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 experiments in teaching have been informed by the HHIVE Lab (Health Humanities Venue for Interdisciplinary Exploration), of which I am a founding member, and the values of the Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I have learned to adapt my teaching priorities to the cross-section of writing, literature, and interdisciplinary courses that make English departments so dynamic, and these priorities are captured by three core principles that I have identified over the course of my university teaching: horizontal exchange, collaboration, and process.
The HHIVE Lab is 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, including conceptualization, implementation, and write up. While many STEM students develop research skills in laboratories that keep them in close contact with faculty and peers, with few exceptions, humanities students lack similar opportunities to collaborate with faculty and graduate student researchers. The HHIVE Lab fosters these kinds of interactions through combined graduate and undergraduate courses, group projects, and day-to-day interaction in a shared working space, demonstrating the importance of collaborative research to undergraduate learning in the humanities. As a faculty member, I aim to establish a health humanities lab modeled after HHIVE and design courses around interdisciplinary research projects.
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 hand a class period over to the students. Assigned discussion leaders prepare questions, class activities, and close reading passages to facilitate discussion, in which I participate as a “student.” In these moments, we approach one another as peers in a shared learning community.
I encourage collaboration by establishing a community of learners in which students practice reading strategies, test new ideas, and workshop arguments. To encourage meaningful exchange of ideas, I establish small writing communities within the composition classroom and learning communities in the literature classroom. Students are arranged in small groups and spend the semester completing collaborative tasks, discussing course topics, and workshopping their ideas and drafts. These smaller communities quickly establish rapport and provide a support in and out of the classroom. Moreover, the group environment trains students in 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.
When it comes to learning how to write, I believe that students must write. I take a process-based approach to writing and research, meaning that I develop assignments and in-class activities that scaffold the process and give students access to ample peer and instructor feedback. In my literature courses, I require multiple assignments that range from informal reflections in a 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 real-world models, I encourage students to identify the differences in writing conventions, develop a framework for their own writing, and hone their critical reading skills all before beginning to draft the assignment. For example, the first feeder assignment in my composition class asks students to propose a health policy topic in a brief email. This feeder teaches professionalism, research synthesis, and concision while drafting a portion of the unit project introduction.
Just as I ask my students to adapt to peer and instructor feedback, I seek out feedback and adjust my teaching accordingly. For instance, in my first few semesters of teaching composition, students wanted to learn more about revisions, not just writing in different modes. I realized that including peer workshops did not guaranteed 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. At UNC, graduate student instructors are regularly observed by a Peer Mentor who offers encouragement and feedback. As both a Peer Mentor and mentee, I focus on learning from other instructors. I have incorporated new activities, like student-lead discussion, after seeing a peer use the activity effectively in her own course. Just as my students benefit from critiquing a peer’s draft, I also benefit from ongoing conversations with peer instructors. These evaluations and observations provide me with an opportunity to reflect on my teaching methods and make adjustments to my next experiment.