My teaching activities are inseparable from my research in English and comparative literature. I find that students identify less with an academic whom they see as a fountain of knowledge, and more with an investigator of the field who is, like them, on a path to learn. An advantage of instruction at a research-intensive institution is that the academics present literature as alive in their interpretative work, rather than irrefutably canonized and static. This activity invites students into the discussion and makes them aware of their contribution to global academic debate.
To provide students with an investigative model I bring my current research into the classroom. This encourages them to prioritize research and analytical skills rather than reliance on textual knowledge alone. For this reason I have asked BA students in eighteenth-century literature classes to assess the influence of chinoiserie on landscape writing, and MA students of Romanticism to tease out complicated philosophies in metaphysical interpretations of Greek myths. I tell students that they should question everything. This year I clarified such course goals with a slide headed ‘What I Want from You.’ I present my own analysis as work in progress that is subject to change and debate, and student discussion follows on that basis. For example, in a lecture on Gothic short stories I suggested a theme of necrophilia, and then asked students, in small groups, to debate and assess the credibility of my claim and juxtapose it with the theme of incest in The Castle of Otranto.
I use PowerPoint slides and Blackboard content to supplement students’ knowledge. Comparably, I use audio-visual materials – particularly biopics and fiction adaptations – in place of longer reading lists. The tutor-student relationship remains at the heart of university education. I fine-tune this aspect of my work constantly to accord with the subject and the level of the students. While modern pedagogical theory’s notion of a chameleon academic – who recedes into the background unnoticed while the students organize their own debates – is a fine ideal, usually I find that an instructor must be active in discussion-format classes. It is necessary to prompt, question, encourage and at times reassure students as they form their own interpretations of literature. I aim for the correct balance between talker and listener, with the model of a tour guide who shows the way, but participants walk for themselves.
The long nineteenth-century was a crucial period in the formation of culture and identity in Europe, America, and in Western attitudes to Asia; everyone has a perspective on it. With the literature of the time I wish to inform students, but also to stimulate them as critical thinkers. I emphasise this point on the first day of every course. A student should emerge culturally enriched by any literature course, but most importantly should be better equipped to make intellectual interventions into the humanities.