Radically Inclusive Classroom Practices: Two Student-Centered Methods of Teaching Emerson to Ungraduates

Austin Bailey and Christina Katopodis, CUNY Graduate Center

I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Education”)

First, a brief word about who we are and where we come from. Christina Katopodis holds a PhD in English from the CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center, and is currently the Associate Director of Transformative Learning in the Humanities at CUNY. Austin Bailey is a PhD candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center and serves as an Associate for the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at Lehman College (CUNY). In our years of experience teaching Emerson to undergraduates–a white, canonical and quintessentially “American” literary figure—we feel that we have benefitted from reflecting carefully and thoughtfully on our pedagogy in order to bridge the palpable gaps between Emerson and the lived experiences and interests of our students, many of whom are students of color, immigrants, or come from immigrant families.

We have both taught for several years at Hunter College, a major college within CUNY (the largest urban university system in the U.S.). Like the majority of college students in the U.S. today, many CUNY students work part- or full-time while going to school; some support dependents; and many are either first-generation college students or have parents who were the first in their families to go to college (Mellow). In our experience, we have found CUNY students to be culturally and politically aware, and critical of dogma and established systems of oppression. Even though many lack the privilege of leisure, they come to college already exhibiting some of the valued characteristics of Emerson’s American Scholar, given their vast life experiences beyond book learning. In this blog post, we offer two student-centered, equitable, and inclusive methodologies for teaching Emerson to diverse undergraduates–one focused on reading Emerson (often for the first time), the other centered on writing about Emerson.

Reading Emerson: Christina

In teaching Emerson, I want to center students’ experiences, expertise, and knowledge(s) in the classroom, instead of framing Emerson as the expert. One activity that works well for achieving this aim is a simple inventory. Following Stanley Cavell’s suggestion that every sentence in an Emerson essay could stand as its own subject, I advise students as they read Emerson to read him as if each sentence could stand on its own. I then ask students to come to class with a favorite sentence—one they found beautiful, intriguing, perplexing, wild, or even outrageous. Typically, I assign “The Poet” or Nature (1836). As class begins, I ask students to share their sentences out of context so we can really inhabit the nuances of Emerson’s metaphors, dwell in them, and arrive at some significance or meaning of our own. Students might write these on the board, or in an online class they could share them on a Zoom whiteboard or Google Jamboard. When we get really caught up in a phrase, we might go back and read the sentence before or after it to see how they interact with one another and further tease out their significance.

This inventory not only invites all to participate—achieving what the American Psychological Association calls “total participation” (Ober and Saltzman)—but also lowers the bar of entry so that even students who didn’t fully understand or finish the reading (often due to other curricular, family, or occupational obligations) have a way to participate meaningfully. With this inventory, I begin class not with a lecture but with what has made students most curious while reading. I often introduce a few minutes of lecture on Emerson throughout these discussions to offer context and to answer students’ questions. This distributes the lecture into bright and interesting flickers of knowledge that are immediately relevant to a discussion or question students ignited themselves, thus bearing out Emerson’s critical insight in “The American Scholar” that “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.”

Writing about Emerson: Austin

Much like Christina’s student-centered (and generatively rhizomatic) reading assignment, I too like to center my students’ lived experiences and embodied knowledges through writing as a means of learning. It has been my sense, however, that traditional, thesis-anchored research papers–while useful and necessary in many contexts–too often alienate students from critical engagement with canonical authors like Emerson. Considering Emerson’s positionality as a traditional, white-male author, this is something we as teachers and scholars–and that I as a white male teacher-scholar–ought to be wary of and seek to avoid (since Emerson’s status and subjectivity are such that he may figure as inaccessible to students whose voices and whose cultural and intellectual capital are still systematically undervalued within academe).

One assignment I like to use is what I call a “Textual Encounter Narrative,” or TEN. As per the language on my syllabus, a TEN is “a writing project that explores critical questions about a given text using personal narrative.” I ask students to tell a story about encountering one of the authors/texts from the semester, and to discuss what feelings this encounter generated for them. How do such feelings, I ask, fit into your larger history as a reader? The purpose of this assignment is for students to feel their way through a text, rather than posing arguments about it. Many of my students have used this assignment as a means of working out complexly personal ideas about Emerson. While the assignment works well as a standalone assignment, some of my students have built research paper topics from them, using ideas they would not have had access to otherwise. By reorienting students’ relationship to writing about Emerson towards affect and intellectual autobiography, this assignment empowers students, in a low-stakes way, to make their own critical connections about Emerson, both within and outside the text, without the added layer of anxiety about getting Emerson “wrong.” In my ten years of experience teaching, I’ve found that these kinds of student-centered writing projects–which fall under the broader penumbra of “multimodal composition”–actually produce deeper critical engagement than traditional writing modalities.

Conclusion

Our intent in this blog has been to offer some implementable examples of how to approach teaching Emerson to a diverse undergraduate population. If the use of colleges, as Emerson proclaims in “The American Scholar,” is “not to drill, but to create” by setting “the hearts of their youth on flame,” then the ways we approach teaching Emerson should also mirror this truth. Rather than falling prey to pedagogies that make Emerson less accessible, we should meet our students where they are by allowing them to engage and learn from Emerson on their own terms and according to their own genius.

 

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar” (1837), The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume I: Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, eds. Robert E. Spiller

Alfred R. Ferguson, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 56.

___________________. “Education,” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume X: Lectures and biographical sketches, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson, University of Michigan Library, 2006, pp. 126.

Gagich, Melanie. “An Introduction to and Strategies for Multimodal Composing.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume III, eds. Dana Driscoll, Mary Stewart and Matthew Vetter, The WAC Clearinghouse, 2020, pp. 65.

Mellow, Gail O. “The Biggest Misconception About Today’s College Students.” New York Times, 28 Aug. 2017.

Ober, Teresa, and Ethlyn Saltzman. “Achieving total student participation in today’s diverse college classes,” How We Teach Now: The GSTA Guide to Student-Centered Teaching, eds. Rita Obeid, Anna M. Schwartz, Christina Shane-Simpson, and Patricia J. Brooks, Society for the Teaching of Psychology, 2017, pp. 107–122.

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