My career as an educator began in an eighth-grade classroom with predominantly African-American students from an economically depressed region. What I learned in that room formed the basis of an educational philosophy that has, with time and continued experience working in and with marginalized communities, evolved into a constructivist approach to a dual-purpose model. I believe in a truly liberal education in which students are actively engaged in the construction of knowledge through discussion, critical analysis, creative production, and academic inquiry. As a teacher of students seeking a liberal arts education, my responsibilities are two-fold: to prepare students with the essential skills needed to become active and effective members of a democratic society (Bagley) and to raise critical consciousness of the position of marginalized communities that is largely determined by race, ethnicity, gender, and class (Giroux).
After three years in the secondary school system, I began teaching freshman composition at Bowling Green State University where a large number of my students were first generation college students from small farming communities in the Ohio region. While the composition classroom is predominantly a skills-based (Bagley), problem-solving (Freire) environment, it also provides opportunities for critical consciousness raising (Giroux). For example, while at Texas A&M University, my students – from Mexican-American children of immigrants to the sons and daughters of cattle ranchers to international students from China, West Africa, South America – brought a rich diversity to our discussions and informed the direction of our course readings that included essays by Richard Rodriguez, Paulo Freire, Mary Louise Pratt, and Richard Miller and centered on a semester-long inquiry into the educational benefits and challenges marginalized communities encounter in the American educational system.
It is at the intersection of essentialism and progressivism that we find the study of literature and see the importance of allowing America’s great diversity to help shape curriculum. The teaching of literary texts lends itself to both the acquisition and practice of skills (reading, writing, and critical analysis) and to the deep, intentional inquiry and discussion that can arise when students are confronted with the “other” in literature. The importance of equitable representation in the literary classroom cannot be overstated. While there is some value in teaching a “great books” curriculum, a Eurocentric approach to literary study serves no one but the established hegemony. If the dual-purposes of education are to teach essential knowledge and skills and to help students become critically conscious of the exploitation of marginalized communities and to become empowered through education, then a curriculum that is truly representative of our nation and our nation’s history must be taught. This is true of both the literature classroom and the creative writing classroom where assignments are varied to incorporate both freedom of expression (critical consciousness) and technical practice (skills-based learning).
It is my job to choose materials, texts, and literature that challenge students and allow them the opportunity to grow intellectually in many different directions. One of my responsibilities as their teacher is having a solid basis for choosing the materials and setting the stage for student learning. Once that stage has been set and expectations discussed in general, then my role changes. As a member of any class I teach, I see my role as facilitator of discussion, as one who applies Freire’s problem-posing method of instruction by raising questions – not giving answers or expecting specific responses, but as one who gives more fuel to the fire that I hope the study of literature and writing has started. I believe in allowing students to locate their own intellectual and creative interests and that, through open discussion of a variety of approaches to a text, we can come to see any work of literature in multiple lights, as through a prism, and therefore come to understand ourselves, our society, and our world more intimately.