Lai Ying Yu
Ph.D. candidate 2016
Tufts University, Department of English
As a teacher, I hope to inspire students to see themselves as lifelong learners and I aim to give them the skills to nurture and sustain that excitement. Toward that end, my teaching focuses on cultivating critical thinking and writing skills as well as the confidence and willingness to “fail,” or take risks. A critical part of being a teacher for me is encouraging students to take chances in their learning. This may mean connecting critical theory with their lived experiences and encouraging students to step a bit outside their comfort zone.
When I taught freshman composition, I assigned essays that touched on themes of race, class, and gender differences. It was not unusual for these essays to provoke passionate responses from students. One essay in particular, “Just Walk on By” by Brent Staples, drew a heated response. Staples, a black journalist, describes how he is often perceived as a potential threat in mainstream, public spaces because of racialized perceptions of his six-foot frame, gender, and skin color. If he walked behind a lone white woman in a public street at night, it was not unusual, he writes, for the woman to run once she caught sight of him.
The class discussion was initially focused on a woman’s right to protect herself in a moment of perceived danger, but it eventually opened up to a larger conversation about the effects such acts may have in different racial and spatial contexts. The conversation shifted from questions about whether the woman in the piece was “right” or “wrong” to some of the more complex questions Staples raises in the essay: if a white woman runs from a black man, would she be endangering his life? Does she have the responsibility of taking this into consideration when she thinks about her own safety? Getting to these questions was not easy because one student felt strongly that the discussion was about taking a specific position on the woman’s choice to run. Her passionate response, while clearly heartfelt, tended to dominate the conversation. Through careful facilitation, I was able to expand the focus. As a result, by the end of the discussion, the one male student of color in a class of fewer than ten spoke up for the first time since the discussion began: he offered his viewpoint of the essay while also acknowledging the concerns expressed by his classmate.
This experience helped me realize that difficult, uncomfortable moments can be the times when students learn the most. A number of the students were willing, at first, to concede the point to the most passionate voice in the classroom, but when I added a few questions to broaden the discussion, students began to test out alternative view points, and this, eventually, led to a more complex and thoughtful conversation.
To create a learning environment conducive to new insights and some risk-taking, I believe it is critical to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and support structures that allow this to flourish. Toward that end, I have three overarching objectives when I teach. My first aim is to create a learning environment in which the students feel comfortable to share what they know and voice what they do not. Discussions in class form the basis for a productive learning environment. A safe space for intellectual exchange, therefore, is crucial to encouraging students to express new, possibly risky, thoughts or questions before their peers. To create this space, I ask the class to generate a set of guidelines for the types of actions and attitudes that encourage a welcoming environment. We do this at the beginning of the semester. We agree on the guidelines and I print and hand them out in the following class as a tacit “contract” for classroom expectations. I have found this activity to be an effective tool for helping students realize that their classroom contributions make a difference, even if it is as an attentive listener. Another way I try to create a respectful space is by allowing each student to lead a part of class discussion. This allows students to think more deeply about a reading, practice articulating their thoughts to their peers, and assume a more active role in their own learning, and they usually enjoy this opportunity. They take seriously the prep work of reading their classmates’ weekly responses and of outlining one or two major points to begin the discussion. This activity, I find, also encourages them to realize that a significant part of the learning in the classroom does not come from the teacher, but from each other and their exchange of ideas.
My second teaching objective is to enable students to translate sophisticated thinking into persuasive and thoughtful writing. I do this by assigning weekly response papers on readings and final class presentations in which they share their writing or class project before an audience made up of their peers and/or community members. By encouraging students to interact with a subject as active readers, writers, and, finally, teachers, students tend to take more ownership of their education and develop a far deeper relationship with the material than they would otherwise. Thus, I have seen students assume more work than is expected because they are so deeply engaged in the learning process.
My third teaching objective is to encourage students to apply what they learn to their own interests. In my current class, “Mapping Stories of the City,” the first project students create is a personalized Google MyMaps and related short essay about their hometown. This is a crucial first step for students to understand the history of urban changes over the last sixty years and its material effects on people and their life choices. Students have found this to be a powerful activity that validates their own life experiences while also providing them a useful lens for examining their hometown’s planning history.
Teaching is a humbling experience. It forces me to become a better scholar and it also invigorates my own learning and thinking process. I am privileged to be in this profession and seek out as many opportunities as I can to continue to improve my teaching. I do this by participating in teaching mentorship programs such as GIFT, seeking advice from colleagues and professors, reading, and engaging in a pedagogical community such as the online journal Asian American Literature: Discourses & Pedagogy. Teaching is a continuous challenge and that is part of the great pleasure in being a teacher-scholar.