I see the influx of first-generation students and an increasingly diversified student body as the most exciting and urgent pedagogical challenges facing University education today. American secondary school students receive far less public funding than ever before. In addition, policies like Common Core have normalized the linking of funding to high-risk standardized testing — traumatizing students with constant assessment while also woefully underpreparing them for college courses. First-generation students are in an even more difficult position than most, often bringing resources from their backgrounds that are not always recognized by Universities used to middle- and upper-class students. While these and other students confront the uncertainties of a precarious job market along with the social challenges highlighted by the recent focus on campus sexual assault and the systemic racism described by the Black Lives Matter movement, how much can a traditional British Literature course speak to their concerns? Too many times, I have seen Latino/a/x, Japanese, and Indian students struggle through 1,000 pages of British Victorian prose by Charles Dickens only to fail to see themselves in any of his characters.
To be sure, literature does not exist just to reflect student experience, but my pedagogical journey in the English and Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) programs at Washington State University has convinced me that changes in student demographics require a transformation of my pedagogical approach. Students today benefit from explicitly connecting course content to their concerns and their struggles. They want teachers who are invested in their success and know them as people. While my teaching has always been inspired by the critical pedagogy of Paulo Friere and Henry Giroux, I never saw the truth of their arguments as concretely as I have experienced them at Washington State University. As Giroux argues, critical pedagogy is concerned with “helping students to ‘read’ the world critically” rather than “helping students to ‘master’ the tools of reading” (2). It also requires that teachers be as active as students in “the pursuit of truth and social change,” meaning that our role as teachers is irreducibly connected to our roles as scholars, administrators, advocates, and democratic citizens (198). Students want more than good grades or skills for the workforce. They want to know that their knowledge matters, allowing them to have an impact on the world. Teaching, for me, extends from instruction in my individual courses to my participation in Leeann Hunter’s Passport Program, my mentoring of graduate students who also teach, my activities in program assessment and curricular development, and more broadly, my activism on campus and in the Pullman community.
At the center of these activities is knowing my fellow teachers and students. How can we teach students to ‘read’ the world critically without knowing who they are? While online education and raised course caps have enabled more students to participate in college courses, they have also created a sense of alienation in our students. When Leeann Hunter asked me to be a regular participant in her Passport Program, I did not realize how much it would positively impact the literature course I was teaching at the same time. Hunter initially started the Passport Program as a professional development workshop, allowing students to apply the lessons they learned in English courses to potential future employment. In the most recent iteration of the program (2016-17), Hunter connected its lessons to each student’s individual value system. She asked them to tell a story about what early experiences formed their “why.” In conversations with students in the Program, I learned about how camping trips translated into environmental advocacy, how experiences with childhood pets transformed into a desire to help all animals, how silence and fear became a desire for change. As the Spring 2017 semester progressed, I found the same students in Leeann’s program inspire me with their calls for action. After ending the colonialism and slavery unit of my ENGL 372 course with a screening of Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the history of black incarceration titled The 13th, a white female student who was also in Hunter’s Passport Program asked “so, how can we help?” My response included a mixture of general advice, telling her to contact WSU’s undocumented-student Crimson Group, and admitting that I couldn’t fully answer her question. But the experience also provided me with an opportunity to think about how I might link the reading of literature and contemporary events with opportunities for students to publicly engage in the issues discussed in class. Overall, my interaction with this student reminded me why I became a teacher in the first place: I have as much, if not more, to learn from my students as they have to learn from me.
Our students at Washington State University are passionate about social change, and they enthusiastically undertake difficult assignments and wrestle with complex ideas if they understand their relevance. On the other hand, they also have no patience for professors who don’t listen to them and don’t care about their lives. When I decided to completely overhaul my DTC 375 and DTC 101 courses during the Fall of 2016, I took lessons from Senior Exit Surveys I conducted as “Assessment Coordinator” for the DTC program. Many students wanted more hands-on experiences and less reading. My resulting DTC 375 course on “Media Histories” included readings, but I decided that — unlike my literature courses — DTC courses should not be primarily focused on the act of reading text. Instead, my course included hands-on experiences with Edison phonographs from WSU Library’s special collections, a questionnaire Marshall McLuhan gave students about architecture and education in 1977, and a video file uploaded to YouTube over 1,000 times to demonstrate the impact of video compression on signal quality. I also redesigned the syllabus using recommendations from Anne-Marie Womack’s website The Accessible Syllabus, which urges professors to use images to compliment the written communication of course objectives; and to establish a rhetoric of inclusion, cooperation, and invitation over a style of paternalistic commands or contractual detail. The result was one of the most successful courses I’ve ever taught during my career as a teacher in higher education. One student commented that the history portion of the course should be made even longer: “I loved going and looking at old technology, but expanding on that would be amazing and really useful. Overall such a great professor and class!”