As I mentioned in my first post, one of my goals during my sabbatical has been to begin reconnecting with my passion for teaching. I’m now in the second phase of my career, that huge void between being a beginning professor and nearing the end of one’s career. I don’t want my teaching to become stale. As a student, I saw many professors in this second stage lose interest in teaching. I want to imbue this next part of my career with passion. I love teaching and I love most of what I teach; I want my students to see that love, even if they don’t always share it.

Until recently this process of reconnecting has focused on specific teaching methods and assignments that I would like to integrate into my classes. For example, when I teach Restoration and 18thC classes in the future, I would like to assign my students to keep commonplace books; I then want to connect their commonplacing with reflection on processes of self-fashioning and self-discovery in the period and in their own writing. I also plan to have these students use Johnson’s Dictionary to keep track of key words from the period on a weekly basis. (These words may also lead us to potential topics for their commonplace books.) In other words, I want to synthesize the kinds of assignments I require my students to complete with the kinds of texts and issues generated in the period we’re studying.

Now I’m moving into a second phase of my thinking about my teaching: reading and reflecting on published pedagogical work by other scholars. So, this will be the first of perhaps many posts about teaching. (Of course, once I return to the classroom in late March these posts will probably be less theoretical and more about the day-to-day aspects of my teaching experience, but we’ll see.)

I’ve just finished reading Gerald Graff’s “Toward a New Consensus: The Ph.D. in English,” which is included in a collection of essays entitled Envisioning the Future of Doctoral Education: Preparing Stewards of the Discipline, Carnegie Essays on the Doctorate. This collection is the outgrowth of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. My attention was brought to this particular essay because I am looking for potential articles to propose for my department’s new colloquium on teaching series, which will commence in January. I also know two faculty members at Texas A&M University who have been participating in the Carnegie Foundation’s initiative on the doctorate.

Graff argues in this essay that “by obscuring the areas of conflict and of consensus in their discipline, English doctoral programs have made it unusually difficult for those wishing to enter the field to gain the socialization they need” (370). He examines the ways in which an “ongoing discussion of contested issues” has been invisible in most Departments of English and maintains that the invisibility of public debate makes it more difficult for our graduate students to learn how to engage in every aspect of our discipline: teaching, scholarship, and service.

He therefore proposes 7 changes to doctoral education:

  1. Organize introductory graduate courses around contested issues (like “What is English?” or “How are English Studies related to other disciplines and to students’ lives?”)
  2. Establish required courses and workshops on teaching (he implies that these should not focus exclusively on composition pedagogy and should include significant input by literature and creative writing faculty)
  3. Bring the regular faculty back into Freshman Composition (interestingly, he proposes a system in which a faculty member would lead a large lecture section on research and contested issues; the students would be divided into smaller sections taught by T.A.s for other parts of the course)
  4. Link graduate study with undergraduate research (I don’t fully understand how he proposes to do this, I must admit)
  5. Bring creative writing into the departmental conversation
  6. Establish joint programs with colleges of education for high school teachers (he suggests, for example, a collective teaching experience in which a professor, a graduate student, and a high school teacher collaborate and teach the same subject/material/issue simultaneously in their respective courses)
  7. Establish alternatives for non-academic employment

Graff usually spends at least a page explaining his ideas about each proposal, and most of his ideas might generate interesting conversation in my department. What strikes me right now is his main point about the lack of meta-disciplinary engagement among members of the department and the ways in which this lack harms our graduate students’ socialization into the discipline.

My department has been forced into some such engagement in the past year. The university administration required every department to compose a mission statement and summarize its vision for the next few years. We’ve also been forced to use this vision as a blueprint for determining budget cutbacks, not all of which have been resolved. These outside pressures led to some tense and argumentative department meetings this past spring, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we continued to engage with the question of who we are as a department. Graff suggests that our students would benefit from such a conversation, but we would surely benefit too.

Apart from these external exigencies, my department doesn’t often engage with contested disciplinary issues. Maybe we should talk about what we think graduates from our Ph.D. program should be or should be able to do. It might be productive to discuss whether our current curriculum creates those imagined graduates. And at the more micro-level, I wonder how I could use my classrooms as spaces in which to practice some of the engagement Graff suggests.

I remember when I first entered the academic conversation as a Master’s degree student at TAMU. It was like entering the colorful Oz from the sepia-toned Kansas. Graduate students were invited (and many attended) colloquia; we saw our professors debate, discuss, and engage with one another. Granted, these experiences weren’t about budgets, hiring, and other such issues that often lead to more contentious debate, but they were about those professors’ thoughts on teaching, criticism, and the discipline of English Studies.

I think it would be exciting to explore some of these issues with my colleagues, even if that exploration were somewhat tense or awkward. In some sense, I see this potential debate as an extension of my mid-career reflections. Who I am as an associate professor in this department is determined in countless ways by what this department is, what it does, what it hopes to do. I want to be more passionate about my teaching; I suppose I also want to be more passionate about the larger vision of my department, about who we are and how we train our students to become members of our profession.

But maybe this is a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma: which comes first, my own sense of who I am as a professor or the department’s sense of intellectual engagement with the larger issues? And does that make me an egg or am I one of the chickens?