In the eight years since completing my PhD, I have taught undergraduates in a variety of institutions—public and private, small liberal arts colleges and R1 universities—and across departments and programs: English, Medieval Studies, Gender Studies, and History. Interdisciplinarity is at the core of both my research and my teaching philosophy, as are the connected goals of making medieval and early modern culture intelligible to a modern audience while challenging long-held assumptions about those periods, particularly as pertain to gender and racial representation. Students leave my classes with a greater understanding of the diversity and complexity of medieval and early modern Europe, as well as critical media literacy skills and substantive practice in textual analysis and constructing arguments.
In service of these goals, I draw on my experience working between disciplines, incorporating visual arts, film, creative writing, and performance to help students understand the often alien texts they encounter in medieval and early modern literature classes. All of my classes feature considerable discussion of the circumstances of a text’s production—not just the author’s life (if known), but the larger political and cultural context, how it was first disseminated (manuscript, print, orally), and the response it received, if we know it. By making it clear that texts are not produced in a vacuum and that they are constantly building upon and responding to one another, I encourage students to draw these connections and use them. I include images of manuscripts and early printed books, illustrations, and later artistic depictions where I can find them, and I encourage students to take advantage of local resources as well as those available online. Students in my Renaissance class at Simmons College, for instance, curate a virtual art exhibition focused on a particular figure in early modern Europe before visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see some of the works under discussion. I also draw students’ attention to modern popular manifestations of classic literary texts or historical periods—even if they prove to be inaccurate or of dubious quality, they are nonetheless useful, since they demand that students back up value judgments with critical analysis.
My introductory classes, as well as my composition classes, focus more on bringing students into dialogue with what they’re reading. I require students to write short responses to class readings—either at the beginning of class or, for shorter class periods, posted online the night before—partly to generate discussion topics and partly to practice writing about literary texts in a lower-stakes setting than a graded paper. I usually offer several prompts from which students can choose in lower-level classes, while I require more advanced students to generate their own topics and abstracts. As I advocated in an article in the summer 2016 issue of Critical Survey, I use other assignments beyond straightforward criticism, such as writing transformative fiction, proposing adaptations, putting together presentations, and, in the case of drama, performing scenes. I approach drama as an interactive exercise to be performed—students watch and compare multiple versions of scenes and engage in scene performances of their own, accompanied by a set of director’s notes explaining their interpretation and grounding it in the text. Through these multiple modes of engagement, students in my classes have found themselves better able to draw connections between these texts and their own lives, to move beyond a misguided sense of difference between the past and the present that elides the struggles that persist today for many groups on the margins of society. While I have encountered a number of resistant students over my teaching career, I am pleased to say that most of them found my approaches to be valuable and helpful in understanding not only early literature but history and culture more broadly, equipping them to engage critically with the complexities of today’s information-saturated world.