Julie Berthoud, Cincinnati, October 2014
Thanks to my interdisciplinary research and teaching interests, I have taught a broad range of undergraduate courses in a variety of departments and disciplines at the University of Cincinnati and Louisiana State University. In my encounters in the classroom, I have found that these students, from diverse traditional and non-traditional backgrounds and varying disciplines, are eager to engage with challenging and stimulating contents that elicit thinking “outside of the box.”
Every classroom setting has its own unique dynamics, and as a teacher, it is necessary to tweak these dynamics toward the educational goals of teacher and student. Therefore, I do not subscribe to one specific teaching approach, but rather to a flexible combination of multiple varying approaches that can be tailored toward specific needs. Sometimes I am a subject matter expert and “liaison” for disciplinary knowledge, sometimes a coach and mentor, and sometimes a supportive but critical respondent to speaking and writing. In every role, however, I try to fulfill my mission of assisting students to develop the kind of competencies that will contribute to their autonomy and confidence. Whether in my upper-level “Modern World Literature” seminar, my first-year writing class on language and prejudice, or ESL 2089 “Advanced English Composition for International Students” I am teaching this semester, I strive to leave students with solid foundational skills sets that enable them to make meaningful and productive connections relevant to their lives. For example, in preparation for their intensive discussion of primary readings, ESL students write “six-word memoirs” or “six-word summaries” to focus on the key ideas of a text. This focused engagement with a text, I find, helps students grasp the important ideas of an individual text in a playful and engaged manner where creativity counts. Once the six key concepts are established, details can be added back to the narrative, a process that helps students gain fluency in shifting from big-picture thinking to a detailed and nuanced rendition of events and facts.
Broadly, my approach to teaching accentuates three principal tenets. First, every act of communication is an act of translation shaped by participating individuals. If literacy means understanding and learning to read and translate cultural texts and perspectives within and beyond familiar frames and boundaries, I invite students, by ways of exploring their own beliefs as a continuum, to discover, decode, and think through the nuanced, multi-layered messages conveyed in literary and visual landscapes and how we as participating individuals actively shape the meaning of texts through our own voice and perception. Second, this kind of practice considers teaching as a two-way street. I believe that educators may be experts in their fields, but the task of an educator is to teach students the tools to become experts themselves. I want to strongly distance myself from the view that students are empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge. In my opinion, learning is a collaborative endeavor enabled through active participation and exchange. Thus, I challenge students to “claim their education,” as Adrienne Rich has articulated it, to take responsibility for their role as learners and to view themselves as dynamic actors with valid and important contributions to offer. Third, I am deeply committed to the principles of service-learning as an avenue to learning responsible engagement with issues and people outside of university walls. In this context, I introduce literature as a meeting-place for meaningful engagement and exploration as texts create spaces for new ideas, for dialogues, and to spur action while emphasizing the integral responsibility of listening respectfully to others.