Statement on Teaching

In his 1917 essay, “Art as Device,” Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky champions literature’s power to recover consciousness of everyday experience and guard against “overautomatization.” He declares that art “exists that one may recover the sensation of life” – its technique is “to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult.” Its purpose is to show us how to “make the stone stony.” I think the art of teaching can do that, too.

Engaging with a text (a language, a film, a song) is not the only way to transform passive recognition into active seeing. But when students take my classes, I challenge them to investigate their own experience of things, to see that experience through a prism of texts, to collaborate in making forms difficult. Thus, I select materials that best illustrate the themes of a particular course through multiple media and perspectives. In one class, we read Gorky’s “City of the Yellow Devil,” a melodramatic condemnation of American capitalism. Next, we read his letters to friends expressing frank admiration for America. Then we try to come to terms with this paradox. By incorporating varied views, I hope to demonstrate a thing’s resistance to easy interpretation. This resistance opens up space for learning.

Indeed, every decision I make in teaching centers around opportunities for students to interpret their own experience. This has led to Polish-language video tours of UVA and downtown Charlottesville, to collaborative websites on Russian film, and to research papers ranging from American advertising’s influence on Russian smoking to the roots of Russian hip-hop. Helping students discover they’ve made a stone stony inspires me to see that my stone is stony, too.

Regardless of the lesson plan, if students are not involved in actively thinking about course content, they might be satisfied with ephemeral recognition. To motivate them to wrest texts from the jaws of habitualization, I make discussion a pivotal component of teaching. There are as many ways to have a meaningful conversation as there are individuals in a class. I often pose questions to get a discussion started, but then I direct students’ responses to each other, trace their trajectories on the chalkboard, negotiate conflict. Or I’ll incorporate group work or informal writing. In all cases, I encourage students’ recognition of the benefits of actively conversing with, listening to, and learning from, each other.

Writing assignments continue classroom conversations and further challenge ideas set forth in class. I build assignments as sequenced activities to create safe spaces for unfolding thoughts, for shedding of old habits. In the process, I can express my appreciation of students’ diverse backgrounds and interests and of the depth their diversity brings to everyone’s learning. Peer reviews and other collaborative work bring students back into dialog with each other, offer fresh perspectives, and influence the shape of final drafts.

Open communication shows that I value students and their learning. It reflects my ongoing attempts to deautomatize conventions of evaluation, so that assignments are about more than getting or giving grades. I freely reveal the objectives behind every assignment. I ask for – and act on – feedback. I give detailed responses to students’ work and encourage them to continue the conversation. And I do everything I can to convey my enthusiasm, be it for Polish grammar, Russian film, or Soviet prose. If I infect students with a little of my own excitement, then my efforts (and occasional public spectacles) are worthwhile. Openness makes room for art – in any of its many forms – to exercise its powers in full.

What I truly hope to teach reaches beyond disciplinary limits. If I convince students of the rewards in making things difficult, in seeking out the unfamiliar, in feeling things in their own individual ways, then my vocation is richly justified. Those are talents that distinguish innovators in any field. My rewards lie in imagining the engineers, psychologists, poets or biologists I have taught … slowing down for a precious moment to see the stones they encounter on their way.
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