On the first day of class I ask each student to share their favorite course. This is a way to both survey academic interests and understand what types of pedagogy have been most effective. As a student, introductions often felt like a paradoxical call to perform mastery when the one thing unifying everyone was a wish to learn more about the subject at hand. My goal is instead to make every student feel heard and continually invited to the space of the classroom.
As a teacher of the humanities, I feel two distinct responsibilities: the first is to communicate what I value; the second is not to take that value for granted. Since the benefit of reading books may not be immediately apparent to everyone, I invite my students to ask questions until the purpose of our work becomes sufficiently demystified. I also take every opportunity to create resonances across texts and contexts so that the history of ideas feels of a piece with the world in which we live. For instance: connecting the Greek concept of barbarism in Madea with Frantz Fanon’s phenomenology of blackness, with early 20th century US case law that struggled to define a positive concept of whiteness.
I have also given two invited lectures. The first was on Angela Davis’s autobiography, and the second on Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. By demonstrating how Davis and Fanon use the personal as a vehicle for theorizing the social, I encouraged students to rethink the genre of autobiography and criticism. These lectures helped me design a summer course entitled “Trial and Error: Making and Breaking the Law,” which continues the theme of denaturalizing law and its subjects. These experiences have challenged me to bridge the distance between undergraduates and my own research, which is often addressed to an audience of specialists.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of teaching is developing the students’ writing. I give substantive feedback beginning with the first paper so that the students know their writing has a reader, and encourage them to attend my office hours. I use writing as a way to connect with the students, who often become more engaged in recitation once they feel that their work has been recognized.
It can be difficult to measure success in this context, but I am encouraged by the fact that every student evaluation has affirmed my recommendation as an instructor, and by the ongoing academic relationships I have sustained. I regularly make office hours for former students, and host reading groups outside of seminars; I have advised freshmen who later joined the major, and helped seniors with applying to graduate school; I have had several students repeatedly enroll in my sections, and continue to write letters of recommendation. Especially at a large university, it feels important to continue cultivating the intellectual community established during the semester into the broader academic life of every student.