©Marva A. Barnett

Reflections on My Teaching


1. For the sake of clarity, this section focuses on the undergraduate courses I currently teach: Victor Hugo [FREN 355] and The Writing and Reading of Texts [FREN 332]; the principles I describe prove equally effective when I work with colleagues in professional development courses and workshops.

2.Student quotations come from my mid-semester requests for comments, from final evaluations, and from the May 1998 focus group for FREN 332 requested by the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages for my presentation "Whose Course Is It?".

I respect students for what they know, for their ability to learn, and for the energy, imagination, and creativity they can bring to a course. From this basic respect grows my philosophy of teaching: I aim to motivate and encourage students to learn about French language, literature, and culture and to develop the linguistic and cognitive skills I have spent years learning and developing myself. As the one person in class who has spent over three decades studying things French, I do not hesitate to share my enthusiasm for French literature, language, and culture; and I energetically prompt students to find their own motivations to work hard at developing their critical thinking skills and learning new information. Showing respect for students' thoughts has several positive impacts:

  • It provokes students to recognize that they bear some responsibility for both the success of the course and their personal success.
  • It sparks a collaborative engagement with ideas that enhances the intellectual energy of the course.
  • It encourages students to prepare well for class discussions.
  • It helps convince students that their individual interests and skills matter in the course.
  • It makes them more willing to undertake the challenging work I propose.

Thus I encourage students to take responsibility for what we are studying together: for reading the text assigned, for thinking about it, for posing pertinent questions, for clarifying misunderstandings. When they take a leading role in deciding what we discuss and what it means, they want to--in fact, must--learn how to interpret and analyze texts on their own. Since written texts can be read on many levels and from many different perspectives, rarely is there one "right" interpretation. That is a difficult concept for many undergraduates, who seem often to have been successful through knowing the "right" answer in a simplified context. One of the most important things I teach is the recognition that multiple interpretations can be supported and that, to be a strong thinker, one must be able to defend one's analysis.

Philosophically, I also believe in the power of intellectual curiosity and personal engagement with new ideas and information (see Synergies of Teaching and Research). Thus, when it is appropriate, I incorporate in my courses an individualized research experience for students, who are more than capable of discovering and sharing facts I do not know and perspectives I have not considered. It is crucial that learners investigate what intrigues them. My job is to help them discover what that is, if they do not already know, and to teach them how to explore academically. Details of how students' research projects in the Victor Hugo course unfold appear in Strategies and Strengths.

Teaching this way means that I need to know the material much better than I would were I doling out information. When I used to lead what I now consider a "traditional discussion" (the sort that some call "Socratic"), I chose the main themes of a literary text, organized them logically, created questions to prompt students to see and understand them, and led the students gracefully (I hoped) to my understanding. Now the authority for knowing is distributed among all of us, and discussions go in unforeseen directions; I go with them, responding to students' perspectives and questions as they work through their individual interpretations. Students not only have their own understandings but absolutely need to test them out in order to monitor and develop their skills of analysis, argument, synthesis, and critique. I learn from my students constantly: new readings of texts, figures of speech I had not noticed, new information about the subject, new ways to support an argument, ways of misunderstanding that lead to confused analyses (for details, see "Synergies of My Teaching and Research"). In fact, learning to listen carefully to students' errors during the years I taught primarily the French language probably initiated my desire to provoke students to think as much as possible, and to show me how they do it.

In sum, through my teaching, I encourage the sharing of ideas, not the proprietary hoarding of them, because ideas call each other forth. A plenitude of ideas, moreover, helps us examine their worth, since relativity of value is more easily established among a panoply of choices. Of course, to avert the impulse toward confusion that can come from too many ideas, I frequently summarize and clarify. As teachers, we help undergraduate students through a crucial stage when we can convince them that there is more than one way to approach a text or new investigation; we wean them away from unthinking interpretations by admitting and analyzing others' interpretations. Open lines of communication, branched jointly among the students and the teacher, broaden the whole field of inquiry.