Academic friendships, by which I mean friendships or acquaintances that begin through a shared involvement in academia, are an underrated resource for developing as teachers. The recent International Congress on Medieval Studies that I attended in Kalamazoo, Michigan really brought this idea to the forefront for me. In addition to hearing some fantastic new scholarship on medieval literature, the really great thing about this conference (which I attend every year) is the chance to see some of my best friends in the world, most of whom I met in graduate school. This year, I was truly struck by how much I have learned from them about teaching and how their advice and suggestions sustain me as a teacher.
From John Sexton and Kisha Tracy, who blog regularly at MASSMedieval, I have discovered a host of activities to try in my literature classes–everything from innovative uses of wikis to debates over the death of Chaucer. More than this, though, John and Kisha both cultivate an ethos as teachers that I strive to emulate. They care deeply for the intellectual advancement of their students, for the creation of new knowledge, and for continually and meaningfully reevaluating their approaches. This last point is particularly important.
Andy Pfrenger long ago showed me the value of reflecting on the syllabi and writing assignments we create for our students. I have rarely come across a more thoughtful teacher than Andy. His students are very fortunate, as am I.
Cameron Hunt McNabb is a pedagogical tour de force, a veritable whirlwind of creative energy, and she designs some of the most innovative assignments I have ever seen. She has really challenged me to rethink any preconceptions I may have had about the kinds of work we want to see from our students. Cameron reinforces much of what we know from the research about “backwards design”: start with student learning goals and design everything else in order to achieve those goals.
Jim Donahue is the first person I met in graduate school who was so passionate about teaching that he could go into near apoplexy when he would hear people question the value of higher education. That sort of commitment to an ideal is admirable.
Bethany Usher, too, is a model for what a teacher should be. If the future of higher education was built by teachers like her, it would be a bright one indeed.
Recently, though, I have also been learning a great deal from my professional network on Twitter. Lee Skallerup Bessette, Brian Croxall, James Lang, Sean Michael Morris, Valeria Souza, Pete Rorabaugh, Jesse Stommel, and Robin Wharton* have all consistently helped me think about teaching in new ways, even though I have never met them in person. Of those in that network whom I *have* met, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Martin Foys, Jonathan Hsy, Mark Sample, and Elaine Treharne have all been excellent resources for exciting teaching ideas.
I suppose what I’m trying to say through this brief post, besides “thank you,” is that this profession can sometimes be difficult, and it can be easy to feel as if we are working in isolation. It is at these moments that our academic friendships can buoy us and give us just the insight we need to bolster our teaching.
*Update: I did recently meet Robin Wharton, actually, at the ICMS. I include her in this first list because she is such an influential part of the Hybrid Pedagogy team, which I regularly consult on Twitter.