Kristina Busse

Teaching Philosophy

Critical pedagogy, which supplements frontal teaching with a dialogic model, often questions the simple retention of information generally considered necessary to make students well-educated individuals—or, if nothing else, college graduates. Whereas science or math classes may need to follow a model where foundational facts are disseminated, retained, and tested, I believe one of the goals of the humanities classroom ought to be to challenge and balance such learning approaches. Biographical and historical facts are necessary, and particular interpretations of central canonical texts are important; yet it is the skill of learning how to confront primary texts that I believe to be the primary goal of any humanities classroom. The ability to take a text of any kind and tease out its central argument or theme, its potential audience, and its underlying assumptions is a skill that needs to be reinforced throughout the students? university career. After all, we cannot encourage independent thinking by presenting our students with objective truths, even if they consist of radically critical insights into texts or culture. I think of myself both as a resource for contextual background and as a mediator; I teach the students to engage with the material on their own. I position myself as a probably more widely read, possibly more skilled reader and interpreter, but not as an ultimate authority. One of my goals is to provide my students with the ability to interrogate and rebut a given reading—including my interpretations.

Critical writing and revision abilities are among the central skills that enable critical engagement in the humanities. And all classes must build on and fine-tune the critical skills students acquire in the composition classroom. I believe students need to write continuously, whether it be short response papers, where writing functions as a thought-organizing tool, or longer comprehensive papers, where students set forth a sustained argument. Currently, I use online blogs to invite students to engage with me and their peers in a less formal environment. The informality and immediacy of this technology encourage all of us to think through the class topics and discussions. In this space, we can reflect on our classroom debates and brainstorm our own ideas. The informality of LiveJournal.com, a social networking blog site, offers an environment where students can post ideas, engage in deeper discussion in threaded comments, and easily reference online materials by embedding links, pictures, and videos. Interaction among the students is crucial because students learn from one another in fundamentally different ways than they learn from a teacher. In larger classes, I use guided group work to make the students more comfortable with one another, which thereafter allows them to participate more easily in the class at large. I also use a formal version of peer teaching. I require my students to produce peer reviews of each other's work. Any writing improves with revision, and most students sharpen their analytic reading skills when peer reviewing. I make these graded take-home assignments, and I require extensive typed responses. As a result, many students produce better papers as they become more aware of basic writing strategies (such as transitions, topic sentences, and awareness of audience), and they practice and implement the concept of writing as a continual process.

Literary texts must of course be at the center of any literature classroom, but I believe that theoretical responses and cultural artifacts are equally important, so I often offer strategies to help students access more complicated texts. Especially in modernism (which is both international and interdisciplinary) and postmodernism (which renounces any differentiation between high and popular art), distinctions cannot be easily drawn, and such distinctions often impede students? understanding of the period. In modernism, for example, I emphasize the similarities between visual arts, architecture, science, music, and literature: by listening to Schoenberg, students have a much better sense of the utter foreignness of modern art on the early twentieth-century sensibility than they do by reading now-classic authors. When I teach postmodernism, I find it useful to pair complicated abstract writing experiments with commercial entertainment, thus emphasizing the similarities between popular culture and canonical texts (e.g., science fiction and experimental metafiction) and showing the traces of popular culture in canonical texts (e.g., film and television as themes in contemporary literature), which emphasizes that any distinction between 'highbrow' and 'lowbrow' is culturally constructed.

Although I strongly believe that it is important to teach canonically accepted authors and texts in order to make our students culturally literate, I also feel that we need to teach our students awareness of how quality judgments are made and how aesthetic values come to be constructed. It is here that my research and my teaching most influence one another. As a postmodern theorist and a scholar of popular culture and amateur writing, I avoid aesthetic value judgments, and this is a lesson I carry into the classroom. Whether that means studying MTV as examples of visual/auditory texts in composition classes or using punk rock to address England's political and economic situation in the 1980s or teaching The X-Files with Pynchon and DeLillo, cultural and traditional literary texts need to be studied alongside one another because neither is created nor received in a vacuum. Moreover, as with theoretical texts, it is crucial that students learn interpretive strategies. After all, although they may possibly never have to recall a particular text they studied in a literature class, they will most likely encounter popular media throughout their lives. As English teachers, we are in a position to give them the reading abilities that will make them successful students—and, I hope, critical consumers and citizens. [October 2006]