My father was a professor, and when he wasn’t teaching, our family often spent several summer weeks rambling the U.S. countryside, camper in tow. These peripatetic journeys encouraged a lasting interest in the varieties and convergences of human expressive forms, from speaking styles to architectural details, as well as a growing awareness that cultural representations are complicated and partial. Standing at the Four Corners Monument I learned that borders are literal constructions; at Little Bighorn Battlefield I saw how interpretations of history differ. Later, I opted to concentrate my own studies in the humanities, exploring how people process and articulate human experience, with an emphasis on the ways patterned expressions are promoted, conserved, and transformed in everyday life. And in the classroom, I use experiential approaches to help students engage productively with the complex ideas and people they encounter.
As I discovered during my family’s summer road trips, learning happens in multiple modes and contexts: formal and informal, guided and exploratory. In addition to reading widely and writing frequently, my students always generate new data. We rely on primary sources—archived documents, material culture, or popular media—and multiple methods, including formal analysis, observation, interviewing, and participation. We visit museums to see how kente cloth communicates; we examine old cookbooks as identity objects; we trek to the library to browse a special collection. My students have participated in hands-on apprenticeships (e.g., beekeeping, welding, baking, butchering) and other forms of experiential/service-learning that offer skills both aesthetic and analytical. I regularly prioritize the voices of elders, people of color, and/or those from outside academe, inviting these experts into the classroom as a way to help students envision specific contexts and move beyond abstract “types.”
Because students are as dynamic as culture itself, I focus on student growth by using scaffolded assignments that require reflection and revision. I work hard to determine the skills students will need to succeed, and then build in time for practice before expecting demonstrations of mastery. I’ve learned that I need to break large projects into smaller components, model specific skills, reward preparation, encourage self-assessment, and check frequently for understanding. Thus, I often ask students to submit drafts and evaluate peer work, I require them to process readings via discussion boards or pre-class quizzes, and I structure syllabi so that students are exposed to the same idea several times, but in new contexts that encourage more complex understandings. Further, I try to balance structure and agency by establishing definite guidelines and reference points, at the same time allowing substantial student choice in topic and approach. My exams challenge students by focusing on synthesis and application: they often ask pupils to interpret new materials—advertisements, oral narratives, essays, lyrics—in relation to course concepts. In the classroom and as part of regular assignments, I require students to practice consuming information critically, guiding them in strategies for evaluating claims and sources. In turn, they have helped me improve my pacing and evaluate my expectations. And they always introduce me to new ideas, problems, and forms.
Envisioning students as citizen advocates, I ask them to make meaningful contributions to ongoing discussions—to create blogs, brochures, speeches, book reviews, op-ed pieces, exhibits, public-service spots, grant proposals, media presentations, conference-quality posters, websites, and letters to legislators—and I teach the technical processes and the ethical considerations required to make those efforts successful. While my classes require considerable investments of time and mental energy, they also allow engagement with topics of genuine interest, and they generate meaningful products and skills that are useful beyond the classroom. My own learning has never been confined to a campus, and I want the same for my students.