On Teaching: Philosophy, Goals, and Methods

I like to surprise my students. When a class encounters a text that surprises them, they begin to recognize how literature can push us to rethink the parameters of our reality. It might be the realization that the story the Duke tells us in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is not the one he thinks he is telling—one line of poetry can turn a tale about an unfaithful woman into the tale of a murder. It might be the surprise of discovering, upon examining the pronouns in a handful of passionate sonnets, that Shakespeare is addressing a man. One of my favorite textual surprises is in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), a novel narrated by a girl, Kathy H, who has us believe she’s much like you and me. It’s not until a few chapters into the book that we learn that Kathy is a clone designed to “donate” her organs to those who are really like us: humans. But by then we have identified with her, and my students begin to draw parallels to the way difference operates in other contexts—racial prejudice, genocide, even factory farming animals—as they grapple with the ability of a literary text to stage an uncomfortable encounter with disposable life.

My role as a teacher is to provoke such surprises and then help students identify the effects and complex formal mechanics that they reveal—to turn curiosity into critical insight. There is something unique about the way a literary text makes meaning. It is for this reason that I often pair poems, stories, and novels with scientific, theoretical, and other “non-literary” texts so that we can examine together the role of literary forms in the creation of cultural, political, ethical, and even scientific ideas and norms. In a class for students in diverse disciplines, for instance, I often juxtapose literary and scientific texts about what it means to be human. Novels like Never Let Me Go and Shelley’s Frankenstein can come to life in new ways when read alongside excerpts from Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man, sparking lively debates about the experiments fiction can conduct with scientific ideas, but also encouraging students to notice how the devices we think of as literary sometimes find their way into science. My students have often noticed how Darwin employs some surprising literary tricks of his own: personified monkeys, courtship plots about birds, and drawn out metaphors about warfare in nature. Such cross-disciplinary exercises help students attend to the values of humanistic inquiry and the cultural specificity of their chosen fields of study.

Traversing disciplinary and field boundaries allows my students to address just what literary texts can do in the world. I want my students to feel that they are part of a discussion that extends far beyond the walls of our classroom. To that end I favor learning experiences that help students make connections between their classes and the world outside the classroom. As part of the Amor Freshman Learning Community, which I am now directing, I helped organize a panel on sexual assault at universities to complement classes on love and violence in classical poetry and modern gender studies. For my learning community class “Love of Books” I partnered with a local non-profit organization called Book’Em, which sends books to prisoners throughout Pennsylvania. Before working with Book’Em students had read The Narrative of Frederick Douglass and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and discussed the relationship between books and intellectual freedom, censorship, and social justice. When my first set of students wrote reflection assignments on their experience of visiting Book’Em’s headquarters to read letters from prisoners and select books to send, their common response was one of surprise—surprise at their own reactions to reading letters from people they had imagined as nameless inmates, but whom they began to see as individuals. “Once a person is in prison we tend to stop thinking of him as human,” wrote one student. “I always took reading and education for granted. I never thought of these things as human rights.”

In addition to seeking community engagement opportunities, I often mix traditional argument-driven papers with creative assignments and digital projects that help students practice personal and public, as well as academic, engagements with ideas. Such projects can be just as rigorous—sometimes more so—than traditional papers, since they often ask students to step outside their comfort zones, collaborate with their peers, and think critically about how their research might apply outside the classroom. For an upper-division undergraduate course on nineteenth-century literature and progress, for instance, my students created a web resource on Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. In an introduction to fiction class, my students worked in groups to research variations of single fairy tales across historical and cultural traditions. They worked individually to analyze a single variation of their group’s fairy tale and then together to craft a “creative curation” project. They curated (to look after, preserve, care for) the tale with careful attention to its narrative complexity by crafting a creative response. The resulting projects included games, blogs, and movie trailers. One group re-cast multiple variants of “Beauty and the Beast” as a set of articles in a modern-day local newspaper, complete with advice columns, weather reports, stock updates, horoscopes, and letters to the editor that interpreted aspects of the tale.

I have designed and taught a range of classes for majors and non-majors, from introductory courses for freshman to specialized seminars for graduate students, and from literature surveys to critical and creative writing workshops. My success in the classroom has been recognized by my students and my peers. My student evaluation scores at both Duquesne and Duke are consistently above departmental averages. I was awarded the 2013 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching at Duke University a year before I joined the faculty at Duquesne, and my peer evaluations since then have praised my combination of enthusiasm and rigor. For example, one peer evaluator of my teaching in an upper-division nineteenth-century poetry class wrote: “Dr. Gibson is an excellent teacher. Her command of the material is superb, and her students clearly respect and admire her extensive knowledge of nineteenth century literature, history, and culture. She has a fantastic rapport with her students, many of whom have followed her from class to class! She clearly holds them to a high standard while at the same time maintaining a lively and rigorous atmosphere in her classroom, which allows for a very high level of discussion and debate.”