I am committed to fostering productive intellectual dialogue in which students gather, evaluate, and analyze textual evidence while learning how to respectfully listen to and creatively engage with unfamiliar viewpoints. For example, in my Early American Literature and Culture seminar, “Reason, Rage, Revolution,” we connect the study of revolutionary literature and democratic rhetoric to the historical record of racialized slavery, internment, and incarceration in the U.S. In this class, my students learn how to juxtapose close-readings of Barbary captivity narratives, such as Susanna Rowson’s Slaves in Algiers (1794), with critical analyses of eighteenth-century Constitutional debates about religious pluralism and the slave narratives of Omar ibn Said and Olaudah Equiano. They thereby learn how to historically contextualize contemporary debates about personal freedom, public safety, and social justice.
I teach my students to develop critical reading habits by testing out original ideas in dialogue with their peers. In my upper-level survey of American Literature, 1800-1865, I thus encourage my students to teach each other by guiding them in external research that they share in visually rich presentations. Recent presentations have ranged from such topics as the fascicle and manuscript history of Emily Dickinson’s poetry to the material culture of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) in the nineteenth century and its afterlives in Kara Walker’s art installation The End of Uncle Tom (1995). I design all of my assignments—including online blog posts, academic essays, and multimodal presentations—with the goal of showing students that the acts of close reading, careful research, original argument, and public debate are inextricably connected.
Whether I am teaching an upper-level course in critical theory or using its methodologies to anchor an introductory literature seminar, I help my students view literary studies as part of a broader conversation about aesthetics, history, and politics. When I teach Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855), for example, I require students to read the serialized novella in its original publication context (in Putnam’s Monthly) along with excerpts from Amasa Delano’s Narrative of Voyages (1817), Melville’s source text. I ask my students to discuss the relation between Delano’s autobiographical record and the gothic conventions of Melville’s novella. Similarly, when I teach Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life (1845), I introduce students to facsimiles of the title pages and paratexts from each of his three editions to open up a broader discussion about the politics and practices of black authorship and publication in the U.S.
My emphasis on the affective, structural, and political dimensions of literature yields an interdisciplinary classroom. In addition to my medical humanities seminar on gender studies, women’s literature, and the history of psychology, called “Disturbed Minds,” I teach a range of courses that cross disciplinary boundaries and integrate theoretical frameworks. These courses include “Captivity” (on the transatlantic literary tradition of kidnapped hostages who have lived to tell their tales); “American Gothic” (on the aesthetic and historical dimensions of the genre); and “Nature/Nurture” (an American ecopoetics course that explores the role of environmentalism in poetic discourses on race, class, gender, regionalism, and nationalism). Through interdisciplinary learning, my students develop individualized research plans and discover diverse points of contact with the literary, social, and political contexts they inhabit as critical thinkers and authors of cultural change.