I teach literary works as experiments that ask us to understand the limits of their worlds and the possibilities of new communities. What happens, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre asks, when the English novel burns its traditional country house to the ground? Bram Stoker challenges his readers to consider how the vampire transforms nationhood. Alan Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero presents his readers time and again with the question of “who watches the Watchmen” to prod them to critique the networks of power that shape the everyday. The magical realist U.S. telenovela Jane the Virgin deconstructs and reassembles the romantic comedy that has been defined since at least Jane Austen. My goal as an instructor is to structure a classroom that takes up the principles of these fictional experiments: How can our analysis allow us to alter our perspectives? What principles of communication should guide us as we conduct our own experiments? Where outside the classroom can we use this understanding to form and extend our own communities? Grounding courses in my knowledge of nineteenth-century literature and critical theory, I construct an adaptive classroom that works to meet student needs to build an open learning community.
While I have experience teaching a variety of classes — introductory writing, small literature seminars, and large lectures — the principles that shape my objectives as an instructor speak to any English or communication focused classroom. In asking students to view the literary as a field of experimentation, we open up lines of inquiry that see the material as dynamic rather than static. This emphasizes how a classic novel such as Pride and Prejudice can tell us just as much about the economies of marriage as contemporary romances such as Jane the Virgin. As students learn about the protocols that define specific genres that can nevertheless be reshaped, they can see how to apply these principles of experimentation to their own analysis.
One way I like to bridge the connections between past and present works is to take my students to the Rubenstein Library archives. These archives allow students to explore the material forms of texts, particularly those that initially were published in serialized installments such as graphic novels like Watchman or Dickens’s novels. For instance, while reading Little Dorrit, my students were able to visit the Rubenstein to see the original nineteen monthly installments. By noting the cost of each installment and the ads that filled each part, students realized authors and publishers were not just interested in publishing for art’s sake but were invested in a larger system of capital. These visits not only open up new sites of research inquiry and but also demonstrate the continued evolution of the literary form.
To ensure no class feels the same as any other, I aim to create active-learning modules that both make challenging texts intelligible and defamiliarize the canon — for majors and non-majors alike. To end my upper-level course “Nineteenth-Century British Novel,” for example, students played Marrying Mr. Darcy, a tabletop roleplay game based on the events of Pride and Prejudice — the first novel we read in the course. By reenacting the narrative principles of Pride and Prejudice, students saw very plainly that we still find Austen’s work not only valuable from a historical standpoint but pleasurable in the contemporary. Students noted that interactivity shifted their perspective of the novel; one recognized: “playing a game requires the person to be actively engaged … the game places you more into the characters’ shoes to consider their way of thinking.” In committing to the rules of the Austenian game, students recognized themselves as participants in a world they saw as inequitable. Suddenly, Charlotte Lucas was not a gold-digger but a sympathetic strategist. Roleplay helped them see that the harmful structures that they may have assumed to be left in the past (the vestiges of the marriage market, classism, imperialism, etc.) still affect and shape our contemporary moment, demonstrating the continued vitality of the literary. When I was nominated for the Duke English Department’s Stephen Horne Award for excellence in teaching by my students, they recognized the importance of an experimental classroom: one wrote, “Hannah’s creativity and great knowledge of the subject matter always led to great discussions and activities in the classroom, as well as field trips as a class outside of it.”
The principles of strategy inherent in gameplay, which students see as a digestible metaphor for their own work, are transferable to active reading and critical writing. In my “Mystery Fiction” seminar, which focused on the rendering of mysteries as “games,” students outside the English major — many with little formal humanities training — found the metaphor of the game helped them understand close reading. Whether they were reading Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, or Colson Whitehead, students learned to mimic detectives as they searched for patterns within the text. Like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poriot, they learned to present their audience with evidence and then a thorough analysis to make their case. The students’ engagement in class discussions and their analytic essays demonstrated their application of these skills — in evaluations for the course, students rated the course 4.9 out of 5 in helping them learn “to analyze ideas, arguments, and points of view.”
In addition to asking my students to produce traditional research papers, I guide students to develop their ability to effectively communicate through non-traditional projects. In my “Mystery Fiction” seminar, students either wrote a final research paper or chose a creative project related to the course. They were required to give oral presentations about their final projects and receive peer feedback. For several students who designed original board games, this presentation took the form of a sales pitch. To create a successful demonstration, students practiced their speech and paid attention to their body language, made supplemental visual aids, and prepared to answer clarifying questions. Through this exercise, they learned how oral communication differed from their previous written assignments, especially in terms of their audience — while their analysis papers were geared toward an imagined scholarly audience, these presentations were created for a general public that had no previous knowledge of their product. By discussing how to take the skills they developed in my courses outside the classroom, students saw how their abilities to research, write, edit, and give oral presentations could be translatable to careers in the humanities and beyond.
I am currently serving as a teaching consultant for the upper-level split undergraduate-graduate course “Sound and Double Consciousness” after being awarded a Bass Digital Education Fellowship by the Duke Graduate School. My work with Professor Tsitsi Jaji focuses on reshaping her previous syllabus to include a public-facing digital humanities component. As a digital education fellow, I work with the students to think about both what kinds of questions can be asked through a digital humanities project and how to implement their ideas. In the creation of these projects, students not only learn how to design projects for a broader audience but also consider how these projects may enhance their own teaching.
The works we study ask us to form communities with other readers; to question our assumptions; and to develop new ways of thinking, doing, and being. This is not only applicable to the classroom but to the communities in which we belong outside of it. In bringing these principles to the classroom, I aim to demonstrate to my students the immense power literature holds in creating a world and, indeed, transforming it. In doing so, I seek to ask not only how to interpret our world but how we may become active and responsible participants in its creation through the same vigorous experimentation reflected in our objects of study.