I did not enter graduate school with the desire to become a great teacher. As a new Ph.D. student, my singular focus was to become a great scholar, and I viewed teaching as a means to an end. To be completely honest, I saw teaching and scholarship as mutually exclusive—perhaps even antagonistic—activities. But the more I developed as a teacher, the more I recognized how misguided that conception was. I now understand that my work as a teacher and my work as a scholar are deeply intertwined. Through the study of literature and the practice of writing, I learned the reflective habits of mind that enable me to see the world in new ways. Through the process of becoming a teacher, I learned how to share this experience with my students; I learned, in other words, how to make intellectual work in the classroom usable and relevant outside of it.
In the classroom, my goal is not simply to broaden the perspectives of my students through the texts they read and the histories they encounter, but also to foster their sense of affirmation and appreciation of differences. As a teacher, I want to stir my students’ curiosity and to support their journey towards intellectual independence. To encourage students to move in this direction, I regularly incorporate engaged learning activities, service-learning projects, and self-directed assignments into my pedagogy. For example, during my time at USM I have cultivated partnerships with several local organizations including Portland Housing Authority (PHA), Partners for World Health, Cultivating Community, and Preble Street Resource Center. For example, at PHA my students work with Americorps VISTA employees to engage school-aged residents in dialogue about issues concerning identity, diversity, and multiculturalism. In preparation for this work, I lead my students through cultural competency workshops based on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Tolerance” materials. I also integrate experiential learning into my courses: my students and I walk the Portland Freedom Trail with artist/creator Daniel Minter, we kayak to Malaga Island with Drs. Nate Hamilton and Rob Sanford, the archaeologists who led the effort to preserve the material culture of the island. I regularly partner with the Portland Museum of Art, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, SPACE Gallery, and Portland Stage to integrate cultural productions into my coursework and ensure that these opportunities are accessible for my students.
My experimentation with different engaged, experiential, and service learning pedagogies has taught me that sometimes the deepest learning experiences happen outside the classroom. I have come to find that the best learning is organic, and it happens in the messy interplay between theory and practice. Last fall, I partnered with USM’s Special Collections and the Portland-based SPACE Gallery to create a student-curated artifact exhibit that accompanied the screening of the film Black Memorabilia. Each student selected an artifact from the USM Special Collections’ African American Collection of Maine and completed the following research assignments: a formal paper, an oral presentation, and a Sampson Center Facebook post. The Special Collections librarians utilized the student research papers to serve as the basis for Finding Guides on previously un-catalogued artifacts. The Facebook posts were used to promote the exhibit and film screening to the community, and the oral presentations gave students the confidence to productively engage with audience members at the event. On the night of the show, my students served as docents and gave audience members tours of the exhibit they curated. This project was messy, in a productive way: it required close collaboration and patience between the Special Collections, the SPACE Gallery, the film creators, and myself. It also required my students to totally reconceive of their approaches to their coursework: they had to envision several different audiences—Digital Commons readers, Portland moviegoers, librarians, etc.—and they had to present and re-present their knowledge in a variety of genres. The work was deeply collaborative, but it was also complex and complicated. For students, the most intimidating aspects of the project were also the most rewarding: publishing their research papers on the Digital Commons, sharing their curated memorabilia exhibit with a real audience, and having the chance to actively participate in their own learning. These real-world settings and applications empowered my students to make meaning rather than simply access, deduce, and represent it.
This fall, my students are completing two digital archive projects: an artifact cataloguing assignment for the USM Special Collections that culminates in the creation of Finding Guides, and a Digital Humanities archive project for the Indigenous New England Digital Collection that culminates in online publication. In collaboration with Dr. Siobhan Senier and Passamaquoddy Tribal Historian Donald Soctomah, my students are in the process of digitizing back issues of The Wabanaki Alliance, an out-of-print newsletter that documented the early days of federal recognition in Maine. Working in groups, students are completing significant archival projects using industry-standard online platforms Omeka and Wordpress. Like my collaboration with the Special Collections and SPACE, this collaboration benefits students and community partners: my students are serving the academic community by supporting the publication of previously inaccessible work, and they are gaining valuable digital literacy skills that will serve them well in college and in the workforce. Their final archival projects will be published on the USM Digital Commons and the online archive Indigenous New England Digital Collection, which is an open-source repository of Northern New England Native American writing.
