Linda J. Holland-Toll
In the Fall of 1988, I landed my first job in higher education. I became the Communications Tutor for Western Nevada Community College. I had four days to figure out how to run the Communications portions of an Academic Skills Center. The following Spring, I was informed that I would also be teaching developmental writing courses. The reply to my panicked response that I did not know how to teach college writing was met with the information that I would learn. And learn I did. I learned, finally, what it was I wanted to be when I grew up. I taught full-time at WNCC and the more I taught, the more I liked it, and the more I taught, the more I learned. I pursued my Master’s in English while I tutored students and, sometimes frantically, juggled my home life. When I returned to get my Ph.D., my goal was to become a full time professor of English. During the process leading to the coveted doctorate, I got even more chances to teach, confirming my belief that this was what I was meant to do. I found that teaching students, helping student learn, encouraging new ways to think about literature and writing was something that I not only enjoyed, but that I was good at. I also found that I liked teaching a wide variety of courses, from writing and literature through Humanities courses and genre fiction courses – I taught them all and I enjoyed teaching each and every one of them. I saw myself at an academic buffet, piling my plate, so to speak, with different courses. Since I had chosen to write my dissertation on the connections between horror fiction and community in contemporary American Literature, I sought opportunities to teach popular genre fiction and even got the opportunity to teach graduate level courses in that field. By that time, I also realized that I was a generalist, something that was both my strength and my weakness as far as job opportunities were concerned. Most small private colleges valued generalists, but most jobs were specific in description. I have been fortunate enough to land positions in small private colleges that allow me scope for my teaching interests, as my Vita will attest.
As I have become more and more experienced teaching, I have given a great deal of thought to my original teaching philosophy, as a teaching philosophy should grow and change as the teacher grows and changes. I still find that student engagement and student interest is the foundation for a successful course. Somehow, some way, the successful instructor must engage the students. Students who sit in class dutifully taking notes from the often repeated lecture and regurgitate those notes back for a quiz or examination are not really learning; they are eating fish, fish that someone has provided for them. Memorizing the definition of the dreaded comma splice or a metaphor does not really function to teach the student to either avoid or use, as the case may be. If a student does not understand what a comma splice is, that student cannot address the problem; worse, that comma splice may label the student as a “bad writer.” A student who can successfully use metaphors has accessed another level of thinking: an ability to compare things that have no common basis.
But as I find our students have greater and greater gaps in their knowledge bases, I find that the role of the lecture is becoming more necessary. A student who does not have the foggiest idea what women’s status was in the nineteenth century may not grasp the implications of a nineteenth century story in which that knowledge is important. A student who knows nothing about ancient Greece might not understand why an unpleasant braggart like Achilles is the hero of The Iliad, or why Oedipus is a tragic hero. Increasingly, I have found that students know less and less about literary or historical contexts. I still believe that discussion is of paramount importance, but I now integrate more mini-lectures in my classes so that the students have a sound foundation from which to discuss. I have also become more and more convinced that at the root of the knowledge deficits many of our students have is a lack of reading, and so I find myself sticking to a fairly heavy reading load in my courses.
All of my courses are writing intensive and often have an oral presentation as well. The ability to work as a team, carry out research, and present the research findings to the class is a very useful skill, and one our students need. I also find out students benefit by the writing and revision process. Since my goal in teaching writing can be expressed in one word: clarity, I work with students so that their papers have a clear sense of purpose and audience. Clarity means that the thesis will be clearly stated and well supported; the organization will be coherent and have a sense of unity; the grammar, spelling, and mechanics will be correct, and the sources will be properly formatted. Since very few students (or anyone else, for that matter) produce writing at this level in the initial draft, I teach by revision, commenting extensively and encouraging students to revise. I do not proofread their papers; I comment on areas of weakness and expect students to address the areas that need improvement. “Yes,” I say, “writing is hard work, but competency in writing is an important skill, and one that you will need for the rest of your lives.”
When I teach literature, I think it is absolutely vital to set a context that includes the historical and the contemporary. Literature, as Mao Tse-Tung posits, “does not fall from the heavens, but is the product of social practice, inescapably part of a material process, the product of reflection, the life of a given society . . . .”i Students are more likely to study literature if they have an understanding that literature reflects the lives we live and the society and culture in which we live them. If students understand that literature is about connections, about important themes that are part of their lives, about problems that they might one day face; if students understand that poetry is not just short difficult lines on a page but an attempt to communicate or mediate between an author's emotional and intellectual responses to his or her own existence and the surrounding world, they are more likely to actually read it. A student who can ask, what would I do, if like Antigonê, I were faced with a choice between accepting an unjust law or upholding my moral belief, is a student who has learned something of value from Sophocles’ Antigonê, written almost 2500 years ago. Giving some information about the author and the history which produced the text and then encouraging students to make connection with their own lives is an effective way to get students to really read and engage in the literature. We do not learn without a context, some information and idea to which we can connect. My goal in teaching my courses, whether they are composition or literature, linguistics or Honors, is help the student to make the connections that matter.
Thus, my classes are set up to encourage students to get the information they need to discuss and then to discuss the text. To see a class vigorously discussing a short story or hear a student say, “I dreaded poetry, but now I see how it works,” still makes my day. When I walk into class to hear my students already discussing a piece of literature, when everyone is contributing their viewpoint to the discussion and talking to each other and not to me, when my class has turned into a community, I know that I am doing my job and helping students learn critical thinking skills.
The root cause of the successful teacher is enthusiasm about and love for his or her subject matter. Everyday I walk into class, I look forward to the chance to engage some more of my students, to open the door to the fascinations of literature and writing, and to give them a chance to think critically.
i Tse-Tung, Mao. “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” qtd. in Ettienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, “On Literature as an Ideological Form,” Oxford Literary Review, 3 36.