STATEMENT OF TEACHING PHILOSOPHY


Teaching always has a specific historical, institutional and pedagogical context, with the result that any given course constitutes an unpredictable and unreproducible moment in the lives of everyone involved. A classroom is not a level playing field, and a body of students is not homogenous: students come into a classroom already marked by varied and often contradictory degrees of social privilege and disadvantage; with different strengths and knowledges, whether recognized or unrecognized; and with unequal relations to power. What I aim to do through teaching is to provide students with a vocabulary for better understanding their complex relationships to the world they inhabit. The job of a teacher, as I see it, is partly to introduce and explain new concepts, ideas and texts, but even more importantly, it is to awaken in students a set of translatable skills, principal among which is critical thinking, through which they can articulate their being in the world.

If these are immodest aims, it is in part because my main area of study, postcolonial feminism, is a politically uncompromising field which aims to do no less than repair the damage wrought by the collaborative forces of colonialism and patriarchy. I do not see these as distant historical processes; rather, I believe that my students and I live in the world that colonialism built, and that we have complicated relations of complicity with and resistance to that regime. My teaching seeks to bring students in contact with literary, theoretical, and popular perspectives other than their own so as to enable them to see their own place in the world as historically and materially specific and so as to give them the intellectual tools for articulating their complex relationships to those epistemic regimes. Ultimately, I want my students to be able to imagine the world differently.

When designing courses, I take my cue from postcolonial theorist Edward Said, who argues that one means of overcoming Orientalism is to structure our scholarship around "a discipline defined intellectually" rather than "a 'field' like Orientalism defined either canonically, imperially, or geographically" (326). As I understand it, this means forsaking the commitment to coverage for its own sake and thinking instead about the particular intellectual problems that a certain body of work might pose. In a course called "Introduction to Postcolonialism," for instance, I will bring together texts that provide useful ways to think about colonial discourse and its critique; the position of women and the changing significance of gender under precolonial, colonial and postcolonial regimes; precolonial cultural formations; and the effects of ongoing colonial situations. While the resulting syllabus might look like a survey course, with an opening text by Joseph Conrad, followed by sections on African, Indian, Northern Irish and Canadian literature, the different units are held together by a solid investigative framework that engages students from the very beginning in crucial debates in postcolonial studies.

I firmly believe that students at all stages are capable of grappling with complicated ideas and intricate texts. However, students in earlier years of their programs need to be given quite a bit of background information and explicit lessons in how to read; they cannot be expected to grasp ideas with the nuance I expect from more senior students. Nonetheless, I am absolutely convinced that they can read difficult material successfully. An example from my own teaching might be the "Literary Theory" course. Populated by second-year students, and designed to give them a basis in theory for future courses, "Literary Theory" asks a lot of participants. Rather than relying on vulgarizations of difficult theorists, I insist that students wrestle with major figures themselves. When we read, for instance, excerpts from French poststructuralist Jacques Derrida's most challenging texts, a good deal of class time is devoted to explaining the basic tenets of deconstruction. I will use whatever teaching materials I have at hand: this year, for instance, I brought in Lego blocks so as to give students a concrete example of a structure. Looking at this simple structure got us very quickly to the idea that structures have centers and produce binary oppositions, two ideas students have found difficult to grasp in the past.

Learning in the classroom needs to be reinforced by useful assignments, and nearly all of mine call for some writing, which I view as inseparable from critical thinking. At senior levels, I encourage students to follow their curiosity in order to come up with their own essay topics, and I work closely with them to narrow and specify a project. At introductory levels, I use writing workshops in order to train students to recognize what's good and what needs work in their own writing. In the "Literary Theory" course, I ask for regular ungraded writing assignments which I term "critical responses" in order to give students a forum for working through difficult ideas in their own language. Rather than penalizing them for not understanding the material, which is one way graded writing assignments are perceived, I aim to help students understand the material better by giving them free rein to explore without censure what they think a piece of theory might mean. There is a place for assignments that don't involve writing, too. In postcolonial literary classes, I send students off to see mass produced feature films that connect to the course material, and I have had senior students do individual and group presentations that are not written up. After students read Louis Althusser's important essay on "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," I have them put Althusser's theories to the test by visiting West Edmonton Mall and observing how subjects are interpellated by competing ideologies.

I foster open and honest classroom discussions. To the extent that I believe every voice deserves to be heard, I'm a liberal pluralist, but I am not a relativist: not all ideas are equally helpful for moving a discussion forward. Hence I seek to draw out the most productive student comments without putting others down. I depart from many feminist theorists of pedagogy in not seeing a classroom as a safe space: while I want students to feel that their contributions are valued, and seek to reinforce their curiosity and ingenuity at every turn, I believe that learning at its best is a dangerous and unsettling venture, and I will not shield my students from that sense.

Ultimately the work of teaching is tested by the learning that takes place, and it is axiomatic that different students learn in different ways and at different rates. I treat students as complicated individuals who come to my classes from disparate places with distinct skills and particular needs, and I endeavour to provide each of them with the tools they need in order to learn most effectively. This means lots of individual consultation; it means tailoring assignments to reward specific investments; it means throwing my imagination across the gulf that separates me from another in order to explain concepts in ways that will resonate. It means that it is always worthwhile to try new things in classrooms, and it means that every moment, even in the most tense or difficult situations, is potentially a teaching moment.

I do not see students as empty vessels needing to be filled with information, but rather as savvy social beings who can really use the material I bring to them in order to make better sense of their lives and their world. I seek to cultivate students who know how to think critically, read carefully and write clearly, students who are culturally and theoretically literate, and who have learned to value the sense of excitement that learning entails.