Commitment to Inclusion and to Helping Students Find their Way

A Teaching Philosophy

           When I walked into the classroom to teach my first creative writing class approximately a decade ago, I was met not with welcome, but with hostility. There sat my students, in the very back row of the class, their arms crossed, their eyes wary. And little surprise: the classroom had bars over its windows; its desks were nailed to the floor. Inside the walls of Mecklenburg Jail North, a transitional prison facility in Charlotte, North Carolina, my students had no books, no sharp pencils, and no privacy. Corrections officers peeked in my room like clockwork, their fingers tapping the weapons on their belts as if counting down towards some anticipated moment of violence.

            The 13 students in my class were all convicted criminals and all between the ages of 15 and 17. All of them – as is typical of incarceration in the United States – were also African American or Hispanic[1]. They had been consigned to Jail North in a kind of temporal limbo, waiting until they turned 18 and could be transferred to the state prison. As I watched them at back of the classroom that first day, their fists clenched, their jaws tight, I knew that what I had planned for my lesson would fail spectacularly if I tried it. Reading T.S. Eliot and then rewriting “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” using their own words was one of my favorite exercises to do with new students, and it was often a success. But until that point, I had always taught classes of mostly white, mostly middle-class students. I realized I had made a huge mistake: no matter how much Eliot spoke to the frustrations of the modern individual, teaching his work would do little to reach out to this disenfranchised, deeply frustrated group of young men unless I tried something new.

            Although this prison classroom might appear quite different from those in college, the pedagogical moment that came about here was critical to my development as a college teacher. That is, in part, because it illustrates the fundamental problem with Helen Vendler’s[2] impassioned argument for teaching others to “love what we have loved” (17), something that has long been my strong pedagogical desire. Vendler contends that when presenting the study of writing and literature to our students, we must present age-appropriate material that has an “indisputably literary embodiment” (25). But at its heart, Vendler’s argument encourages us to steer students toward the canon, for what we love is the writing practice and the literature that it produces, but too often, that is of a particular kind: that which has had its value largely determined by a core white elite.

          But the canon as we once knew it is of course now in flux; the people who have long been consigned to the literary margins are increasingly being pulled into the center. My students and this knowledge inspired me to take a different approach to my course. On that first day, I scrapped my lesson and instead asked my students to help me establish a working definition of literature – something that has lasting artistic merit and value – and then we talked about where in their lives and their reading they were already encountering this particular definition, even in part. Together, we assembled a list of rappers and urban writers and what they found valuable about them. At home that night, I drafted a new course syllabus incorporating prison writing such as King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and Mandela’s Conversations With Myself, and I also paired the work of writers from their list like Run D.M.C. with canonical writers such as T.S. Eliot. The exercise that came out of that pairing - a comparison of the lyrics “It’s Tricky” with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and companion writing exercise - reinforced what is so valuable in Eliot, jumpstarted a conversation about modernism and postmodernism, and highlighted connections between Eliot and the rap group in ways that spoke to my students. The new approach infused the canon with a sense of elasticity for them. It also taught them that literature is not just a category but a quality, a sense of resonance, relevance, and craft that can easily be recognized in the works of writing by people in marginalized groups and even as a thread in works considered by most to be outside the canon completely. As a result, by the end of my course, my students were sitting in the front row, engaging in heated class discussion. They were reading urban literature with an eye towards finding parallels to writers like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. And although they still understandably preferred the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, they gave Sylvia Plath their undivided attention.

             To Vendler’s point, then, I argue this: it is equally valuable to teach my students how to think critically about what they love as it is to try to teach them to love what I love. While the study of English requires immersion in a broad range of texts and the acquisition of a host of techniques and skills, I believe that the path to encouraging student receptiveness to that work is by modeling for them how to love literature and the writing craft in a way that allows them to do it thoughtfully and ably themselves, not simply try to get them to replicate my passion. If I give them structured guidance paired with a modicum of freedom to find their own way, they will also be more inclined to follow me, because they will have been led there by respect rather than by force.

            This, then, has become my fundamental teaching philosophy: to help students find their own way in the classroom. In order to accomplish this, I use four guiding principles: a commitment to the inclusion of people with all manners of difference; a dedication to flexible pedagogy, what I call creativity; a focus on collaboration in classroom creation and instruction, and a dedication to teaching the intricacies of the craft of writing. These principles served me well then; by revising my syllabus using student feedback, I was able to make connections between seemingly disparate texts that I wouldn't have otherwise. More importantly, I gained the confidence and support of my students, who had never been asked before what they wanted to study.

            These principles also serve me well now: since I began teaching college students in 1999, I have since seen similar behaviors from students of a variety of races, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, and abilities who often feel pushed to the margins of the classroom by a dominating “norm.” But that “norm” is a myth. Most students that I teach have backgrounds or experiences that can sometimes make them feel marginalized or excluded. It is imperative, then, for me to make my classroom a welcoming place for all people. While it is impractical for me to rewrite my syllabus each semester after student consultation, my prison teaching experience reminds me to think differently about class construction and approach before I write my syllabus in the first place. Most importantly, it reminds me that my job is not only to educate my students, but also to expect more of them, because they are more than capable of delivering. 

 

[1] As Michelle Alexander notes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “mass incarceration in the United States ha(s), in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (4).

[2] See “What We Have Loved” from Teaching Literature: What Is Needed Now, eds. James Engall and David Perkins, Cambridge, MA, Harvard UP, 1988, pp. 13-25.

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