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‘I emphasize that the classroom is a space for experiment and for playing with ideas’

October 16, 2017
photo of Katherine MannheimerAssociate Professor of English Katherine Mannheimer. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster )

One of the things I appreciate most about having grown up in Alaska—other than the incredible natural beauty—is that it was home to people with so many different perspectives and leading so many different lifestyles.

It’s a place where almost everyone is from somewhere else. People go there in part because they think differently than the folks in whatever communities they lived in before, and they’re there to do or make something new.

My mom taught me to read when I was only 3.

I loved it. Although I’m always reminding people that Alaska isn’t actually a frozen wasteland, there were admittedly a lot of days when it was cold and dark. So I read. My first book was Go, Dog. Go! My mother taught kindergarten and first grade so she was used to teaching reading. Now, I’ll often read a book a week, mostly contemporary fiction. And never an e-book!

I spent my senior year of high school as a foreign exchange student in Germany. To rest my brain from the ardors of learning a second language, I would read novels in English in the afternoons.

I read Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Virginia Woolf… there was something about that experience that was revelatory. I was seeing the English language in a new light, both as a return to the familiar but also from a different perspective, as a connection back to my home and as a whole new world of its own.

I didn’t realize I wanted to be a teacher until graduate school.

In college, I became fascinated by literary theory and all these ways you could study how language makes meaning, and how stories make meaning—things I hadn’t done in high school. I knew that further study would mean going to graduate school and teaching, but I thought that the teaching would just sort of be something I did “alongside” my research and writing. In graduate school, I realized how integrated teaching and research are. When you’re teaching, you’re not just finding ways to convey your knowledge to someone else, you’re actively thinking with the students and finding new ways to approach a text.

I emphasize that the classroom is a space for experiment and for playing with ideas.

It’s not a place where you come to learn the answers to specific questions, but one in which everyone is trying out ideas and seeing how far they go, and maybe taking different directions if they encounter obstacles to their first interpretations. To play devil’s advocate and go back and forth and find the strengths and weaknesses of that first reading.  Playing is really important.

I teach a course in London, Theater in England, every year during winter break. We see approximately 21 plays in 12 days. Believe it or not, it’s not that different an experience from reading a poem.

In both cases, you must completely focus your attention on what’s in front of you, and you can bring in history and other materials that will inform your understanding. But ultimately, both a theatrical performance and a poem are forcing you to look at what’s in front of you. You can draw upon your previous experiences, reading another poem or seeing another play, but ultimately you have to heighten your senses to really process what is going on, to notice how the various pieces are working together, how they’re producing the effects you’re observing.

One tactic I use to make my classes more engaging is having the class read aloud together.

It can bring out nuances that aren’t as palpable on the page. Humor, in particular, is something that reading aloud can suddenly reveal, especially in the case of a play or poem written 300 years ago.

When I started out I was more concerned that someone would ask me something and I wouldn’t know the answer. I don’t worry about that anymore.

I’ve realized over time that part of what I have to give students is what I know, but more of what I have to give them is what I know about how to figure out an answer to a question. If I don’t remember the date something was written or some author was born or died, that’s something we can look up later. What I’m really offering is a way to think about what’s in front of us. That’s not something that’s a matter of fact, but rather a practice and an approach that you improve on over time.

To keep from being bored, I try to mix things up year to year.

I’ll teach new plays in my drama class, or new novels in my early novels class. I like to pair Jane Austen with her contemporary women writers for this reason. It both introduces us to something new and places the familiar in an unfamiliar context. But the timeless works we read and teach are timeless for a reason. I could read Tristram Shandy or The Way of the World hundreds of times and still find something new.

When a student departs my class at the end of a semester, I hope they leave knowing how to approach texts and how to think about them.

I would hope that students will have practiced every day in class, and also in their writing, how to try out different kinds of interpretations and how to gather evidence for them—how to compare and contrast different interpretations, and play with them until they find the one that feels most convincing. Most of all, I hope students will feel that I’ve helped them to think deeply.

 

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