When I describe my approach to pedagogy, I tell the story of an essay prompt. The first semester of junior year, my American Studies professor gave us a deceptively simple task: Write about a song you hate. I knew immediately that I would write about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Propelled at first by a righteous loathing, I delved deep into the assignment, dissecting the song’s formal qualities and well-documented history. But with each listen, and the more I researched, the more skeptical I became of my original position. Forced to examine my own feelings closely, I not only came to realize the classism and regionalism motivating my original dismissal, but also how the song may have resonated with both its fans and its detractors in the context of the period immediately following the Civil Rights Era. Strangely, and despite my usual enthusiasm-driven curricula, this assignment illustrates several of the most important aspects of my teaching. It champions my belief that the everyday is important. It models a method that uses the personal as an effective gateway into heavy, heady political and theoretical arguments. Perhaps most importantly, it elucidates how the simplest approach can often lead to deep critical analysis—how starting small, with the up-close and personal, can end up profoundly rattling our initial loyalties or assumptions.
As an instructor, I am dedicated to a pedagogical process that starts with my students’ attachments, associations, and impressions, and moves through these original reactions to critically examine and analyze cultural production in a broader context. In my “Divas” seminar, we developed a ritual: at the start of each class, I would organize my students into small groups and play the week’s assigned song over the A/V system. The groups would talk quietly for the duration of the song, describing its formal qualities (rhythm, instrumentation, pitch, tempo, etc.) using vocabulary from a “Guide to Talking About Music” worksheet. We would then collect our observations in a word cloud on the blackboard. The answers were varied—some students dove in immediately with critical tools; others were dismissive; others arrived with strong emotional attachments to certain cultural forms. Far from setting us back, the diversity of perspectives, tastes, and experiences often proved to be the perfect catalyst for provocative discussion. From their surface-level observations, my students practiced linking the formal qualities we observed to the associations the song evoked. The lecture to follow first explained the historical context of the song before moving to the theoretical texts the class had read for homework, which provided further tools for articulating a critical analysis of our object. Only through this step-by-step process did we ultimately reach an understanding of cultural production that accounted for subsurface meaning, structures of power, and material history. By itself, the pedagogical imperative to begin with first impressions might mischaracterize critique as merely a matter of subjective taste, which it is not. Because taste is informed not only by form, but also by history, class position, and identity, I find that starting from personal reactions to formal qualities or explicit content often allows students a way in. From first impressions, we can ask: What is the object/text doing that it might not claim or know it is doing? With what groups, moments, or ideologies is this object/text associated? What do these associations reveal about history and structures of power? Importantly, studying cultural production in this way does double-duty: it both bridges the gap between academic and lived experience, and extends students’ idea of the political.
A happy consequence of my approach to teaching is that my students get to know each other. In the course of a semester, I have witnessed tentative friendships spring up between students of diverse backgrounds and of diverse approaches, opinions, loyalties, and identifications. At the same time, fostering personal connection can produce disagreement, conflict, and discomfort. I taught my first Duke class in Fall 2016—a volatile moment to be teaching about US identity politics. More than once that semester, my students (which that year came from particularly varied array of racial, economic, and regional backgrounds) clashed with each other, often to the brink of breakdown. The conclusion of a particularly bitter election season halfway through the semester inaugurated a new regime of power, a shift that took my class by surprise; for many, the change felt cataclysmic, unexpected, and unhinging. In such a climate, it is easy to refuse to think critically. But because we had practiced moving from first impression to critical analysis, what followed an initial argument was an informed deliberation about what this moment meant in the context of what we had learned about patterns in US history. This experience in particular exemplifies my belief that a good classroom is both a safe and dangerous space, one that allows students to think critically and materially about intersections of identity, representation, or language without relying on abstract buzzwords or rigid identitarianism. Learning sometimes means getting real, getting raw, coming out, calling out, revising, reevaluating, and paying attention. This can only happen in an educational environment in which students feel able to challenge each other and themselves.
I strive to curate such an environment. Because I believe in the ability of enthusiasm to infect and inspire, as well as in the ability of structure to make things accessible and comprehensible, my teaching style is a blend of performative gusto and clear agenda setting. I find that students are more willing to participate, go out on a limb, or eagerly engage with the material if I am willing to do the same. I am an obsessive syllabus-maker, lesson planner, and email-writer—in part because I am prone to pedagogical esprit de l'escalie, I make it a habit to write follow-up emails after class, usually containing a summary of our discussion, talking points for next time, and links to examples that surfaced during the lecture. Outside of scheduled class time, I make a point of being as present for my students as I can, setting up flexible office hours and returning edited drafts of all their writing. I believe strongly in the power of brainstorming and revision, and thus am eager to meet one-on-one with students who need an editorial eye or encouraging interlocutor.
I assign “write about a song you hate”—or assignments like it—now, in my own classes. I do this because I consider teaching successful if we end somewhere different than where we started. When done with the appropriate rigor, grappling with why and how we relate to objects demands substantive argument and attentive analysis; it provokes discussion and vulnerability; it unsettles rather than codifies. As an undergraduate, my attempt to explain why I didn’t enjoy “Sweet Home Alabama” led me on an eye-opening odyssey: looking closely at Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic anthem left me with subtler, more informed appreciation of the band’s bold indictment of white northern hypocrisy and condescension (the same condescension that, ironically, had made me dismiss the song in the first place). In piecing apart why they feel the way they feel, my students, too, come away with an understanding of the objects we study that is more nuanced, open-ended, and historically cognizant than the one with which they began. This is my reason for teaching.