I recently completed my first semester in an African American Studies Department where 1 of the 16 seminar participants was an English major. This was a completely new landscape and as I prepared the course I gave little thought to adapting my teaching approach to accommodate students who did not have a literary background. I took for granted that the “interdisciplinary” student would be trained and prepared to read and discuss a text with some level of critical engagement. They were, after all, junior and senior level undergraduates. I assumed students would complete the reading material and come to class prepared to discuss the topic, which for this term was “Women and Voodoo”.
I was quite mistaken and the result was a very slow moving and pedagogically frustrating sixteen-week term.
I think back on the many brown bag lunch seminars offered by the Center for Teaching and Learning on “the class from hell,” which I shrugged-off as unnecessary and uninteresting. My pedagogical ego was inflated and my tenure-clock sounded loudly in the background. Now, I am humbled by realization that I came face to face with that monster—and am not sure I did my best to survive. I am also unsure if the monster was really a result of teaching outside of my primary discipline or if this generation of students is less inclined to active learning.
The students enjoyed the content and learned more about African-based spiritual systems than what they entered with. I suppose to some degree I should be happy about that. My disappointment comes at the resounding fact that they could have learned so much more had they actually read and dealt with the material in a more critical way. I take some responsibility for that and as a committed pedagogue I must take steps to remedy it. Am I being ridiculous to think that pushing too much reading could have stunted the growth of the class?
As I prepare for my fall course “Voodoo and Visual Culture,” I am more cognizant of the difference in learning styles and interdisciplinary leanings of the students I will be teaching. I’ve adapted my syllabus and teaching approach to accommodate an audience of students who are less familiar with the idea of close readings, the function of literary devices, and using paratextual evidence to critically engage a work of fiction.
My intention is not to “dumb-down” the course, but rather to find a healthy balance between teaching students the foundations of literary studies and critical analysis and requiring them to apply that lesson to a number of texts. I will supplement much of the print material with visual texts—film, art, and a graphic novel. In cutting the amount of required reading—three novels rather than my staple seven books—I anticipate that more students will complete the reading and we can spend more time actually discussing and dissecting what we have seen and read.
Perhaps I am overly optimistic, or perhaps I will recover from the angst I feel over not doing my best to adapt to the interdisciplinary classroom. Will students respond to visual texts and bring the critical “funk” to the class or am I rearranging my pedagogy to pacify intellectually lazy students? I hope to find the answer to those question and resolve never to grant the monster access to my classes again.