Guest Post: “Teaching to the Choir” by Cameron Hunt McNabb

I organized a roundtable on “Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education” at last week’s International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, and there was a lot of interest from the audience in having access to the papers read by the panelists.  In that spirit, I will be posting many of those remarks on this blog in the form of guest posts.  Today’s post is by Cameron Hunt McNabb.

Cameron’s Bio:  Cameron Hunt McNabb is an assistant professor of English at Southeastern University. Her work focuses on medieval and early modern drama, and she has publications in or forthcoming in Pedagogy, Neophilologus, Studies in Philology, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, and Early Theatre. She is currently the Director of Southeastern University’s Best Ideas teaching and learning series.


Teaching to the Choir

I’d like to begin by affirming our many current efforts on researching and writing on teaching in the Humanities. I think we have done and are continuing to do a great job marketing ourselves and what we teach to those outside the disciplines. We’ve been selling skills like analytical thinking, problem solving, written and verbal communication, empathy, etc. These sales pitches are incredibly important and need to continue.

But they are for administrators and parents and the general public. They are not for us in the Humanities, who are uncomfortable with the economic language I just used to describe our work (marketing, selling, pitching, etc.) not least because we likely don’t feel like we “bought” anything in the first place. We might be drawn to it, called to it, fascinated or intrigued by it, but whatever it is, it wasn’t a calculated purchase and it didn’t involve phrases like “analytical thinking” or “verbal communication.” I didn’t become an English major, and later an English professor, because of any of those things. I did it because I loved to read. I loved to write. I loved what texts could do. I found them beautiful. And they changed me profoundly.

Many of my English majors feel the same way, as I’m sure most if not all of us in the Humanities do too. We, then, are not the buyers but the choir. And the question then becomes not “How do we sell our teaching to others?” but rather “How do we teach ourselves and our like-minded students? How do we teach to the choir?”

What follows is a preliminary list of a few ways that we might begin or continue to do this kind of teaching.

  1. Teach the texts that converted you

For me, it was Paradise Lost. I was in 10th grade and had this notion that if I was going to be a writer, I should read all of the “classics.” I had heard of the poem but didn’t even know enough to actually call it a poem. I purchased it and the Cliff’s Notes (I felt like it still “counted” even if I had a little help!) and dove in. After months of lonely lunches with Milton in Mr. Boette’s classroom, my life was radically changed. “This,” I thought, “is what I want to do.”

Inspired–or perhaps deluded–by my own powerful experience with the poem, I regularly taught portions of Paradise Lost not only in my early modern courses but also in my gen ed, Intro to Lit class (or, as I like to think of it, Intro to Joining the Choir!). And each year before we’d begin, I’d tell my students, “This will be hard and you may not like it at first. But hang in there. It changed my life and it has the possibility of changing yours.” In turn, students strongly resonated with the poem. Many read it in full on their own. I even had one student sign up for my recently revamped Southern Intro to Lit course and say that she was disappointed at the syllabus because she had heard that we covered Paradise Lost.

2. Confess what didn’t convert you

The flip side to sharing conversion is sharing confession. At the time of my first foray into Milton, I was in a sophomore English class reading Chopin and half a dozen other texts that I don’t even remember. Clearly, these did not resonate with me. I think confessing such experiences is extremely important because Milton won’t convert everyone. Neither will Chopin. So our conversion narratives must always be balanced by a recognition of texts that did not speak to us.

I found such a balance in the co-teaching I did with a Victorianist colleague and friend of mine. He was fairly skeptical of anything that wasn’t a novel, while I didn’t have the stomach for penny-a-word prose. We co-ran a reading group and co-led a study abroad trip, and between these two experiences, we had ample opportunities to explain, defend, and simply dialogue about what drew us to our own fields and what repelled us from others. Our students engaging with us reaped the most benefit: we were able to assure them that they didn’t have to like everything that they read (even if it was a “classic”) and cultivate in them a sense of readerly and literary identity.

3. Don’t be scared to teach relevance

In the past, I have admittedly been wary of a teaching approach that centers on a text’s modern relevance, particularly the medieval and early modern ones I tend to teach. It felt a little like selling out the texts’ intrinsic value for their utilitarian worth and a little like showing Narcissus how to stare in the pool. “Here is how this text is relevant to you” instead of “Here is how this text is maybe kinda trying to say something.”

But slowly I’ve come to realize that one of the things that drew me to literature–one of the things that made Paradise Lost able to radically change my life–was its relevance. Plainly, Milton (and later, the medieval and early modern texts I’ve devoted my life to) asked the same questions I was asking, struggled with the same thoughts I was thinking, and experienced many of the things that I was experiencing. Relevance, I think, opens us up to those moments of conversion. Last year, I had a student from my Milton seminar tell me he read the lament from Lycidas at his twenty-one year old friend’s funeral. More recently and more humorously, my Shakespeare students performed the Shylock-Antonio-Bassanio bond scene in Merchant of Venice as an underhanded Super PAC deal between Trump, Clinton, and Sanders.
As we continue to research and write on teaching in the Humanities, we need to continue considering how to navigate the demands of both the business-model university as well as the devoted choir of students. We must render unto the administration what is the administration’s, but we must also feed the sheep.

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