In both my teaching and my research, I privilege interdisciplinary approaches and pedagogies because they give me the freedom and flexibility to let my curiosity lead me to new areas of inquiry. For example, I am currently researching non-traditional publication formats in multiethnic American writing, and my growing collection of ethnic American graphic novels and memoirs inspired me to create a course on the genre that includes collaborations with Maine graphic artists Ben Bishop, Joe Schmalke, and Jess Esch. Bishop is illustrator and author of the graphic novel The Aggregate; Schmalke is illustrator and author of the graphic novels The Infernal Pact and The Calamitous Black Devils; Esch is owner of Font and Fiction LLC and Live United Storytelling Librarian for the United Way of Maine. Together, we lead introductory workshops on storyboarding, graphic art, and digital storytelling. The culminating final project in this course is a digital graphic memoir assignment. Grounded in Comic Studies theory and attendant to seminal works in the genre, this course asks students to bring their text-based learning into conversation with their independent creative work.
During my tenure at USM, I have also invested significant energy towards providing better support for Honors students completing advanced independent work (thesis, capstone, etc.). In the past two years, I led the expansion of the Honors Program curriculum from a 5-course general education sequence to an integrative, interdisciplinary Honors Minor that fosters intellectual engagement and independence from freshman to senior year. This change has made the Honors Program curriculum accessible to high-achieving students across the university, regardless of their major. To support our curricular expansion, I designed a required mid-level course, “Thinking in Honors,” which I now teach. “Thinking in Honors” introduces students to interdisciplinary approaches to research and scholarship and prepares them for the independent and applied learning opportunities that comprise their upper-division coursework in Honors. I also re-designed the Honors Program’s Thesis course sequence, and I teach the first course in this sequence, a three-credit “Thesis Writing Workshop.” This course is now offered regularly in Honors, and the Women and Gender Studies program has adapted a version of it, as well. My investment in thesis and capstone work at the university is also evident in my role as leader of the Faculty Interest Group for Capstone Development. I led this group for two consecutive years with the support of a grant from USM’s Center for Collaboration and Development. During this time, I supported faculty developing capstone courses in the following departments: Social Work, Sociology, Economics, Women and Gender Studies, Psychology, Biology, and Theatre. This collaborative workshop series led to the creation or revision of capstone courses that are innovative, dynamic, and position our student for success upon graduation. I approach teaching and curriculum design with my students and interdisciplinary program in mind. All of the examples described above serve multiple programs: Honors (my home department), the Race and Ethnic Studies Program, and the Women and Gender Studies Program. They also serve distinct areas of the general education curriculum at USM—“Entry Year Experience,” “Diversity,” and “Capstone.”
My experience working at public institutions like the University of Southern Maine and University of Connecticut has taught me the importance of situating the liberal arts in real-world contexts. In today’s economy, it is not enough to graduate students who are simply learned and well read. Our graduates need to know how to work independently and to contribute productively as members of teams. They need the skills and confidence to find the information they need and to place that information in appropriate contexts. They cannot simply collect information; they need to be able to contribute to the creation of new learning in their fields of study. As Drs. Phil Ventimiglia and George Pullman write, “Being able to teach yourself is far more important than being learned because what we need to know changes constantly, what we know today may be useless five years from now, and what we know now may even get in the way of learning if we aren’t flexible.” Today, we know that traditional academic experiences like lectures, prompted formal essay assignments, written exams, etc. do not prepare students to exercise initiative, to innovate, to find their own way, and to work well with others. All these skills are, as they’ve always been, essential; without them, our students enter the workforce at a grave disadvantage.
My responsibility to my students, then, is not simply to teach my discipline; it is also to encourage their intellectual independence, to foster flexible and creative thinking, to support their career development, to encourage them to become engaged citizens and lifelong learners. I believe that teaching students to read mindfully, to write thoughtfully, and to converse compassionately are fundamental acts of social justice that move us in this direction. In the process of learning to engage with the world in these ways, students begin to see themselves not simply as “learners” but also as agents of change, and to embrace the responsibility that entails. The entire experience will lead them, I hope, to challenge their ideas and assumptions both within and beyond the classroom. Such an approach does not simply prepare students for future success in graduate school and careers; it also prepares them to become lifelong learners who are productive members of their communities with enriching careers and the ability to make a difference in their world.