My first teaching experience came as an undergraduate volunteering at an elementary school near the University of Ghana, outside the capital city of Accra. I still recall the students lined up in rows, wearing brown and yellow uniforms and mandatory buzz cuts, which attested to their discipline, but belied their contrasting personalities, creativity, and wit. These students taught me a fundamental lesson that presides over my current work in the classroom: teaching is a profound social activity that takes place among individuals with unique abilities, knowledge, and experiences. Whether in New Hampshire or West Africa, education is a collaborative process of testing received knowledge and engaging with both local communities and the world beyond.
Once, during my time abroad, I taught a physics lesson on mass and gas when the science teacher was ill. That day, my task was to explain why full balloons weigh more than empty ones. The challenge was to do so without any equipment. I’m certain I didn’t fare well that day, but I did learn a crucial lesson—that communicating abstractions, especially when they seem to contradict lived reality, requires hands-on experience. Ever since, I have designed courses that forge links between art and life. Drawing from theories that emerged during the Black Arts Movement, my interdisciplinary pedagogy uses literature, music, film, and visual art as multiple points of access to conversations and written work. Additionally, creating shared experiences in concert halls, theaters, museums, and archives further deepens my approach to literary studies by giving students new, perhaps unfamiliar first-hand experiences with a variety of expressive forms.
I believe that it is equally important, however, to reflect back on our interpretive premises in classroom discussions. In a survey of Western Hemispheric literature, I used Captain Delano’s failure to recognize the slave revolt aboard the San Dominick—the structural irony at the heart of Melville’s Benito Cereno—to illustrate how theories about the world shape our perceptions. If we stop asking questions when we observe that full balloons float on water and drift in the wind, while empty ones sink and fall to the ground, we are, like Delano, trapped in a false paradigm. As we confront hard truths that unsettle our preconceptions, the classroom crystallizes precisely around such charged moments of recognition. My goal is to show students that knowledge is contingent, tenuous, and up for grabs.
I began to realize the full implications of these lessons when I taught two weeklong seminars on composition pedagogy in Lagos, Nigeria—an experience that still ranks as my most difficult assignment. The teachers enrolled in the program outranked me by a generation or more. Furthermore, I was a stranger in a culture where questioning one’s elders is a sign of disrespect. Reckoning with these cultural and generational tensions earned me the hard-won insight that humility is an essential tenet in the classroom. Reciprocal exchange requires mutual respect, which is earned, not given. By becoming a student myself, I built intellectual community. Each day, I learned from my students—not only pedagogical insights honed over decades, but also about Igbo and Yoruba morphology, the proper way to roll fufu in one’s fingers, as well as Nigerian literature, politics, music, and film.
Such close attention to the social dynamics of the classroom allows a free exchange of ideas, but keeps students’ thinking grounded in the immediate social contexts, especially with regard to the diverse experiences and knowledge represented within a given classroom. In my course on Latina/o literature, for example, two top students clashed from the outset. Their inter-island rivalry meant that no claim went untested. It was a highly productive intellectual environment, but one that constantly flexed my classroom ethos. I needed to demonstrate expertise and authority to reach the whole class—many of whom also identified as Latina, or Hispanic, or Chicana—and still validate each student’s experience. In the end, one of the most incisive contributions came from a student who initially seemed further removed from the texts and contexts of our discussions. When a study-abroad student from Singapore spoke about attitudes towards immigrants in in her own contested homeland, she illustrated the global relevance and the urgency of our efforts to theorize the relationship between language, culture, and nationality in the context of overlapping, intersectional, and layered identities and representations.
Such convergences demonstrate, for me, both the necessary difficulty and the value of teaching multiethnic literature. By emphasizing collaborative interpretation and confronting social, historical, and cultural fault lines—that is, by valuing each student’s perspective as contributing something essential to our learning—we begin to see the far-reaching implications of our coursework beyond a single ethnic, national, gender, class, or regional context, and begin to understand the complex negotiation between self-identity and social power. By asking hard questions and taking students’ contributions seriously, the classroom becomes a vehicle for honest intellectual exchange.