update its curriculum to keep it current to the minute with the actual practices in any given industry, and if they tried, they’d have a schizophrenic, incoherent curriculum. The best a program of study can do is provide the background needed to make a graduate trainable in the current environment.

But even more than that, college studies develop student cognition. They expand the range and type of thinking available to students, which is vital to critical thinking, problem solving, and future educability. Arts and sciences curriculum especially serves this goal: math and philosophy expands student capability in abstract reasoning (of different kinds); art in visual literacy, creativity, and just helping you to see; music in creativity, audio literacy, and just being able to really hear; history in the construction of narrative out of disparate, incoherent arrays of facts; literature in many of these, often a combination of them, along with creativity. All of these are brought into upper division, more vocationally-oriented studies and into all future vocations no matter what the field.

But moving past the why into nuts and bolts? Just as important as teaching the subject matter is establishing the following connections:

What is being taught –> how you’re being assessed –> why you got that grade.

Yes, a student who has really learned the material knows why they earned the grade they did. Grading, or assessment of any kind, is as important a part of the learning process as the initial presentation of the material. It’s not an annoying institutional afterthought. In a sense, caring about these connections and making them clear is answering another kind of why question: why did I get that grade? Rubrics matter, actually. They narrow and focus the purpose of your assignments and should be used to direct student attention. You really aren’t teaching everything with every assignment. What’s the purpose of this assignment? The more narrowly and specifically you can answer that for each assignment, the better your assignment design is, and the more you can link assignments into coherent course goals, the better your course design is.

How would I sum all of this up? The most important question you can answer for your students, not just after the fact, but from the beginning, is why? Why am I doing this? Take the time to answer that question up front.

Maybe There’s a Little Bit of Natural Religion?


  1. The human mind detects patterns in the natural world.
    The human mind is a part of and proceeds from the natural world.
    Therefore, patterns exist in the natural world.

  2. Patterns exist in the natural world.
    The human mind perceives patterns in the natural world.
    The human mind is part of and proceeds from the natural world.
    Therefore, the human mind is the natural world reflecting on its own patterns.

  3. Therefore, anthropomorphism is not a fallacy.

  4. A part is not equal to a whole.
    The whole cannot be reduced to a part.
    Therefore, the relationship between part and whole need not be mutually exhaustive.

My Blakean Life

I have been lax in celebrating William Blake’s birthday, which passed by recently, on Nov. 28th. A Londoner almost all of his life, he was born in 1757 and died in 1827, just short of his 70th birthday. He’s best known for The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and within that, the poem “The Tyger,” and also for an excerpt from his long poem Milton a Poem which was set to music by Hubert Parry in a piece called “Jerusalem” (And did those feet…), a composition used as a school song for many schools around the world also famously covered by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Selections from “Auguries of Innocence” are found in the Tomb Raider movies, his art in the Hannibal Lecter movies, and his poems are probably used for lyrics by contemporary musicians more than any other poet from any time. There are book-length lists of Blake poems set to music. 

I didn’t learn about Blake in school, however — I learned of him when I heard the song “William Blake,” which was written by Terry Scott Taylor for the band Daniel Amos on their Vox Humana album. Hearing that song was enough to get me to rush to — remember these? — a B. Dalton Bookseller, where I picked up a copy of the Viking Portable Blake. That started me on a journey that took me through graduate school, a dissertation, my first book, and then two Rock and Romanticism books. But it was all about music and literature from the beginning, not just the stuff they make you read in school, as it was for Blake himself, who originally sang many of those poems at dinner parties to his own original musical compositions. He was said to have a good singing voice, and scholars of music notated his compositions at the time, though those are lost to us now. Roy Starling was my first instructor in Romanticism, and he made Romantic poetry come alive for me, as he did all the literature he taught to all of his students at the college and high school levels. 

I chose Blake because I wanted a subject of study that I could attend to for twenty years without getting bored, and he has not disappointed. In addition to my own writing about Blake, I was also privileged to work with Michael Phillips on three occasions for Blake printmaking demonstrations, one of these resulting in an exhibit at Rollins College and another in an exhibit curated by Lee Fearnside that consisted of contemporary artists inspired by Blake alongside Phillips’s own reproductions of Blake’s work through his reproduction of his printmaking methods. 

And Blake has informed and inspired my own creative work — following in his footsteps I’m working on my own reworking of Milton’s Paradise Lost as a steampunk western as well as assorted collections of my own poetry. We will see where it all leads, but I remain grateful for what Blake has meant to me.

I should end this with Blake’s own words… 

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

Reading as Democracy in Crisis Now Available for Purchase

I’m pleased to announce that Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History is now available for order on Rowman & Littlefield’s website.
The chapters in this book demonstrate how the variety of reading strategies represented by the figures and movements discussed within its pages were motivated in part by different historical circumstances, many of which involved periods of crisis in democracy. These circumstances range from Plato’s Thirty Tyrants to the French Revolution to the two World Wars and the Holocaust, from the Civil Rights movement to LBGTQ rights to the Arab Spring in Egypt to social media. It covers figures and movements such as Plato and Derrida; Hegel; Marx; Wittgenstein; Warren; Rosenblatt; Adorno, Foucault, Derrida, and Frow; Butler; and Object-Oriented Ontology alongside Digital Humanities. Chapters include:

1 Democracy as Context for Theory: Plato and Derrida as Readers of Socrates, by James Rovira
2 Historian, Forgive Us: Study of the Past as Hegel’s Methodology of Faith, by Aglaia Maretta Venters
3 Karl Marx: The End of the Enlightenment, by Eric Hood
4 Ludwig Wittgenstein: Toward a Dialectical Pragmatism, by Steve Wexler
5 Robert Penn Warren: Poetry, Racism, and the Burden of History, by Cassandra Falke
6 Louise Rosenblatt: The Reader, Democracy, and the Ethics of Reading, by Meredith N. Sinclair
7 Aesthetic Theory: From Adorno to Cultural History, by Philip Goldstein
8 Judith Butler: A Livable Life, by Darcie Rives-East
9 Networking the Great Outdoors: Object-Oriented Ontology and the Digital Humanities, by Roger Whitson
The following 30% discount code is valid until April 30, 2020: LEX30AUTH19. It should work on the publisher’s website linked above.
This book presents straightforward explanations of each figure’s or movement’s central ideas alongside an original thesis about each figure or movement, so it can also be useful for introducing students to different theoretical approaches to texts.

Updates all around…

Some updates on recent publishing projects of mine for those who are following such things…

Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History has gone through proof editing, the cover copy has been approved, and it is now waiting for one more round of proofs, probably this week, before it goes into print. We’re close. More about this exciting project later, which promises to contribute new insights not just into literary theory, but into why we develop theories of reading literature and other cultural texts to begin with.

Writing for College and Beyond, my first year writing textbook, has also just gone through the proof copy stage and its cover has been approved. Email me at jamesrovira(at)gmail(dot)com if you’d like a review copy of this book. I can send uncorrected electronic proofs now and should be able to send print copies out in about a month or so. It emphasizes all of the ways that the usual tasks assigned in first year writing classes — summary, synthesis, analysis, and argument writing — all have their counterparts in business and professional writing, so that students understand why they’re doing this work. It has a lot of built-in support for working professionals, first generation, and rural students as well, providing carefully explained, step by step instruction in all of the basic tasks common to most college writing.

My next two anthologies, Women in Rock/Women in Romanticism and David Bowie and Romanticism have had proposals sent to the publisher. These have shaped up well and I hope to have a first manuscript draft out by the end of his summer.

 

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