My pedagogy is motivated by two central beliefs. First, I believe that teaching empathy is fundamental to the humanities. Disciplines in the humanities can help students understand the human condition in ways that cannot be achieved through the life sciences or social sciences alone. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why the humanities matters, and why we humanities scholars have so vigilantly defended our disciplines from the panic surrounding the recent slew of budgetary crises. Second, I believe that literary and cultural works can offer a means of understanding others in ways that other kinds of documents cannot. In teaching language, literature, and culture, considerations of empathetic reading, viewing, and listening characterize discussion in my classroom and the courses I design.
My goal as a teacher is to open a world of knowledge, skills, and experiences to my students for them to explore, navigate, and inhabit. In the classroom, I work with students to take social, cultural, political, and personal contexts into account when analyzing a literary text or a visual, cinematic, or musical work. In so doing, different cultural contexts become more understandable. Literature and cultural works can reach through history, and geo-political time and space, to offer students an experience of worlds vastly different from their own. Thus, contextualization can help students engage with foreign cultural works whether they are studying, for example, sixteenth-century French literature or contemporary African film.
I first developed my pedagogical philosophy and practices through two years as a French language instructor at the University of Michigan. In these courses, I viewed writing and conversation work as opportunities for students to reconsider their perspectives on both French and American cultures. For instance, in introducing a unit on French holidays in French 231, I asked students to work in groups to draft short descriptions of Thanksgiving in French. As the students read the descriptions aloud, they were humored, startled, and/or taken aback by the way their peers had described a holiday of which, it seemed to have been assumed, most of us shared common experiences. This in-class writing and speaking assignment led to conversations about government-recognized religious holidays in the United States alongside related experiences of Muslim and Jewish students in class, and how this was similar and different from the treatment of non-Catholic holidays in France. Next, I had students reflect upon these conversations in a short essay assignment, and a subsequent exam essay. This is but one example of how I came to value empathy as integral to my approaches to teaching French language and other topics.
I further developed this pedagogical approach as a junior fellow at Michigan’s Gayle Morris Sweetland Writing Center. I designed and taught a first-year writing seminar with the theme of “Imagining the City,” in which students read excerpts from novels that took place in metropolitan hubs including London, Mogadishu, Paris, Lahore, and Tehran. From close readings and discussion, students worked through intensive and varied writing and revision processes within different genres of scholarly writing. My aim was not only to help students learn what kinds of drafting and revision strategies worked best for them, but also to draw parallels between their experiences as freshmen on a large university campus and the new experiences of fictional characters who had recently moved to cities, whether for school, in exile, or for health reasons, among others. For the final paper, students developed arguments in their papers based on parallels between their experiences and those of the characters in the texts we read. These parallels provided both empirical material for analysis, and a means of evaluating both student writing and their understanding of the role of empathy in our lives. For example, one student, a history major, compared his experience as a dyslexic who became literate through his father reading aloud to him and the reading practices of historical figures such as Charlemagne, who lived during a time when reading was also an act of speaking aloud. To be literate, my student argued, can mean a range of things, both across history and different contemporary cultures. The writing and thinking resulting from student work in this class demonstrated critical thinking skills they had developed for grappling with worldviews and experiences that may seem impenetrably foreign on first blush.
As a lecturer at the University of Illinois—Chicago, I designed an introduction to French literature and culture that incorporated works from across several periods of French literature, as well as contemporary Francophone literature and film. In-class activities in this introductory course included peer review of their paper drafts and small group discussions that led to full-class analyses of literary passages. Whether reading Molière’s L’École des femmes or Charles Baudelaire’s “La Chevelure,” listening to Edith Piaf’s “Monsieur Lenoble” or watching Wajdi Mouawad’s film Littoral, my students considered the question “What is Frenchness?” They responded to this question in insightful ways both in class and in their papers. This class helped me rethink some aspects of how to teach empathy. Within the group of twenty-seven students, several were bi- or trilingual, and a few hailed from former French colonies in the Middle East and Africa. About half of the students only spoke fluent English, and had no personal association or experience with the French language or culture beyond the courses they had taken. Some of the students came prepared as seasoned student readers, while others needed more support as they embarked on reading literary texts and writing about them for the first time. This broad range of backgrounds made for fruitful discussions and dynamic group work in the class. The students’ varied perspectives helped me reconsider the assumptions I brought to the classroom. Due to my experiences in this course, I try to focus in class not on empathy directly, but rather on opening a world of experience, both those that texts can offer and my own, to my students.
As I envision further development of my pedagogical methods, my primary aim is for students to write from their own engagement with language, literature, and cultural works and their contexts. In courses I design, I aim to situate my students geographically, politically, and culturally. For example, I have designed a course that follows the logic of Paris’s Metro Line 2, tracing historical and cultural trajectories across the northern quadrants of the city to demonstrate a range of Parisian political and global cultures from the 19th through 21st centuries. I have also designed a Francophone literature course based on the traditional French creative writing class, the atelier d’écriture, and the assignments are based on atelier style exercises so that students can have a taste of how different the French education system can be from the American system. In all of my courses, I incorporate different modes of expression in the readings and as options for some assignments, including visual arts, music, and Web 2.0. I do so, first, to foster an inclusive classroom, as not all students consider traditional essay forms to be their forte. Second, as my students work toward an understanding of the roles that empathetic listening and reading play in society, in history, and in their everyday lives, an understanding of and practice in different modes of critical analysis and creative expression is relevant to any academic or professional field they may enter.
We are told that the humanities are fading into obsolescence, and that language and literature programs are in particular jeopardy. But the relevance of language, literature, and cultural studies has never been more paramount in a world where news, information, and cultural works can be transmitted instantaneously: to possess textual interpretation skills that allow for the understanding of those different from us is part of what informs us as responsible citizens and members of a global community. As a pedagogue, researcher, and professional scholar, I argue for the importance and centrality of literary and cultural works in understanding not only our own human experience, but the perspectives and experiences of others as well.