When I walked into the classroom to teach my first real class after completing my M.F.A. in 2001, I was met with hostility: my students were sitting in the very back row of the class, their arms all crossed, their eyes wary and resentful. And little surprise: the classroom had bars over its windows and desks nailed to the floor; its walls were clay-colored and sparsely decorated with motivational posters from the 1980s. But this wasn’t some inner-city school; it was a transitional prison facility. These students had no books, no sharp pencils, and no privacy. Corrections officers roamed the hallways outside my classroom, peeking in like clockwork once every two minutes, their fingers tapping the weapons on their belts as if keeping time, as if counting down towards some anticipated moment of violence.
The 13 students in my class were all criminals, and most of them violent: car thieves and corner store armed robbers and rapists and murderers. All of them were between the ages of 15 and 17. All of them were African American or Hispanic. And they were all consigned to this facility in a kind of temporal limbo, waiting until they turned 18 and could be transferred to the state prison. As they sat at the back of the classroom that first day, their fists clenched, their jaws tight, I knew that what I had planned for my lesson that first day was not going to work. Reading the work of 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 students, and it was often a success. But up until that point, I had always taught classes of mostly white, mostly middle class students. I realized immediately that I had made a huge mistake: no matter how much Eliot spoke to the frustrations of the modern individual in that poem, his work would do little to reach out to this disgruntled, disenfranchised, and deeply frustrated group of young men unless I found a way to approach it differently.
Although this prison classroom might appear to be quite different from the college classrooms we are used to, the pedagogical moment that came about here is the perfect practical example of the fundamental problem with Helen Vendler’s impassioned argument for teaching others to “love what we have loved” (17). Although Vendler argues that we cannot abandon the “local and the ethnic” (24), she does contend that when we present the study of writing and literature to our students, we must present them with age-appropriate material that has an “indisputably literary embodiment” (25). At its heart, Vendler is arguing for steering students toward the canon, for teaching students that what we love is the writing practice and the literature that it produces, but a particular kind: the kind of practice and product which has had value largely determined by a core elite.
In this prison course, however, I took a different approach. On that first day, I asked 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. We put together a list of rappers and urban writers that they had an affinity for, and we discussed in a cursory way what they found valuable about them. When I went home that night, I wrote up an entirely new syllabus for the course. I put together a list of prison writing that we would cover each week – King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Mandela’s Conversations With Myself – and I also paired the work of rappers like Run D.M.C. with canonical writers such as T.S. Eliot. The exercise that came out of that pairing in particular - a comparison of the lyrics “It’s Tricky” with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” - helped to reinforce what is so valuable in Eliot and to jumpstart a conversation about modernism and postmodernism, but it also highlighted connections between Eliot and the rap group in ways that spoke to my students. It infused the canon with a sense of elasticity for them; it also taught them that good literature and good writing is not just a category but a quality, a sense of longevity, craft, and value that can be picked up as a thread in works that may not qualify in their entirety as a part of the canon.
As a result of this re-envisioning, by the end of my course, my students were sitting in the front row, and they were engaging in heated class discussion. They were reading urban literature with an eye towards finding parallels in the text to writers like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. They were as receptive to studying the poetry of Sylvia Plath as they were to studying the songs of Tupac Shakur.
To Vendler’s point, then, I would argue this: it is equally valuable, in the end, to teach our students how to think critically about what they love as it is to try to teach them to love what we love. We as teachers must model how to love something in a way that allows them to do it ably and thoughtfully themselves, not simply try to get them to replicate our own passion. And, if we give them the guidance as well as a modicum of freedom to find their own way, then they might also be inclined to follow our way as well, because they will be thankful that they were led there by respect rather than by force.
Because I see my job as assisting students in finding their own way in the classroom, as an instructor, I have found myself gravitating toward four distinct pedagogical areas of focus: a commitment to inclusion of people with all manners of difference, a distinct focus on creativity in pedagogy, an intense focus on collaboration in classroom instruction, and a dedication to the teaching of the craft of writing. These are my guiding principles, and the narrative I've just shared with you illustrates this philosophy in part. By opening my syllabus up to student feedback, I was able to make connections between seemingly disparate texts that I wouldn't have otherwise; more importantly, however, I gained the confidence and support of my students, who had never been asked before what they wanted to study. As a result, I saw a level of focus and determination that I might have missed had I not been flexible; I have since seen similar behaviors from what I like to call "students of difference" - people of a variety of races, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, abilities and experiences who often feel pushed to the margins of the classroom by a dominating norm. What I have found, however, is that the "norm," even in our seemingly homogenous classes at the University of Kentucky, is often a myth; most students that we teach, regardless of their appearance, have identities or experiences that can sometimes make them feel marginalized and excluded from conversations, and so it is imperative for us to find ways to make the classroom an inviting, welcoming place for people of all backgrounds. While it may not be practical to open my syllabus each semester to students, it does remind me to think differently each semester about class construction and approach, and it reminds me that my job is not only to teach and assist my students more, but to expect more of them.
This introduction to my pedagogical approach speaks more to my philosophical commitment to welcoming all students into my classroom. On other pages on this website, I'll offer more insight into the specifics of how I attempt to do that and how my other three tenents of creativity, collaboration, and craft all come into play. I hope you'll join me to learn more.