Self-Evaluation of Teaching

by Andrew Gordon

My goal in teaching is to help to bring the literature alive: to respect the text and the author's creative power along with the unique responses of individual readers.

Reading literature is an experience, and I want my students to live it to the fullest: not only to interpret works but also to feel them and to sense them. I have used film, video, filmstrips, and tape. For example, I show scenes from such movies as Slaughterhouse Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Color Purple for comparison with the novels. When we read a poem, I want students to roll the words around in their mouths and try them on for size. I sing Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods" to a Broadway show tune, to illustrate the rhythm and regularity of the meter. For a play or a story, I ask for volunteers to read such scenes as shifty travelling salesman Manley Pointer meeting Mrs. Hopewell in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People." I do the preacher in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and they respond as the congregation. I also require oral reports: two African-American students played Oprah interviewing James Baldwin. Our Baldwin even stayed in character as he fielded questions from the class. When we cover Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, I wear a Pamplona t-shirt, put up bullfight posters, and tell them how it felt running with the bulls.

Classroom is theater and teaching is a performance art. I try to bring into the classroom what I've learned in years of acting: vocal variety, movement, gesture, change of pace, and humor. A director taught me two things I apply to my teaching: first, every performance must sustain "the illusion of the first time"; and, second, you never really finish the play--you simply abandon it at the end of the run. So even though I may be teaching Saul Bellow's Seize the Day for the fiftieth time, I always remember my original enthusiasm, never repeat myself exactly, and rely on the students and my own inspiration to reveal new things about the novel. Doing research on authors such as Bellow and writing about their works has helped to keep the fiction alive for me and for the class.

In my lectures and discussion, I relate American literature to the history and culture in which it was created and also try to help the students discover its relevance to contemporary America. For example, I compare One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Color Purple as best-sellers made into successful films, Cinderella stories riding popular trends of their respective times.

One of my most influential teachers used close Socratic questioning to lead to inevitable conclusions about literary form. He guided us with steps of such inexorable logic that we felt we had arrived at them on our own. I sometimes adopt his method of questioning.

Rather than assign paper topics, I suggest some and also let them create their own. I tell them, "When you write, you are the teacher. So teach me something new." In addition to analytical papers, I give students in literature classes the option to write a piece of fiction taking off from one of the works, as a means of writing their way into the work rather than writing about it. I let them know that class participation is part of their grade, but participation in the discussions is voluntary. I never force them to speak.