I embrace a classroom ethics of the encounter. In the limited time I have with each group of students, I hope for each course to serve less as an exhaustive account of some skill set or subject matter than as a series of open, surprising, generative encounters, moments in which students are confronted with something they didn’t expect, something that defamiliarizes the mundane and reveals questions where answers were thought to be. The moment of confrontation with the unknown or the not-yet-learned can be terrifying, but I maintain that it—and the nimbleness and generosity it asks so insistently of us—is also profoundly ethical. To learn to love one’s own confusion and to live within rather than flee from such moments is to practice an intellectual ethics aimed not at mastery and calcified certainty but at inquisitiveness and vitality. By modeling my own love for moments of confusion and rethinking, by dwelling enthusiastically on instances in which my own familiar paradigms fall apart and I am forced to think something new, I try to demonstrate that any intellectual or academic expertise is at heart predicated on these encounters, these unmoorings, these opportunities for thinking the new.
Above all, I aim to create intellectually inclusive spaces into which students don’t have to enter as trained critical readers and writers in order to participate or to reap the benefits of a class. An ethics of the encounter calls upon the experienced writer or the enthusiastic senior English major to be as off-balance, as uncertain as the tentative first-year student or the out-of-her-comfort-zone engineer. To be collectively unmoored in such a way is also to see that insight comes not only from expertise within a given discourse (which one might or might not possess) but from earnestly inhabiting these encounters with the unfamiliar. Students often gratefully cite my ability to show them what’s insightful and interesting about their own comments—”Adam makes you feel smart,” says one student in a post-course evaluation—and if there is a single act I focus on most intently on within class, it is this unpacking of student comments with an eye toward emphasizing each comment’s kernel of insight. When I show students that even when they think themselves to be reacting inexpertly or superficially to a text or to a moment of provocation, they are often making incisive points that intersect with larger conversations of the sort that might have seemed inaccessible to them, the encounter comes to seem less a thing to be feared than an opportunity to be embraced.
I aim to model for my students thinking-as-process rather than thought-as-product, intellectual form rather than didactic content. I want first and foremost for them to see me puzzling through the same things I ask them to puzzle through. I want to ask questions—often and especially questions that seem stupid or self- evident—to which I don’t have answers, and then model for my students an earnest, invested, collaborative attempt to answer them, to follow each question down its unpredictable and idiosyncratic rabbit-hole. I want them to ask and to enjoy addressing the same kinds of questions. Taking sustainable intellectual pleasure in the analytical work of an English class is a skill—one that doesn’t necessarily develop naturally or automatically, but also one that’s crucial in enabling intellectual curiosity and durable, incisive thinking in the long term. As such, I try to show them what that kind of pleasure looks like, how it follows from the conversations we produce together, and how it facilitates and feeds back into larger conversations. Allowing relevant parts of my research to bleed into my teaching keeps me on my intellectual toes, generating these moments of enthusiastic spontaneity and positioning student discussions as parts of larger discourses, as when a conversation about the rhetorical use of the language of paradigm shift is enriched by an aside about the prevalence of apocalyptic imaginings in contemporary culture, or a dissertation chapter on the recent history of the future generates a composition class on futurity as a rhetorical object. Though humanities academics often seem hesitant to bring their own scholarly projects into the classroom—a hesitation I feel at times as well—students’ enthusiasm for and interest in these crossovers suggests to me a real pedagogical value, above and beyond the value to my scholarship of rearticulating it for undergraduate audiences.
In the literature classroom, I put consistent pressure on the presumed line between “literature” and “culture.” Just as the notion of the classroom as an isolated bubble makes academic discussion seem irrelevant and impotent, so does the framing of literature as a special and exclusive category, suitable only for English classes and New Yorker subscribers, keep students from understanding how and why cultural production matters. If literature is a thing apart from culture, that thing only has purchase inside the narrow and increasingly marginalized space of the literature classroom; accordingly, I choose to focus on cultural and literary force, rather than on literature as a category. My syllabi consistently include other kinds of mediatic experiences: in each of my six literature classes thus far, for instance, I’ve taught music, short stories, essays, novels, graphic novels, films, television, and in all but one of those classes, video games. One course— oriented around the relationship between fiction and worlds—included (in addition to the kinds of texts enumerated above) experimental games, virtual worlds, multimedia online narratives, interactive fiction, a web series, and a day on the world-orientation of Pac-Man, Tetris, and Super Mario Brothers. Students have consistently said that the range of texts and media on my syllabi opens up their thinking and enables them to engage both more intuitively and more intelligently. Restricting contemporary literature syllabi to recognizably literary texts and mediums seems to me irresponsible to the force and breadth of cultural production in the present, and it runs the danger of framing what students do in English classes as an unnecessary frivolity, disconnected from the kinds of textuality they encounter elsewhere. I hope to impress upon my students that the study of literature and culture is anything but—indeed, that fictions across various mediums can offer us powerful lenses and vocabularies through which to perceive, critique, and rearticulate the world around us.
Similarly, in the rhetoric and composition classroom, I press my students to see rhetoric not as an isolated genre of deliberate writing or speaking—the campaign speech, the op-ed, the argumentative paper— but as a set of forces that cut across language and culture in myriad, sometimes unpredictable ways. Thinking of language as the vehicle of magic, where magic is the act of saying a word and thereby setting in motion forces in the world, lays the groundwork for a robust rhetorical awareness. Though this model of language and rhetoric sometimes intimidates students at first, it also seems to set them free of more simplistic models of persuasion and writing, within which effective writing is the declaration and hammering home of a message rather than the subtle accumulation of rhetorical effects—styles, tones, tropes, figures—working in multiple, perhaps even magical, ways on audiences both intended and unintended. When students are liberated from uninteresting models of reading persuasion, they become free to experiment creatively, to write with style and voice and life that years of five-paragraph essays have drained from them.
As an instructor of both literature and rhetoric/composition classes, I believe in letting what can often seem like two distinct pedagogies speak to and inflect one another. In attempting to teach literature classes rhetorically, I leave behind the question of meaning in favor of the question of rhetorical force: what does this text do, rather than what does it mean? What does it produce and enact in the world, and to what effect? How and to what ends might it function as a rhetorical and political machine? I find that for most of my students, divining “meaning” seems like a pointless, inexplicable task, a perfunctory decoding game in which the text in front of them is ultimately but unsatisfyingly reduced to some fortune-cookie message. Reframing cultural analysis as a question of political force and rhetorical impact reinvigorates the class for them, making the stakes clearer and the questions more generative. In teaching rhetoric and composition classes literarily, I remind my students that every act of reading and writing—even of rhetorical/non-fictional reading and writing—is fundamentally aesthetic. The content of an argument is not separable from the contours of that argument, from its shape and form and literary effect, and understanding this enables students to produce more interesting writing and more robust arguments. In all of my classes, I seek to remember and make legible for my students the lessons that I’ve learned as a student and a scholar. I see myself as I see them, as a participant in a long lineage of intellectual culture and inquiry. The moment I forget that lineage, the moment I cease to be a student, is a moment in which I fail as a teacher. In breaking down boundaries I see as arbitrary and unnecessarily restrictive—between the classroom and the world, between literature and culture, between the rhetorical and the non-rhetorical, between literature classes and composition classes—I aim to keep that lineage alive, healthy, and engaged.