by Kathryn Fleishman, English
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015
In my R1B course “American Beauties: Aesthetics of Violence and Sexuality,” we grappled with a range of ethically challenging novels and films, as well as aesthetic theory from Kant to Sontag. My students initially came to class charged with emotional reactions to these magnetic and disturbing works but hesitant to venture their own opinions, seeking answers from me on how they should interpret the texts at hand. Instead, I strove to teach my students not what to think, but how to think for themselves. In addition to the skills of close reading and research, so central to R1B, I hoped my students would learn to risk an argument: that is, to think critically towards an original idea and to engage gracefully in debate with others.
My goal was a set of final papers in which research effectively buttressed my students’ own unique claims, rather than echoing my presentation of the course texts. I sought to foster independent thinking by encouraging participation in two expedient and familiar technologies: bCourses, where a weekly discussion leader posted a short essay on the supplementary reading, and Twitter, a multimedia platform my students used with fluency, where I set up a course feed for questions, links, and opinions on all aspects of the readings. The first week saw just a few posts. However, two controversial tweets about the film and the presenter’s tenacious stance on the philosophy reading ignited an energetic discussion, and the pursuit of further interconnections between the texts continued on Twitter all day after class ended. The following week, every student in the class responded on bCourses, while the number of tweets multiplied, forming a rich stream of film stills, music videos, quotation dissections, literary hashtags, dictionary definitions, article links, and strong opinions. Making myself available by email and consistently active on bCourses and Twitter, I extended my presence as an instructor, pushing students to pursue their ideas further, as they casually tweeted thoughts between class meetings in the midst of their reading process. As they were called to defend their opinions in class, students began citing texts in their tweets, which grew sleeker and more argumentative, and they increasingly interacted with me as scholars and with one another as colleagues. Even the quietest students were drawn to participate, not only by me, but by their fellow classmates, and debates continued as students re-tweeted and updated posts throughout the week. I drew on these forums for research-oriented exercises, devising Socratic Seminar topics (discussions for which students prepared notes in advance and then ran class themselves while I observed) or group exercises (such as the day they searched in pairs for textual examples of pastiche, then collaborated to create a class PowerPoint). Thus, as students learned to hazard intellectual risks, they also practiced refining them, differentiating their opinions from those of their classmates, as well as examining places of overlap and indebtedness to one another. We applied these lessons to their writing, discussing proper citation of ideas and passages, why they agreed with the particular scholars they were each researching, how their own arguments branched off from other scholars, and how to employ sound logic, rhetoric, and textual evidence to strengthen their positions. Through a series of library workshops, required office hours, emailed drafts, and peer editing sessions, students polished the opinions they had proffered as tweets and comments into solid theses for their individual research projects, transforming uncertain, visceral reactions into logical, distinctive arguments.
I measure my students’ success by the variety and sophistication of the research papers I received: no two were alike, and all genuinely surprised me. One student contrasted the Kantian and the postmodern sublime in American Psycho, another wrote about Sianne Ngai’s concept of “the interesting” in Blade Runner and Her, and a third received the English R1B essay prize for explicating the gothic aesthetic of nostalgia in Lolita and The Virgin Suicides. That student crystallized my pedagogical hopes in a department blog piece, writing, “I am so grateful for this award, but more so for what it represents: having learned to find pleasure in the process of writing and to approach the intricacies of literature with curiosity.” Challenged with independent critical thinking and absorbed in a network of ideas that reached out of our classroom and into their everyday lives, my students developed the willingness to risk an argument along with a strong grasp of the research process. In turn, I experienced the thrill of watching them move away from, against, and beyond my ideas as their instructor, tweeting their way towards independent argumentation.