As a Victorianist and a postcolonial scholar, I approach the teaching and reading of literature as a gathering of possibilities. At an early point in my own undergraduate education, Professor Jason Rudy responded to my question about Australian Indigenous literature with an emphatic denial of the myth of Tasmanian extinction. Dr. Rudy invited me to choose a novel for our final project to think through the mythology as a problem, a gathering of possibilities and ideas that are contestable rather than historical fact. When I later began teaching as a classroom-embedded mentor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, I extended these ongoing conversations with the literary texts themselves as mentoring required me to approach teaching as a conversation with my students.
Through these experiences – as well as my own research interests in colonizing and decolonizing discourses and the ways they not only relay knowledge but also produce it – I began to develop a pedagogy that explores literature as epistemology. I treat reading and criticism as conversation, a way of thinking about the world through engagement with difference and conflict. When students leave my classes, I want them to have engaged in collaborative thought with the text and with each other toward a more careful engagement with the familiar, as well as the unknown. While the unknown, fantastical, and “better” worlds found in some literature present more obvious possibilities for thinking about how we live in the world, even the eerily familiar environments of Victorian novels complicate students’ preconceptions and assumptions about the past and its echoes in the present. I use annotation or commonplace notebooks and writing, as well as class time, to encourage this kind of collaborative engagement throughout a given semester.
Because I emphasize collaboration with the text itself, writing is particularly important to even my literature classes. Writing about and in conversation with literature invites students to problem solve at abstract levels toward more creative solutions and more engaged ways of thinking about the world. Annotation notebooks are at the center of this approach, asking students to combine synthesis and analysis in low-stakes, short-form writing in collaboration with what they are reading. These annotations are not about “getting it right” but about working through ideas together. Rather than absorb facts and arguments as they are found in the text, students can use their notebooks and time in class to develop their own ideas in conversation with what they have read and to think through their relationship to the self and the world.
Through habit-building assignments like the annotation notebook, I hope to give students access to tools that they can use outside of my classroom, in the academy, the working world, and their own communities. In both literature and composition classrooms, class discussions and writing assignments build from the guiding concern of the course—the contestability of ideas. As such, my approach to teaching writing in both settings starts and ends with revision. In his critique of expressivist and technocratic process, as envisioned by Flowers and Hayes, Joseph Harris calls for “a dialogic sense of revision.” In so doing he equates revision, a self-regulating process, with conversation and collaboration. I focus on habitual revision with my own students to facilitate this kind of work, in which students develop self-regulating habits through practice in order to better understand their own relationship to a community or communities.
In Spring 2018, I was mentoring for a first-year composition class comprising entirely transfer students. Most of them had completed a first-year writing course at another university and had moved beyond “basic” writing skills. When we asked them to revise, however, they struggled to really engage with their own work. In response, I went back through my own revision process, asking myself what I look for and what kinds of revision habits I have formed. Using Costa and Kallick’s habits of mind as a model, I came up with a five-step process: identify repeated mistakes, identify thesis statement, reverse outline with focus on evidence and analysis, connect each paragraph back to the thesis, develop transitions. Using this process, I ask my students to go through at least four drafts. They work with peers, then with me, then on their own to build a revision habit. By the end, students report feeling more comfortable with writing and revision, and, in the transfer course, we saw more interaction during group workshops held in preparation for their final research paper. They learned to engage more critically with their own writing so they could recognize the kinds of questions, critiques, and strategies that allow them to help others and to productively seek help.
I have found that, as students practice revision, they begin to develop their own processes and take control of their writing. They are able to apply what they learn in the writing classroom to their communication in other courses and in the community. My goal for students is that they be able to engage critically with their own ideas and with literature in order to creatively collaborate with individuals and communities. Reading, writing, and revision then become mutually constitutive with collaboration.
With students from a number of different educational and cultural backgrounds, and often from different departments, I focus on revision of both writing and ideas as a way for students to bring their own goals and interests into their writing while still learning to become better writers and readers. I hope that students will become better readers and critics while still working within their fields of interest. In the writing classroom, this reading happens with their own writing and with the writing of their peers, but in the literature classroom, it happens with the texts of the class. While I would not ask them to, for instance, reverse outline a novel in a Victorian literature course, I would expect them to collaborate with the text. In other words, I look at relational idea formation in the production of the text and in the students’ relationships with the text.
In my own research, production is as important as consumption in studying colonial discourses in literature. I am interested in what happens when Indigenous theories of orality, silence, and empowerment are put in conversation with Victorian studies and postcolonial theory. By putting Indigenous discourses in conversation with Euro-American ones and showing how they work together in the novel, I hope to contribute to an understanding of colonial discourse as multiple and flexible and, as such, contestable. Working from Robert L. Scott’s theory of rhetoric as epistemic, I ask students to question what they read and what they write, while understanding that ideas are relational. Especially within postcolonial studies, I feel it is important for students to understand how they rely on genealogies of thought in their own work and how those genealogies can be revised and augmented to disrupt hegemonic discourses. I hope to continue expanding on and using these methodologies in my own research and with my students to work toward decolonizing the study of literature and writing, while also helping students develop the skills they want and need beyond the English classroom.