Daniel Wallace, one of our experienced lecturers and mentors of new graduate teaching assistants, speaks about his successful teaching practices.
Daniel Wallace earned his Ph.D. from The University of Tennessee, where he is currently teaching as a full-time lecturer, and earned his M.F.A. from The University of Rutgers-Camden. He is the editor-in-chief for the literary press, Burlesque Press, which he runs with his brilliant wife, Jeni. He is from Britain, but his accent is not what it used to be.
The Composition Office recently interviewed him to find out more about his English 101 class centered around the topic of politics and how he maintains a welcoming classroom environment.
Our interview follows:
You teach an English 101 course centered around the topic of politics. How do you create a welcoming classroom for such a debated topic? How do you keep the conversations civil and fair when you have students with differing opinions?
I try to teach political disputes as a problem, a dilemma, not as an opportunity for polemical argument. My goal is to model for the students a way of engaging and interacting with political controversies that is not about shouting the other side down. While I am sure my own biases reveal themselves, I attempt to teach the materials in a way that is faithful to objective truth, as I see it, which will not be taken as an attack by any students. This means choosing topics and reading assignments carefully, and avoiding certain questions that are unavoidably partisan. It also means presenting ideas as components in a wider debate: this semester, my students read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay, “The First White President,” but they also read a selection of essays, from both conservatives and socialists, critiquing Coates’s viewpoint. The goal of reading a range of sources is not simply to show that people disagree, but also so that the class can work through a troubling problem: that each writer’s thesis is, on the one hand, convincing and well-supported, but, at the same time, each writer’s thesis is fundamentally incompatible with every other writer we have read.
The world does not make sense on its own, in other words: only in the act of writing one’s own response can a personal and tentative synthesis occur.
I also work hard to build up my ethos with students. You can teach more challenging material if you spend time through the semester developing a warm atmosphere in the room. These activities form a vital “bank account” of ethos with the students.
I start every lesson by taking attendance with a whimsical question of the day (for example, “If you won a $100 amazon gift card, what would you spend it on?”), and I begin the semester by having the students create a contract: rules for the class’s behavior and for me as their instructor. I refer to that contract throughout the term.
I also ground discussions of fraught political themes by stressing how I am personally implicated in them, so that the class never feels as though a superior intellect is trying to shame everyone else by his greater knowledge and moral wisdom.
Lastly, I work hard, as best I can, to validate the students’ lived experiences. If they share a personal story, I try to repeat it back to them, mirroring them in my own words, so that they are sure I’m listening. Often, students are more concerned that they are personally not being respected than their actual political philosophy is being disagreed with.
I genuinely believe that “we are all in this together,” this horrifying tragedy of contemporary politics, and I try to convey that sense of tragedy in my tone and approach to discussions, rather than demanding the students vote for my political candidate of choice.
P.S. In practice, so far, all my most challenging class disruptions over politics have occurred in other classes I have taught — not my politics-focused 101 course.
If the occasion arises when you do have a disruptive student, how do you handle the situation? What are some ways that teachers can address something like this in and out of the classroom?
I always aim to deflect and pivot, rather than confronting a student directly. I never want the class to see me arguing with a student. So I might acknowledge the student’s point, suggest that I don’t agree, and move on. Or I might use the remark as an opportunity to tell a story, so that when I finally respond to the original comment, the tension in the room has dissipated. I often invite mildly disruptive students to my office hours, because often such students simply want time to talk out their ideas.
Often, students are speaking out of a position of instinct or confusion. It’s very important not to attribute every odd or hurtful comment to a malicious intent; when I ask students to talk to me after class, often they appear embarrassed about what they said and admit it was a mistake.
As you know, a student may become disruptive because of a number of outside factors beyond a teacher’s control. How do you talk with your students about these issues while still maintaining their privacy?
It’s important not to play therapist for your students. It’s tempting to ask them about their struggles and to offer a supportive ear, but not only can this be emotionally exhausting for a full-time instructor, it is also potentially unhelpful; I am a not a trained mental health professional, and I shouldn’t act in that role. The more sustainable approach is to refer students to counseling and the 974-HELP line, and then to go over the class rules and point out how the student can rescue their grade.
One type of student I find particularly challenging to respond to is the overly engaged, overly aggressive talker. Such a student is not breaking any rules. And yet his or her loudness and pushiness may be damaging the class experience for everyone else. I now try to speak to such students early in the semester, and politely suggest a small adjustment in tone, using the language of business to dull the criticism: (“In a professional meeting, don’t you agree that it’s good to… great… well, this class is also like that…”).
What are some resources on campus available for students who might be distressed? How can teachers take advantage of these resources if they need to help their students?
The 974-HELP line is a great all-purpose resource. They can reach out to students directly and offer support.
The other resource I strongly recommend is the Comp office — to get advice for yourself and support. As soon as a problem appears, it’s worth alerting someone, just in case it gets worse later. Never suffer alone! Make Jeff and Coralyn and Tawnysha suffer, too!