As I write, I am looking at the syllabus for the first literature
course I ever taught, a Shakespeare offering at Agnes Scott College
I haven’t looked at it in 30-plus years, and these older,
wiser eyes find it shocking, not least because I apparently devoted
only one of the 45 days of the class to something other than lecture
(a mid-term exam).
I wonder: Did I let the students talk at all? I don’t remember.
But I’m afraid I do remember talking myself—and talking,
and talking, and talking. Each night, I wrote lengthy lectures,
and each day, I delivered them. Before
I was done “teaching” Hamlet or Macbeth,
I’d accumulated 70, 80, 100 pages of notes. And the students
had done the same—by writing, and writing, and writing.
What was I thinking?
I must have thought teaching was intended to communicate course
content. In a Shakespeare course, surely it was up to me to teach
the students Shakespeare (that is, the texts themselves, by which
I meant the plays on the printed page), and surely it was up to
me to teach the students what to think about Shakespeare, too. I
would review what everybody else thought about Shakespeare, come
to some conclusions and pass those conclusions on—supporting
them with close analysis of line after line of text.
And when I asked students to write papers and exams, I expected
to see—and did see—something rather like the lecture
notes I had started with in the first place.
When I look at my current Shakespeare syllabus, I can hardly believe
how different it and the class it describes are from that class
32 years ago. It’s clear that I’ve come to think
about teaching (for one thing) and to think about it in a whole
As the lengthy description of the course objectives now included
in all my syllabi makes plain, I am now much more interested in
communicating skills than content, both the skills essential in
the liberal arts education (and the careers and lives that will
follow that education) and the skills essential for engaging the
course content (Shakespeare, in this particular case).
I do all I can, in this as in all my other courses, to urge students
to read closely and to think critically and creatively (and feel
fiercely) about their reading and their responses to that reading.
Because I now understand that the texts on the printed page are
just scripts for the true texts—performances of the plays—I
also urge (and enable) students to see as many of the plays as they
And finally, I urge them to come to class prepared to talk,
to articulate their views, not just for me but for one another,
in a manner as close to “real” conversation as possible.
I no longer enter class with notes. And the students don’t
leave class with notes—not notes that record my views, anyway.
I no longer have any desire to teach them what to think
about Shakespeare, defined as what I think about Shakespeare (the
mere idea is anathema to me). I want only to teach them how to think
about Shakespeare (and how to feel about it, as well), and I want
them to take joy in the process of sharing their confusions and
conclusions through discussion that yields as deep an appreciation
of the plays as is possible when so many intelligent and passionate
people, people of such very varied experience, do share, do collaborate,
in real conversation.
How did this evolution in my philosophy of teaching and my pedagogical
practices come about? It certainly didn’t derive from anything
I learned in graduate school when I was earning the PhD that would
(supposedly) enable me to teach.
When I offered my first classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
in 1966–67, no one expected me or the other teaching assistants
to have a “teaching philosophy.” And no one attempted
to give us one, either. The woman who supervised the several hunded
TAs teaching English composition and literature gave us only two
pieces of advice: (1) open a window before beginning class; and
(2) use the blackboard at least once in each class period.
That was it. Whatever we learned about teaching—in graduate
school and after—we learned by trial and error ... and error
and more error.
In time, most of us became pretty decent teachers. But we didn’t
theorize much about what we were doing. Pedagogical practice wasn’t
a topic much discussed, by me or anyone else I knew who was actually
practicing pedagogy. We did what worked. Why it worked—or
how it might be made to work even better—weren’t things
we considered much, alone or collectively.
Even those of us at “teaching institutions” like Oxford
spent most of the time we weren’t teaching (or preparing to
teach) our six or seven courses a year trying to do enough research
in our disciplines to qualify as “scholars” as well
as teachers, and to justify tenure and promotion.
How wonderful, then, that a new definition of “scholarship”
came along just when we needed it most—a definition that accords
the “scholarship of teaching” the same kind of respect
as more traditional scholarship has always been able to claim. Suddenly,
teachers were urged to turn their “scholarly” attentions
to their teaching (of all things!), urged to research what was happening
in their classrooms, and urged to share the results of their research
with others doing the same.
Even in the early 1990s, many members of the Oxford faculty held
“Teaching Lunches” to discuss matters related to effective
teaching. By the late ’90s, Dean Kent Linville was able to
persuade 40 percent of the Oxford faculty (and 100 percent of the
adminstrative staff) to serve on the newly formed Advisory Council
on Teaching, Learning and Professional Development (ACT). The work
of that council overcame obstacles that kept interested faculty
from pursuing the “scholarship of teaching,” such as
a lack of time, expertise and incentives.
The result has been a terrific explosion of “scholarly”
activity—and perhaps we may now write simply scholarly activity,
without the apologetic quotation marks—that has begun to establish
Oxford as a national center for research into teaching and learning
and as a worthy complement to the other divisions of a University
where faculty usually are engaged in more conventional kinds of
Most important for me and my students, of course, is the fact that
pursuit of this new kind of scholarship has allowed me to evolve
into the teacher who trusts the students in her Shakespeare class
to teach right along with me—to take the talk, the real conversation,
right where it needs to go.
Indeed, researching my own practices and applying the results of
that research has turned this semester’s Shakespeare class
into the best I’ve ever had—even if I don’t always
remember to open a window or use the blackboard.