Linda J. Holland-Toll
I believe that my role as a teacher is to inspire the student to learn actively rather than passively. To restate an often used but still apt adage, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” Passively ingested information is like the fish, soon consumed, soon gone, soon forgotten. But teaching a student to question and think critically is like teaching that student to fish. You’ve imparted a skill that will last for a lifetime. A student who engages with the text, whether it is a short story, a poem, a play, or any other piece of reading is a student who will remember what was read and be able to apply it.
In my experience, students must learn in order for the instructor to teach. Teaching does not occur in a vacuum; it is much more than received knowledge that students dutifully scribble down, regurgitate on a test, and soon forget. My goal in teaching is always to not only disseminate information but also to require students to explore and question the subject matter and interact with the text, their fellow students and me. To encourage active learning, I spend a great deal of time encouraging students to think for themselves and react to the texts under discussion, engage with the subject and make it their own. In my view, teaching is much more about critical questioning and challenging conventional accepted knowledge than it is about rote memorization of literary terminology or authors, characters and titles – after all, that information is easily available, and without a context is essentially meaningless.
In order to stimulate discussion, I encourage a wide level of interpretation. I tell students that I already know what I think; I want to know what they think. I stress the importance of realizing that a text can be validly read in many different ways, at least as long as the student can support the reading from the text. To accomplish this goal, I have frequent small group discussion groups, with both professor and student generated topics, a rotating discussion leader who presents the groups findings and a note-taker, all strategies that involve all students, occasional collaborative quizzes (which facilitate an exchange of information), and oral presentations. Such approaches lead to a desire on the student’s part to do the best work of which they are capable. Thus academic standards become, instead of an external threat or a bête noire, an internal goal for which the student willingly strives.
I stress the absolute necessity of proactive learning and the importance of constant participation. Participation is an important component in all my classes because I strive to involve every student in building a learning community in the classroom. When we review the syllabus the first day of class, I tell my students that we have a contract: If I teach and they learn, if I work hard and they work hard, if I do my job and they do theirs, we should all end up wiser, more skilled, and with a wider knowledge base than when we started at the beginning of the semester. They can expect me to be fair, rigorous, and supportive. I expect them to be present, active, and serious. This relationship is symbiotic in the best sense: as I teach, so the student must actively participate to learn.
My lectures are short and interlarded with questions to encourage proactive learning. In a typical 75 minute class, my goal is to lecture for 10 minutes and spend the remaining class time in discussion. I lecture about the historical background, and provide thumbnail sketches of the authors and the cultures from which the authors write. I prefer facilitating these discussions, encouraging the students to interact directly among themselves rather than always speaking to me, and guiding the discussion into fruitful paths of inquiry. It is not what I lecture about that the students will remember, but the insights they themselves gain from reading literature, thinking about literature, and articulating and defending their views on literature. I want students to make connections: between the texts, the culture that produced them and today’s culture. “Why does this text matter?” and “Where have we seen this theme before?” are constant questions. A writing response question, for example, asks the students to view Rosewood and relate it to McKay’s “The Lynching,” “Cullen’s “Incident,” and Hughes’ “Silhouette.” I also spend some time integrating music into my classes. Hearing “Go Down, Moses,” and “The Weary Blues,” increases the sense of connection to the culture. When I assign Fenimore Cooper’s “Slaughter of the Pigeons,” I ask whether the textual attitude still resonates in the culture. When I teach The Iliad, I ask how many student-athletes would want Achilles on their team. After all, I say, he’s the best there is. Just ask him! This question leads not only to a discussion of the changing idea of the hero over time and among cultures, but to the difference in values over time. My students may stumble on the names, but the questions I ask give them a map into unfamiliar territory.
I have never forgotten the epiphany that happened, when, as a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, I convened “The Space Between,” a conference on the literature, history and art between 1915 - 1945. The conference was, according to the participants, a great success, but my most memorable moment was listening to the paper which one of my students presented on the death throes of Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath. I realized then how vitally important it is to teach and encourage students to learn and become part of the academic community. I was reminded of this recently when one of my students at MOC, a history major, was so fascinated with the contradictions between the Enlightenment view of America and the fundamental religious strain in American culture that he asked permission to read more and explore the topic in his essays.
Learning, however, is not limited to students in the classroom. I often ask, “OK, now that the semester is over, what did you like, what didn’t you like? What could we do differently? What else would you like to see?” More than the comments I request on formal teaching evaluations, these informal sessions help me improve my teaching. The suggestions have ranged from “remember to wear your watch, so you can keep track of time,” to different choices in reading, to more group discussion and dropping the required oral presentations to “we should read more popular fiction.” These comments often prove the most useful suggestions I receive. I place great value on my peers’ reviews, but the students are the ones who see me teach – at my best and my worst, day in and day out.
Teaching students, facilitating their ability to think critically and consider different points of view, encouraging an interest in literature and introducing them to new ideas is, quite, simply what I was born to do. In their evaluations, my students consistently emphasize my genuine engagement, teaching skills and overall level of concern for and commitment to their success. In a student’s words: “It took me awhile to figure out what you were actually teaching. You’re teaching us to think.” Their evaluations reflect the simple truth: teaching is what I do and I am indeed committed to my students' success. Teaching is my ruling passion; everything that I do in my field of study, including my research interests, is aimed at enhancing that passion. My life goal is to continue to teach; my greatest satisfaction comes from engaging students in the learning process.