Classrooms are for the posing of questions.  When? Where? How? Why? What? What else? Answers are important stepping stones, but they are only provisional, they are questions in disguise.  

Whether I am teaching literature or language, the meta-principle behind my approach to the classroom is the search for questions.  I teach — or rather, I create an atmosphere where my students wrestle with — the uses of the genitive case, or what Karamzin’s (poor) Liza may or may not have to do with Petrushevskaya’s heroines.  But assimilating the material of any given course is only part of the goal; ultimately, in teaching my students, I strive to teach them to look at things multiple times, to consider unorthodox approaches, to become comfortable with uncertainty, to guess, to try.  In the language classroom, whether first or fourth-year, this happens on a very literal level — through the complexities of Russian syntax, its non-linear logical curves, my students learn how to think differently.  In effect, they learn a different way to answer questions and to ask them, which in the end amounts to asking completely different kinds of questions.  In the literature classroom, they confront the intersection between fictional worlds and our own, the way in which words themselves build uncertainty, demand multiple interpretations, and thus require newer and newer levels of questioning.

This is a demanding agenda, both for my students, and for myself.  It is demanding for them because I believe that my students are smart, independent, driven individuals who are capable of hard work and immense insight.  I strive to communicate to my students my unwavering respect for them as scholars and as human beings.  By the same token, I see it as my duty to keep the challenges reasonable within the confines of a semester, and to make sure my students know that they have all the tools needed to meet the challenge.  Because such a structure raises considerable anxiety, I also strive to create a welcoming, respectful atmosphere, to structure assignments in ways that are entertaining, whenever appropriate, and full of the enthusiasm of shared discovery, whenever possible.  This occurs both in, and outside, the classroom. I try to give each student the individualized support that they might need to succeed.  I have repeatedly been successful with helping students who are behind academically catch up with the rest of their classmates.

Because I am my students’ collaborator and ally, my primary concern, whether structuring a syllabus or a lesson plan, is the experience my students will have in the class.  Because learning happens best when the students are actively involved in synthesizing, recombining, and producing the material, teaching for me consists of being an enabler, a guide and a leader, rather than the unquestioned and only source of information in the classroom.  This is by no means a passive role. In language classes, I focus on making sure the students get as much text and context to work with as possible, and involve them in a series of exercises where they try their language out on each other.  In literature classes, I strive to structure discussions and writing assignments so that the students walk away not only having read great literature, and not only with an outline of an overall narrative within which to contextualize the texts, but also with the tools and the desire to pose new questions, to get beyond that very narrative.  

It goes without saying that I cannot hope to influence my students if I do not model for them the very kind of enthusiasm, drive, and questioning that I require of them. I strive to continually inform my teaching with new approaches, and to adjust it as needed to better serve a particular group of students or a particular context.  I do not recycle old lesson plans or exercises; even when I have taught material on a number of occasions, I take the time to come to it with a fresh eye, to develop new ways of presentation and new exercises.  Whenever possible, I try to inform myself by reading about relevant pedagogy, and attending teaching-related workshops.  

As an academic, teaching remains at the center of my identity.  At a time when the sciences seem to be receiving more currency as fields of inquiry, and when the speed of life leaves little room for reflection on (versus mere reaction to) the flow of information that bombards us, training students in the complexities of the representational is more important than ever. 

© Rebecca Pyatkevich 2014