How I Teach

This is how I teach.

This is a statement of my fundamental pedagogical principles. It is a living document -- as it should be.

This is a version of the teaching statement I submitted with my tenure dossier. This statement is not designed to fulfill the specific expectations of a "teaching philosophy" as it is commonly understood, however. If you want advice on how to write such a document, go here.

Students in the Renaissance were trained to actively engage with texts. A reader was expected to use a text, expending the effort to comprehend its meanings and implications, and incorporating the material into a new work. It was a process aimed at achieving practical and intellectual objectives. Good books were used books. Reading always demanded writing.

I encourage students to imitate Renaissance readers by employing a goal-oriented approach to their studies that will be useful within and beyond our classroom. I also aim to provide the skills and tools that students need to confront the textual, material, ethical, and technological challenges of all the texts they encounter.

I teach the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries within their historical, textual, and institutional contexts. My goal is to help students gain an understanding and appreciation of how these works were created and valued in their own time -- and, more importantly, to show how these works have shaped our own time, and what they can teach us about the world we inhabit.

In my undergraduate courses, reading and writing is considered and conducted from three perspectives:

  • Textuality: the literary, historical, and critical texts that we read, and the various kinds of texts that students produce
  • Materiality: the various forms of media that constitute and shape our response to texts, including early manuscripts and printed books, critical editions and anthologies, theatrical performances, films, online databases -- not to mention pencils, paper, laptops, and phones
  • Work: the actual work of assembling, analyzing, and actively using the course materials

The first thing I tell my students is to Stop Thinking and Start Working -- that is, work through the material, and let a discovery or an argument emerge from that work. Starting with a predetermined argument -- that is, thinking -- means that you are in danger of simply finding what you expected or wanted to find. Working is a form of commonplacing, of inventio --- and it is an approach that I've adapted from Peter Stallybrass, who is Against Thinking. If you want to understand why I teach how I teach, just read his essay.

Rather than providing a summary of individual classes -- course descriptions can be found here -- I will outline a few of the important aspects of and assignments in all my courses that exemplify this rubric in practice.

My first goal is to build reading skills, and so we spend most of our time in class considering a text closely and carefully in order to ensure that students are not only familiar and comfortable with early modern (or theoretical) language, but also adept at interpreting and finding meaning in all aspects of the discourse. My courses provide an introduction to a broad range of texts, genres, and authors (from the canonical to the marginal) with an eye towards exposing students to a diverse range of ideological issues. I consider it my duty as an educator to teach texts, like Othello, which insistently meditate on problems we continue to confront -- such as conflicts in religion, commerce, sexuality, and violence. 

My focus is on analysis rather than coverage, and so we spend more time on fewer texts in order to exploit the full range of resources available -- including this lengthy list of links. We also combine close-reading with historical research, and engage in the kinds of distant reading (in all its forms) made possible by digitized Shakespearean texts, images, and databases.

In a series of activities which help me to gauge students' abilities to read and interpret texts, and to perform academic research, we ask and answer questions like the following: What does the word "villain" mean? How many times does it occur in Romeo and Juliet, and in what contexts? Why do the occurrences cluster around Romeo, and how is this connected to the larger concern with names and labels in the play? How does language shape -- or limit -- our experience of the world?

I think of reading as a form of media literacy: if I can teach students how to read a sonnet, in all its forms, using all the available technologies, then they have the tools they need to understand and interpret other kinds of texts. I also expand the definition of "text" to consider larger conceptual issues. For example, in my "Defending Poetry" course we examine the different ways literary genres have been defined by poets, artists, and critics from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century, and explore how those definitions have shaped our view of the humanities. My Shakespeare courses introduce students to the different versions of the writer they know only as the Bard: the historical person, the poems and plays that comprise his complete works, and the unavoidably powerful cultural icon. The objective of my Renaissance Drama course is to elucidate the connections and gaps between text and performance: What are the implicit and explicit indications of performance in a play? Are there alternate possibilities? How does the staging affect our interpretations? How are these different forms of media linked, both in the Renaissance and in our own historically contingent conception of them?

My identity as a scholar and a teacher is that of a book historian, and I have been formally trained in teaching the materiality of texts. My goal is to demonstrate how material forms shape our interactions with texts, and to explore how those interactions have changed over time. All of my classes visit and exploit the resources of our Special Collections libraries -- particularly my graduate seminars and undergraduate "Literature and the Book" courses. I collaborate with librarians to make collections more accessible: through jointly delivered instructional talks, by developing a freely available list of books that anyone can use to explore a particular topic, and by incorporating material into my website, which provides access to scholars and students everywhere. Class sessions often develop into and result in extended projects. In addition to formal critical essays, examples of projects completed by undergraduate and graduate students include surveying our STC collection, curating library exhibits, crafting proposals for critical editions of specific books, designing and publishing databases and websites, and craft work at the UI Center for the Book.

To be a successful reader and writer requires work, and the assignments in my classes are designed to allow students to build an inventory of materials and skills that fosters comprehension and drives their work forward. My "Literature and the Book" students make their own commonplace books throughout the semester, gathering and arranging excerpts from the course materials (and beyond) according to criteria that we develop collaboratively. I incorporate similar activities into all my courses: students are expected to submit thorough and thoughtful weekly discussion questions to an online forum, and to complete several formal research exercises. These assignments include (but are not limited to) describing a book in Special Collections, editing a passage from a play, designing the staging for a scene, and drawing a map (conceptual or otherwise) of the course materials.

I emphasize process rather than product: the work of a semester can culminate in a critical essay, a research project, a special creative work, or something else. I enable students to find connections between the course and their own interests, goals, and ambitions. I ask students to propose their own projects -- and I always say "yes" so that we can work together to build something productive and useful. Education majors design lesson plans for a Shakespeare play; Theatre Arts students provide a performance history of a play, working as a dramaturg; creative writers work in their own favorite genre, complementing poems and short stories with a critical essay; other projects build on the research exercises, and result in a film review, a critical edition of a scene, or a theoretical analysis of an important ethical component of a play. On several occasions the work in my class has inspired an Honors Thesis or other independent project.

My graduate courses employ many of the same principles and methods as my undergraduate courses. Frequent research exercises and response papers have been particularly effective and appreciated by students. All of my graduate courses provide an advanced introduction to the fields in which I work, with an emphasis on the critical methodologies and resources for research that are necessary for good scholarship. I also focus on the pedagogical strategies that can be used in the courses our graduate students (and graduates) teach.

The Shakespeare courses I have taught at the graduate level demonstrate the range of critical approaches in early modern studies, and our discussions balance historical context, theoretical insight, and explicit instruction in pedagogy. Like the work of commonplacing, I design graduate seminars as a gradual and cumulative progression in which each stage of a research project is considered. My Shakespeare students write and deliver a conference paper, proceeding from a proposal and abstract through a bibliography, a workshop presentation, and a formal critical essay. My book history seminars extend the process to the drafting of a critical article, or to some other project that is well-suited to their particular intellectual and professional commitments.

Finally, I have been extensively involved in training graduate students beyond field-specific courses and seminars. I have proposed, designed, and taught a Professional Development Practicum that focuses on career planning. I utilize many of the same central principles outlined above -- a practicum is not only practical, but concerned with action and engagement. The goal is not simply to acclimate graduate students to academic life, or to get them a job. Rather, the larger goal is to teach students how to communicate the value of their work -- and the value of the humanities -- to a wide audience.