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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 3-15



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Commentary

Teaching to the Six

Michael Bérubé


In this essay I will mount an argument about undergraduate education that will, among other things, explain my title, but first I will open with six talking points inspired by reading the first two issues of Pedagogy and (right around the same time) by completing my twelfth and final year of working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

1. The timing could not be better for such a journal. It not only allows professors of English to write about teaching in an intellectually rigorous and reflective way (and, for me, serves as an incentive to do so) but establishes a forum for discussion on teaching unlike any other in the profession. This is important for many reasons, some of which have to do with the fact that the profession is so routinely critiqued--not only by know-nothing legislators and feeding-frenzy journalists but by leading figures in the profession, whose essays and books on the state of English studies mystify pedagogical matters at least as often as they clarify them. For my part, I have written about the state of English studies on a regular basis, but I have not, so far, attempted to say anything useful about how it inflects my pedagogical practices.
2. I have done most of my teaching in undergraduate courses, in mid- and upper-level surveys designed primarily for English majors. At Illinois I offered seven graduate seminars and three undergraduate honors seminars. The rest of my courses were standard 200- and 300-level surveys, aimed at sophomores to seniors. I also offered three versions of English 300, a writing-intensive course developed in 1993 to meet the university's Composition II requirement (imagine that--two courses in which substantial writing is now required at a major institution of higher education) and now also a prerequisite for English majors. Titled "Writing about Literature," it can [End Page 3] accommodate any topic or focus (mine have been autobiography, twice, and African American literature, once) so long as it assigns thirty to forty pages of writing in multiple assignments.
I see nothing odd about this kind of teaching record, and I am continually astonished by my colleagues who insist that successful career paths require a studied avoidance of the undergraduate curriculum. George Levine's (2001) essay in the inaugural issue of Pedagogy is much more careful and thoughtful than most in this genre (no surprise, coming from Levine), and in fact I think of the present essay as a continuation of his argument that senior faculty do not, as a rule, write compellingly or seriously about teaching. Still, Levine's essay does contain a few sweeping statements like "The assumption of most new university hires is that they will have little to do with lower-level undergraduate education as soon as their 'work' gets national notice" (16), and I cannot imagine that this generalization applies to very many university hires outside the top ten or fifteen Ph.D.-granting departments in the United States. Illinois ranks in the next ten or fifteen (eighteenth in the U.S. News and World Report [2001] standings, twenty-eighth in the latest National Research Council evaluation [Goldberger, Maher, and Flattau 1995]) and cannot accommodate--structurally--any new faculty member who wants to avoid basic undergraduate instruction. (What "lower-level" means here is another matter, one I will come back to at the end of point 6.)
3. I was hired by Illinois in 1989, just as I was hired by Penn State in 2001, to teach--but also to write. Sometimes I introduce myself, in nonacademic social settings, as a teacher of literature, and sometimes as a writer who works at a university. I see nothing odd about this, either. I thought it was an explicit part of the contract: Here's an annual salary, a low teaching load, and some modest research support. Now go write some stuff that'll bring some attention to this place. I have not experienced that part of the contract as an imposition or as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6255
Print ISSN
1531-4200
Pages
pp. 3-15
Launched on MUSE
2002-01-01
Open Access
No
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