Theories of Teaching Literature & the Teaching Philosophy

Elaine Showalter’s second chapter “Theories of Teaching Literature” (Teaching Literature 2003) has once again made me realize that I have no exact pedagogy when I teach.  Granted, I am now only teaching my 5th class ever, and Showalter does note that “In practice, all of us combine variations of these theories, and apply them intuitively in relation to the circumstances of the course” (27).  Yet after being asked to write my teaching philosophy in a previous practicum and with the job market looming in my future next fall, I get the sense that I should have a better idea of my own approach to teaching.  For this reason I looked forward to Showalter’s breakdown of teaching theory into four categories (Subject-Centered, Teacher-Centered, Student-Centered, and Eclectic Theories), but I find that I am not closer to explaining my approach to teaching than I was when I drafted my first (and only) teaching philosophy.

I can say with certainty that my teaching style is *not* performance based.  I have never been comfortable “acting” (or, for similar reasons, lying) and I am simply not good at it.  For this reason, I have yet to truly develop a teaching persona.  My persona in the classroom is no different than my persona outside the classroom, which can at times be a disadvantage.  I am younger, and I look even younger than I am, so putting on a more authoritative or strict teaching persona would, I think, be an advantage that could resolve some issues that develop in the classroom. But while I have tried to do so, it inevitably fades away as I become too tired and stressed to make such a conscious effort, not to mention the fact that it makes class less fun for me as the instructor.  Hence I go with my “normal” persona and deal with issues that develop (such as students not believing me when I tell them that I am strict concerning my late work and attendance policies).  Anyway, as I have forgone even the most basic assumption of a role/persona, I find it unlikely that I am consciously or unconsciously performing in the classroom (unless it is to pretend that I’m less exhausted than I am).

And while I can support the idea of “a community of learning that includes the teacher and the students,” I do not view learning as a “spiritual journey” in which we must all face our fear and thereby our ignorance (34).  This approach would seem to ignore the practical aspects of learning, whether that be to analyze literature or write in general, and, as it is presented by Showalter, has much less emphasis on the learning of the student than the reflection and openness of the instructor.

In terms of subject-centered theories, I can say that I have tapped into some of these practices, such as providing a contextual lecture on gender roles in 19th-century Britain in order to allow students to better understand the issues at play in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret or even a brief introductory lecture to the figure of the femme fatale in Romantic poetry.  But these lectures do not take up an entire class period, nor are they an end in themselves. The idea is not for the student to memorize the information so much as for them to be familiar with the information so they can better understand and analyze the text(s).  Moreover, I have at least come close to the approach of “Teaching the Conflicts” in that same course (Intro to Fiction and Writing on the topic of the femme fatale) but not in a formal way.  We had several class debates on whether various femmes fatales were characters the reader could or should sympathize, whether they were mad or sane, whether they were victims or criminals/predators, and whether their actions could or should be excused or punished.  In the case of Lady Audley’s Secret, scholars have debated whether or not she is truly mad and even what it means to be considered mad, so our class discussions did follow this scholarly conflict. However, I did not assign readings from opposing scholars and then ask them to agree or disagree–I instead asked for their interpretation of the texts and their evidence to support that interpretation.

I would like to say my teaching style is student-centered, but stopping at this point just seems vague and I’m not sure how to narrow it down any further.  I tend not to plan too far in advance so I can adjust the schedule according to how quickly or slowly the students are grasping the material and skills.  I use techniques that were used in my own undergraduate classrooms, from group activities whose results were voted upon to receive extra credit points to large group discussions and short in-class writings to help students collect their thoughts. I emphasize participation and asking questions (from both students and myself), as well as individual responsibility.

So basically, I learned from Showalter what, as an instructor, I’m not (such as a performer) but I’m still not sure what I am.  What exactly is my approach and how would I explain it in a teaching philosophy? I really don’t know yet.


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