Leah Pope Parker
Statement of Teaching Philosophy
My pedagogy is organized around three principles. First, the study of literature and language should prepare students to be more conscientious and responsible global citizens. In all of my courses I prioritize increasing students’ empathy for a diverse array of lived experiences, whether or not “diversity” is an explicit part of the course description. For example, when I teach Chaucer, I use the Wife of Bath’s Tale as an opportunity to discuss sexual violence and consent, connecting contemporary discourses such as those rising with the #MeToo movement to Cecily Champagne’s fourteenth-century reported “raptus” (that is, abduction and/or rape) by a group of men including Chaucer. In response to such discussions in previous semesters, students have joined campus organizations combatting sexual violence at UW-Madison and disclosed that as survivors of sexual violence themselves, they felt supported and safe in my classroom. Last fall, I taught Chaucer in the week following Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate. Discussing a rapist’s redemption narrative, such as the Wife of Bath’s Tale, was challenging for many students in that context, but by providing my students space to process an historically distant accusation such as Cecily Champagne’s, they developed more nuanced understandings of how sexual assaults continue to impact survivors long after the assaults themselves, both in Middle Ages and the present day. My teaching is thus invested in addressing contemporary social issues, even as my medieval literature classes never lose sight of the historical contexts of the past. My research in medieval disability studies serves me well here, as a topic of study and methodology that crosses genres, cultural boundaries, and historical periods. Just as my research seeks to unearth medieval concepts of disability in order to better understand present-day constructs of bodily difference, my teaching encourages students to explore a wide variety of perspectives, in order to develop habits of empathy and critical thinking that will serve them throughout their lives and careers.
I emphasize these values in my course and assignment design as well. For example, I have designed an introductory literature and health humanities topics course titled “Writing the Body in Fiction and Non-fiction,” with particular relevance to students pursuing careers in health sciences, medicine, and social services. My goal in this course is to expose students to a wide range of means of approaching, experiencing, and understanding the body in language, while also giving students holding a diverse range of identities opportunities to see themselves reflected in course material in more than solely a tokenizing capacity. My “Writing the Body” course thus invites students to recognize a wide variety of identities, backgrounds, and experiences of the body, both reflected in assigned readings (such as Roxane Gay’s Hunger and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home) and fostered in their own written work. This is encouraged by an assignment I call “Questions & Answers,” which requires students to choose an embodied subject position with which they do not identify (e.g., a non-binary gender identity or a chronic illness like diabetes), ask five genuine questions, and write paragraph-length answers to those questions utilizing both scholarly and general-audience sources. This assignment advances research skills, but also expects students to practice educating themselves about experiences different from their own in order to become more empathetic members of their community.
My pedagogy’s second guiding principle is that class time should provide balance between structured skill-building exercises and more open exploration of course topics. For example, in surveys of British literature, I assign weekly exercises that structure skill-building around particular aspects of that week’s reading. When I invite students to choose an instance of narrative interlace in Beowulf and suggest three ways it augments the main narrative, these ideas feed into practicing close reading in the context of understanding larger narrative structure. Likewise, asking students to draft a thesis statement that responds to the question of whether Milton’s Satan is a sympathetic figure provides a foundation to practice revising and polishing thesis statements in class, while also beginning to engage central questions of morality and authority in Paradise Lost. Through such exercises I am able to respond to student needs over the course of the semester, giving them low-stakes practice in high-need areas between essay assignments. As a result of such lessons, I have seen my students become stronger close readers, write more compelling arguments, and contribute more substantial insights to class discussion.
I always complement more narrowly focused exercises with open-ended time for students to ask questions and think creatively about course content. In discussion sections for introductory literature lectures, I devote ten to fifteen minutes of each weekly section to students’ questions. These conversations provide opportunities for crucial interventions in student comprehension, in terms of both assigned readings and critical concepts introduced in the course. In addition to better understanding the material, students become habituated to consuming readings and lectures actively, rather than passively, and thinking carefully about their own learning ahead of class time. As a result, I have seen students become exceptional critics not just of materials assigned in the course, but also of media they consume in their daily lives. For example, in a recent course on “Beowulf, Tolkien, and Modern Fantasy,” student-driven conversations about medievalism and the genre of fantasy led many students to apply course concepts to material not on the syllabus. Nearly every week, students approached me after class to discuss the genre of fantasy and, for example, Westworld or Star Wars. Several students wrote compelling and insightful final essays on their favorite cultural objects, including open-world video games and films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Because I am committed to building students’ interpretive and critical thinking skills beyond any given course, I consider it especially important to cultivate this kind of conscientious consumption of media in introductory and general education classes that may be students’ only college-level literature course.
The third principle guiding my pedagogy is that assessments of student learning should prioritize growth, but nonetheless expect a certain level of mastery in course learning objectives. I frequently utilize forms of specifications grading, which requires students to demonstrate set levels of proficiency in order to earn credit. For example, the skill-building exercises I described above are graded pass/fail, where passing means a student has accomplished the goal of a given exercise (e.g., correctly identifying interlace or drafting a complete thesis statement), regardless of how well they have accomplished it. That component of a given student’s grade is then determined not by an average of how well they have done (where consistent effort without ever successfully accomplishing a skill can still earn a student a passing grade at 70%), but by the number of skills in which they have demonstrated proficiency (i.e., similar to “B”-level work). Specifications-graded exercises thus require students to achieve expected levels of proficiency in 10 out of 14 weekly exercises in order to earn at least a 70% for that part of their grade. I have found that students have little difficulty meeting such raised expectations, and this structure motivates students to continuously develop literary analysis and writing skills throughout the semester, not just when they are working on major assignments.
I consider myself a successful teacher when my students demonstrate growth as critical thinkers and as conscientious users of language in speaking, reading, and writing. I prioritize this growth in my assignment design, which emphasizes revision as a crucial component of successful writing. For example, students who do not achieve proficiency on skill exercises are invited to revise and resubmit within a week. I enjoy recognizing student progress across drafts, assignments, semesters, and years, and constantly seek to push students to think about their use of language in new ways. One of my role models for teaching is fond of saying that teachers who stop learning make him uncomfortable; I share this philosophy and regularly seek opportunities for my own growth as a teacher by listening to students’ needs, experimenting with new teaching methods, and collaborating with my colleagues to create a welcoming learning environment. I consider teaching to be part of my own form of responsible citizenship, and I look forward to fostering my students’ understanding of language, literature, and culture, while continuing to challenge myself to improve my teaching with each new course.
 Linda B. Nilson, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Stylus Publishing, 2014).