Anne T. Langendorfer is a Lecturer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her research focuses on the role of emotion in late-nineteenth-century American literature, African American literature, and narrative theory. Dr. Langendorfer regularly teaches First-Year Composition, Writing for the Workplace, Major Black Writers, Introduction to Fiction, and Public Writing.
The Composition Office recently interviewed her to find out more about how she introduces new topics and develops these themes throughout the semester.
Our interview follows:
Last semester, you taught a new course theme. Could you tell us more about it and why you chose to teach this particular topic?
I decided to start teaching “Inquiry into Race in America” as my course theme in English 102 because I began to understand that students in my other classes were interested in talking about race. In particular, several of my students in Writing for the Workplace were keenly interested in the NFL players’ protests. It was also becoming clear to me that many students were not being given the opportunity in their university classrooms to understand how to talk or write about race in American society. Many of my students were upset that a white supremacist group was given space on campus in spring semester 2018. At the same time all this was going on, I was teaching a literature class called “Major Black Writers,” and I wanted to know whether the excellent conversations my students in that class were having about race could take place in my composition classes. I believe that students write best when they have the opportunity to write about issues that they care about, and I think many UTK students are interested in learning how to talk and write about race.
How did you introduce the units in this course and sustain conversations about the topic throughout the semester? How did your students choose to research this subject and apply these inquiry methods when writing their papers?
I am always frank with my students from the very first day that it might feel difficult to talk about some of the subjects we’ll address in my classes. For example, many white Americans find race an uncomfortable subject, but it is important to take up the challenge because racism at UT and across the nation continues to contribute to many problems in our communities. I invite students to come talk to me individually by writing office hours on the board, and I try to make time to get to know my students as people by asking them about their interests.
In terms of this specific class, I made it clear early in the semester that we would look at race systemically and institutionally rather than focusing on personal animus; I didn’t want to get derailed by conversations about who was or wasn’t racist in contemporary American life. I also prepared a set of readings and podcasts that I thought would be not only approachable and compelling but also challenging and provocative. After introducing the first set of readings, I let my students’ interests guide the class.
In English 102, students’ research projects should set the agenda for class work and discussions. I helped them refine research questions that investigated race from a variety of perspectives, including racism in healthcare, the problems with theories of colorblindness, segregation in American schools, representations of African Americans in film, pedagogical approaches to discussing race in the classroom, the challenges faced by black CEOs of major corporations, and the role of race in zoning, among many others.
We were also very fortunate to have a special exhibition at the McClung Museum focused on race, called For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights. The traveling exhibition focused on Black Americans’ fight for Civil Rights from the 1940s to the 1970s and provided a relevant and fascinating archive that offered students a starting point for their archival research papers. In the future, my class will work with research librarians at Hodges Library who specialize in race and ethnicity to locate archival materials. There are also frequently speakers who come to campus to talk about relevant issues. For example, this past fall, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones came to speak on campus the same week my students were reading one of her articles about school segregation.
What were some of the challenges of teaching a topic such as this one and what would you recommend for teachers who wish to teach on similar issues/themes? Do you have any tips on how to better generate conversation when discussing this matter?
I’m not sure if I just got lucky, or if I had the best English 102 students ever, but I didn’t face any challenges specific to this topic. All the challenges I faced were the normal ones I encounter teaching research and writing skills to new college students, especially helping students create specific, focused research questions. That said, I believe it is very important to provide students with the opportunity to lead discussions. I also think that it is important to develop ground rules as a class. I set a tone of respectful engagement, and I made clear that we couldn’t have complex, nuanced conversations without respect for each other’s ideas.
Regardless of your race, but especially if you’re white, like me, you need to do a great deal of preparation by reading, writing, and researching your chosen topic and the necessary pedagogical approaches to discussing your topic in the classroom. I have graduate training in African American literature, and while I try to stay current in my scholarly field, I also needed to read about the topic from a contemporary and popular angle by consulting contemporary news and cultural sources, social media, and podcasts. For me, it was important to make sure that 1) students of color did not bear an unnecessary and counterproductive burden in the classroom and 2) white students would have opportunities to learn ways to think about themselves in relationship to their own racial identity. Most of all, I think it is important to be clear about the vulnerability and confusion that surfaces for many people when we talk about race in the United States. I highly recommend listening to the “Seeing White” series on the podcast Scene on Radio and any and all episodes of NPR’s podcast Code Switch. Some of the best work on having difficult conversations is being modelled by podcast hosts who illustrate how to have conversations about “potentially sensitive topics.”
Do you have any other recommendations for teachers who are teaching a new theme? Any tips on what to do/not do?
Instructors teaching a new topic must do thorough reading, research, and writing on their new topic. However, they also shouldn’t be afraid to make a few mistakes along the way—as long as they can be honest with themselves and their students about what did not work. That said, expertise is key. After doing research, I recommend you talk to your colleagues about your new topic to vet it and consider possible negative reactions. Ask your colleagues here and at other institutions how they introduce difficult ideas in their classrooms. You should also practice talking about the topic with your friends and family—non-experts who might see your topic from a vantage point that is more like the one your students inhabit. Listen to how they respond. But above all, read the latest academic research on your topic, and think about how it compares to popular coverage in contemporary media outlets.
Consider different angles and think about all the different students who will be approaching your topic for the first time. Write out your ideas and think through the possible consequences: How would it feel to be lectured by a white professor about something that you know through lived experience? How would it feel to have your family’s beliefs or values challenged by your readings? Let your students lead class discussions and give them plenty of opportunities to write reflections and ask questions. Don’t assume too much about your students. Ask them about their past experiences and their educational and family backgrounds. Get to know them and what they care about and ask them to help you understand how they view the ideas and texts you’re sharing with them. Reflective writing assignments and opportunities to give informal anonymous feedback on your teaching should be part of every course, not just at the end of the semester.
On a final note, while I’m sharing my advice, I’d like to make one more recommendation based on another podcast obsession: Teaching in Higher Ed facilitates some of the most interesting conversations about teaching that I know of; the host and her guests have helped me rethink my own teaching strategies and have given me so many invaluable resources for improving my teaching.