Sheila Cordner's Teaching Philosophy
Relentless about pursuing his education, Thomas Hardy’s eponymous hero in Jude the Obscure conjures up a way to study the dictionary while driving a cart selling baked goods, “fixing open” the book “by means of a strap attached to the tilt.” I encourage my students to become more like Jude: he rejects the boundaries between his academic lessons and experiences, and insists on living the life of the mind.
I want my freshman students to not only read about the world of the Victorian class system but to feel it for themselves. When I teach Charles Dickens’s Hard Times in the context of the Industrial Revolution and the shifting class system, I send students to the Gibson House Museum, a preserved Victorian mansion in Boston. I instruct them to take notes on markers of class: how does the house separate classes? Where do different classes mingle? How is class disguised? Students write papers drawing upon their firsthand observations as well as their analysis of Dickens’s depiction of class in his novel. The society inhabited by characters such as Josiah Bounderby, Stephen Blackpool, and Mrs. Sparsit becomes less distant; as a result, students are able to write more thoughtful literary analysis of Dickens’s text.
I often invite students to think critically about their personal experiences in relation to texts from other time periods. When I teach Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes: A Love Story, which depicts university-educated women in postcolonial Ghana, I ask students to write for five minutes about their own educational experiences. I prompt them to write not only about what they have gained from their education, but also whether they have sacrificed anything as a result of it. When we turn to Aidoo’s text, students can more easily relate to her characters, becoming more attuned to the nuances in her critique of postcolonial society. By starting with such a simple task—a few minutes of personal writing—I facilitate students’ understanding of unfamiliar literature. This opens the way to my primary emphasis on close reading of texts.
In addition to short in-class writing prompts, I incorporate exercises that allow students to use the personal knowledge they bring to my class and apply it to our scholarly discussion of literature. To introduce lessons on poetry in translation, for example, I ask groups of students to translate the lyrics of a popular hip-hop song into language that their grandparents could understand. I want them to think critically about what it means to translate a poem. Their task is to preserve the meaning, sounds, and rhythm as much as possible while making it accessible to a new kind of audience. We compare translations. What is compromised? How do the translations exhibit different interpretations of the original lyrics? This brief activity, drawing on their own insight about music and family, paves the way for an in-depth study of the assigned poems in translation.
At the end of the semester I often develop a capstone service-learning project inviting students to experience firsthand the link between their study of literature and an engagement with the outside world. After witnessing middle school students’ passion for learning at 826 Boston, an urban after-school writing program for youth, one of my students reached a new understanding of the intellectually hungry Jude. She wrote a sophisticated final paper analyzing Hardy’s portrait of motivation and family circumstances in Jude and his son Father Time. Inspired by nursing home residents’ strong desire to learn, another student wrote a provocative paper about unconventional education in William Wordsworth’s poems and Margaret Edson’s play Wit—his most rigorous work all semester. Other students have participated in programs such as the Prison Book Program and ESL Adult Conversation Circles at the Boston Public Library. These experiences remind my students that there exists no barrier between their studies on campus and the learning that happens—like Jude’s—outside of university walls.