When I started teaching history on my own—working from my own syllabus rather than assisting someone else—I was thrown into a college U.S. history course just a couple of weeks before the semester started. I was still a graduate student, though I had my master’s degree, and I was replacing another adjunct instructor at the last minute. (I would eventually get to meet her at a conference. She’s nice.) She had chosen a set of textbooks that I’d never heard of, much less seen, and I found the department’s description of the course bizarre.
When I walked into the classroom, which had broken desks and obvious water damage, I still didn’t have access to my university email account or the university library. For the first few days, I had to ask the department secretary to come unlock the classroom computer any time I planned to use it.
Did I mention this was going to be the first time I had ever taught my own solo course?
I won’t keep you in suspense: That semester did not end up being my best work.
How might we begin to understand the function of scholarship in dialogue with reading-in-general? And how might that understanding begin to shape a more productive relationship between the academy and the broader public?
A first step in this process could involve thinking about the kinds of work that we regularly do in our classrooms, especially in early undergraduate courses—not thinking about that work in order to change it, but rather thinking about it in order to understand how the engagements we foster in the classroom and the positions we develop and embrace as instructors might point the way to potential connections with the publics around us. Much of our effort in those scenes of reading instruction has to do with making what feels obvious instead appear strange, asking our students to step back from something that seems familiar or transparent and instead look at it obliquely. … In order to encourage this interest in perspective, however, we need to begin from rather than reject readers’ immediate experiences of the text, even where they seem to us sentimental or superficial. … Rather than setting aside emotional responses in favor of critical distance, the more fruitful approach is to dig into such responses, to figure out how they are produced and what kinds of work they do. …
Books engage and enrich the reader; they do things for people rather than for the world of texts or the cultures they move in. Acknowledging that perspective might encourage us, in the words of Clara Claiborne Park, to consider the ways ‘we would teach literature if we were in fact convinced that what we were doing could make a person different.’ And … this potential applies not just to the transformation of the lives of individual readers, but to the transformation of communities: if we could think about the ways that reading affects the building and sustenance of community, we might be encouraged to step outside of the literary or scholarly marketplace of ideas, and instead focus a bit on the more collective economies that structure much artistic and educational exchange.
—Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 105-106 and 110
I tried a new class exercise this week. One of my courses (with about thirty seats) is particularly heavy on weekly discussions of readings that the students do outside of class. (Each set of readings comprises both primary and secondary sources related to a particular group of people or geographic area in North America.) When last I taught the course, I had very chatty students, many of whom were already friends, and I got complacent about priming them for conversation. This time, I need to be more deliberate about eliciting discussion. I came up with a simple exercise that I thought might help.
In form, it’s just a think-pair-share (or really a pair-think-share) activity. I opened class by asking my students to pair up to answer four questions about the primary and secondary sources they’d read:
What expectation did these readings confirm?
What information was new?
What was surprising or questionable?
What’s something controversial it could mean?
I explained that the goal was to find things to grab ahold of in the readings—places to start talking. Often, I confided, I myself will read something about a new topic and have trouble finding something to say about it; the smooth page, though full of words and ideas, just doesn’t seem to have many cracks or rough spots to provide a handhold for me as I try to explore. What we have to do is “problematize” what we read: to turn it into a problem to solve, a question to answer, or a debate to settle. It’s OK if this process is a little artificial; often it leads us to real insights.
Somewhat to my surprise, my students took to this exercise easily and, I thought, eagerly—their paired conversations were pretty animated. When they finished talking in pairs and I asked for volunteers to share some of their results, question by question, they didn’t exactly talk over each other, but they talked. In fact, their answers, which ranged widely, were an excellent basis for the content-focused discussion/lecture mix I wanted later in the class period.
This one experience doesn’t provide much data for appraising the activity’s usefulness or adaptability, of course. But I’ll be using this exercise again.