Renowned educator and author Gloria Jean Watkins (better known by her pen name bell hooks) reminds us that “Educating is always a vocation rooted in hopefulness.” Her words encourage me as I teach American literature in a contested political and cultural moment that my students sometimes characterize as “chaotic” and “divisive.” My students’ concerns about our nation and the world are precisely why I am passionate about designing and teaching colonial and nineteenth-century American literature courses at Austin College. Reading, discussing, and writing about this literature empowers students during these troubling times: it exposes them to the diverse and resilient voices of American literary history; inspires them to find their own voice and come to their own conclusions; and helps them make the real-world connections between literature and their lived experiences.
Students in my American literature classes study the captivity accounts, slave narratives, American Indian literature, and sensational novels that represent the marginalized voices of women and minority writers in the United States’ literary history. We read both canonical and more obscure literature, including women’s life writing, diaries, and scrapbooks, in order to question what makes a text “literature” or “literary” and how literature communicates what it means and has meant to be an American. When I create my courses, I strive to include texts that represent the diversity of American identity and experience. I want to make students aware of the multiple traditions of American literature and to see their own place and voice within these on-going traditions. Because today’s students represent diversity in gender, race, ethnicity, and social class, I am committed to offering courses that address issues related to diversity and difference. Such concerns are emphasized in all of my classes, especially courses such as “American Origin Stories” and “Canons of Nineteenth-Century American Literature,” which place canonical and traditionally underrepresented literary voices in conversation with each other. I also encourage students to consider present-day connections to American literature from the earlier periods, a commitment most obvious in my newly-developed course “Rise Up: Protest and Dissent in American Literature.” This survey of early American literature includes a variety of protest texts by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women’s rights, abolitionist, and American Indian rights authors.
I hope to help students find and express their own voice through class discussion and reflective writing. Through literature circles and student-led discussions, students hear multiple perspectives on literature from each other that enhance their own interpretations of the text. These conversations and interactions with their peers prepare students to develop and write stronger essays. In all of my classes, students write personal, reflective essays and creative responses to literature; I see these forms of writing as just as deeply analytical and intellectually rigorous as traditional essays. In my English composition courses, students compose their autobiographies as writers and then rewrite them for a revision portfolio at the end of the semester in order to chart their development as writers. In my literature courses, my students might develop their own theory of “protest literature,” write a response to a work of literature in the style of one of the authors we have studied, or create their own ending to (and reflection upon) an ambiguous ending to a novel or short story. In my senior capstone course on “Lives, Legacies, and Secrets of American Transcendentalism,” my students write “autobiographical literary criticism,” a hybrid essay genre that weaves personal narrative, reader response, and textual analysis to place students’ lives and experiences at the center of their literary analyses. With these writing assignments and class discussions, I aim for students to generate their own knowledge about literature and to consider the real-world connections between their lived experiences, today’s headlines, and the literature we study.
Indeed, at a time when many question the value of the liberal arts and the humanities, I endeavor to craft assignments and projects that give my students opportunities to realize the real-world skills they are developing through my literature courses. I regularly incorporate digital pedagogy and digital tools such as Word Press, Classroom Salon, Story Map Journal (GIS mapping software), and Scalar into collaborative and reflective course projects in classes such as “Mapping Early American Literature” and “Recovery Projects in the American Literary Archive.” With this technology, students read and annotate documents together, map the movement of people and ideas in early American literature, and create online digital editions of previously popular and now “lost” literature. These hands-on projects not only provide opportunities for the experiential and collaborative high-impact learning that I value as an educator, but also help humanities students see that technology and digital learning are a vital part of a liberal education that can contribute to a valuable and employable skills set.
By taking writing-intensive, digitally-infused American literature courses within the context of a liberal arts education, I hope my students will acquire what noted scholar William Cronon calls the ability to “only connect,” or to “nurtur[e] human freedom in the service of human community.” The freeing characteristics of a liberal education should not only benefit and transform the individual student, but also those with whom they come into contact throughout their lives and careers. I teach so that my students will gain a deeper understanding of American identity and culture, find their place in broader conversations about literature and the issues facing our nation today, and take the wisdom of American literary history with them into a complex world. So that is why I am teaching, and why, in spite of the chaos, division, and turmoil some might see today, I have hope.