My classroom is a laboratory. I ask my students to treat class as a place to explore new ideas, try out different writing and reading strategies, and learn from our experiments together. Likewise, I continually revise my modes of teaching. My teaching has been informed by my interdisciplinary training and research in the HHIVE Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and, now, the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. I have learned to adapt my teaching priorities to the cross-section of writing, literature, culture, and medicine that make interdisciplinary programs so dynamic. These priorities are captured by four core principles that I have identified over the course of my university teaching career: horizontal exchange, collaboration, inclusivity, and process.
I learned about the benefit of horizontal exchange as a founding member of the HHIVE Lab, a collaborative interdisciplinary research laboratory in health humanities that borrows from the scientific laboratory model with one key difference, a horizontal structure. HHIVE research teams are comprised of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students, who contribute to all stages of the project from conceptualization and implementation to write up. In my courses, I model horizontal exchange by participating in student-lead discussion and small-group activities as an active member. Any given class period may include small group discussion, a seminar-style discussion, or a formalized writing workshop, all of which are designed to place student ideas at the center of the class. At least once a week, I empower students to lead class discussion. Assigned discussion leaders prepare questions and class activities to facilitate discussion, in which I participate as a “student.” In these moments, I step back to enable students to engage with one another and consider the diverse perspectives of their peers. Occasionally, I will interject to bring the discussion back to the text, but I practice restraint to allow students to negotiate discussion together.
I encourage collaboration by fostering a classroom environment in which students actively practice reading strategies, test new ideas, and workshop arguments together. To encourage meaningful exchange of ideas, I establish small writing communities in my writing classroom and learning communities in my literature classroom. In these groups, students spend the semester completing collaborative tasks, discussing course topics, and workshopping their ideas and drafts. These smaller communities quickly establish rapport and provide support in and out of the classroom. Through experience, students learn effective collaboration strategies that will be necessary for both academic and professional success. In keeping with my emphasis on horizontal exchange, I give each group the autonomy to develop projects and make group decisions.
I am committed to creating an inclusive intellectual environment in which diverse perspectives strengthen the exchange of ideas and all students have an opportunity to thrive. I take steps in my course design and classroom environment to promote inclusion and respect. In the first week of the semester, I ask my students to write a letter to introduce themselves to me. This open-ended prompt provides a private space for students to share their experiences and the knowledge that I value their unique perspective. It also establishes an open line of communication that is essential to inclusive teaching. I consider diverse learning needs when designing assignments, ensuring that students have a range of ways to demonstrate mastery of course content, from formal papers and presentations, to informal writing assignments and discussion. To support students who feel less comfortable speaking up in class, I maintain a virtual discussion board to facilitate continued conversation outside of the classroom. I consider these posts alongside in-class activity when evaluating student participation to acknowledge differences in learning styles.
I believe that students must write in order to learn how to write. I take a process-based approach to writing and research, in which I develop assignments and in-class activities that scaffold the process and give students access to ample peer and professor feedback. In my literature courses, I require multiple assignments that range from an informal weekly reading log to formal research projects modeled on real-world genres, like a scholarly introduction to a literary text. In every class, I model the close reading and analytical skills that are crucial to academic writing about literature by asking students to cite and analyze specific textual examples in discussion. I deliberately frame discussion as practice in composing an argument to demystify the academic writing process and demonstrate the importance of thinking of writing as a conversation. Using models, I encourage students to identify the differences in writing conventions, develop a framework for their own writing, and hone their critical reading skills before beginning to draft the assignment. For example, graduate students in my interdisciplinary writing course write a rhetorical analysis of piece of writing they plan to model for their course project well before they start drafting the project.
Just as I ask my students to adapt to feedback, I seek out feedback and adjust my teaching accordingly. For instance, in my first few semesters of teaching, students wanted to learn more about revisions, not just writing in different modes. I realized that including peer workshops did not guarantee that students knew how to use the feedback they receive. Since then, I have focused more on offering specific tools for revision and modeling revision practices in class. Additionally, I look for opportunities to learn from other instructors whether as a Peer Mentor at UNC or through the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt. Just as my students benefit from critiquing a peer’s draft, my teaching benefits from ongoing conversations with peer instructors that allow me to reflect on my teaching methods and make adjustments to my next experiment.