Thinking and writing are intimately connected… and both require practice.
Below are some excerpts from my teaching philosophy. I start with Sylvia Wynter’s thoughts on the connection between higher education and the 1992 L.A. riots — insights that are at least as important now as they were 25 years ago.
For a related but more informal set of reflections on how I approach teaching, there’s also this Q&A. I have nothing but respect for my students, and I’m deeply honoured that one of them took the time to formally recognize the ways I try to support their mental health in the midst of what can be, at times, an overwhelming academic year.
In an open letter to her colleagues written after the acquittal of the police officers involved in the 1991 beating of Rodney King, Caribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter (1994) considers the role of higher education in shaping and disseminating an anti-black, colonial story of “the human.” She closes this letter by asserting that academic work must aim to undo the “narratively condemned status” of the racialized and the poor. This work, she argues, entails a thoroughgoing rewriting of knowledge from within the academy—an epistemological mutation from which a more capacious, flexible, relational story of humanness might begin to emerge. Inspired by Wynter, I aim as a teacher to alert students to the world-making force of storytelling. I work to provide them with the tools to interpret, critically analyze, and reimagine the narratives of the world that animate everything from policy documents to popular culture. And I encourage students to reflect, through this work, on the stories they tell themselves about who they are and where and how they belong. By guiding my students through an exploration of how “we” emerge through storytelling, I show them that stories can be revised, that the terms of belonging are changeable—and that “we” can narratively, collectively reinvent ourselves.
My core pedagogical aims, then, are to foster my students’ capacities for creative counter-readings and assist them in developing their own unique writing voices.
My pedagogical emphasis on storytelling means that I’m asking students to open themselves up to revising the stories they live by—stories that are, as Dina Georgis (2013) argues, technologies of survival, ways of holding a “self” together. So I understand the classroom as a space in which students are deeply vulnerable. And since vulnerability is unevenly distributed across differences that are organized along lines of race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and citizenship, I’m keenly aware that some of my students come into the classroom already more vulnerable than others. To me, this means that classrooms can’t exactly be “safe” spaces, but they can and should be sites of challenging, respectful interaction. From private conversations with students who occasionally balk at the grimness of an assigned film to in-lecture reflections on the ethics of showing—and thereby reproducing—scenes of violence, I strive to be transparent about my thought process and, in turn, support students as they draw (and often redraw) their own boundaries. Especially in my fourth-year seminars, this self-reflexivity has resulted in some memorable discussions about what it means to join a scholarly conversation, whether through one’s research or simply by posing a question to a peer in class. In one seminar, for instance, we had a long and fruitful discussion about the importance of the conjunction “with” in the subtitle of one of Judith Butler’s chapters in Frames of War: “Thinking with Sontag.” By urging my students to consider the thinkers that they’re reading as, themselves, in conversation with one another, I also prompt them to reflect on the ethos of their own scholarly contributions. At all times, I work to model the combination of generosity, self-reflexivity, and analytical precision that I ask of my students, foregrounding the privileges of my whiteness and citizenship status in some contexts, or drawing on my own genderqueer embodiment to illustrate, for example, Sara Ahmed’s (2010) point that the world “‘houses’ some bodies more than others.”