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Laura Wright

UNC Board of Governors 2018 Teaching Award Winner Laura Wright

Western Carolina University

I’ll be honest: I wanted to teach college English from the moment that I declared my major, in my junior year at Appalachian State University, after being a biology major and then a psychology major. I loved words, language, the amazing skills of my English professors, and the way they explored connections between different texts, but more importantly how they explored connections between texts and the lived experiences of different peoples, at different times, with different agendas, under varied circumstances. As Margaret Atwood notes, “a word, after a word, after a word, is power,” and being an English professor, I have always known, is about teaching literary texts, certainly, but it is also about teaching students to be empowered to read the world as text, as evidence of the ways that human beings interact, negotiate, navigate, and most importantly empathize with the complex circumstances that we encounter every day. It comes as no surprise to me that scientists determined that reading fiction – and I would add teaching it – increases the reader’s capacity for empathy.

Being at WCU has afforded me some amazing opportunities to work with and mentor students at all levels and in a wide variety of courses, from first year-composition classes, to liberal studies perspectives courses, to undergraduate courses in the major, to graduate seminars. In this narrative, I would like to discuss three specific aspects of my pedagogy as it has evolved and been shaped by and during my time at WCU: incorporating high impact practices to increase my students’ understanding of their place in a global and culturally diverse world (in part to ensure their success in that world after they leave my classroom); working collaboratively across disciplines to expand the pedagogical realm of humanities-based inquiry; and developing courses that further the study of literature as a socially-engaged activist endeavor that necessitates civic and scholarly engagement.

  1. Incorporating high impact practices to increase my students’ understanding of their place in a global and culturally diverse world

    I was hired as the English Department’s only non-Western literature specialist in 2005. Since my primary area of expertise is postcolonial literature, particularly literatures of South Africa, Nigeria, India, and the Pacific Rim, my teaching has always come from a diverse global perspective. I have developed numerous world literature courses at all levels from English 242, “Cultural Studies and Non-Western Literature,” a core course in the major, to English 672, a graduate seminar in African Literature, all of which are writing intensive, global in focus, dependent upon student collaboration, and deeply invested in producing quality student research. My assignments require that my students make investigative comparisons between literary representation of other places and peoples, and the political and social spaces occupied by my students themselves.

    In English 242, we study how “Africa,” a continent with over 50 distinct countries, is often depicted as a homogenous entity in such texts as Joseph Conrad’s 1902 The Heart of Darkness and the 2007 Vanity Fair “Africa” edition – and how such images are satirized in the 2010 film Get Him to the Greek and Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2005 hilariously satirical essay “How to Write about Africa.”  For the final cultural studies assignment in this course, students find an example of a social norm described in one of the works that we have read – for example, I offer them the suggestion of yams being associated with masculinity in Igbo culture (something they encounter in novels by Chinua Achebe) – research it, and then compare it to a norm that is familiar to them (for example, meat being associated with masculinity in the U.S.). This project requires that they also find a representation in the contemporary media that reinforces that norm (an advertisement like this one, for example). My students love this assignment, as it allows them to engage with non-Western literature, their own Western identities, and popular culture.

    From my early training as a composition instructor, I have maintained the practice of requiring multiple drafts of essay in all of my undergraduate classes, regardless of level, so that I can provide formative feedback prior to their final submission, and this process has ensured strong final essay submissions that are regularly accepted for presentation at WCU’s Undergraduate Expo and at NCUR. This year, I required that my entire English 463, “Contemporary Literature” course submit abstracts to the department’s Senior Seminar Conference; as a result, eight of my students presented their work just last week. My graduate students write conference length papers for their first assignment, and publication length-papers for their final. I have had students in sections of my English 673, “Postcolonial Literature” and 672, “African Literature” seminars present their work at national conferences, including the British Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies Conference (BCPSC) as well as the biennial African Literature Association Conference. In the section of 673 that I am currently teaching, three of my students just proposed a panel for this year’s BCPSC, which will take place in February.

    Finally, in both fall of 2016 and spring of 2017, students in my English 470, Postcolonial Literature, and English 242 courses attended numerous events associated with the Africa campus theme, including travelling to Folkmoot in Waynesville for a special audience with the Nile Project ahead of an evening concert. We met with the group in order to learn about water resource conflicts and the relationship these conflicts have with political, cultural, and colonial difference. Further, as co-chair of the Africa: More than a Continent campus theme committee, I collaborated with colleagues and students from all across the university to develop a two-year program that introduced all students – actually, the entirety of the WCU community – to Africa. Students had opportunities to attend numerous events, lectures, and exhibits; they got to eat African fare at the UC Dining Hall, to engage with African cultures via a series of displays in the library, to attend a talk by the 2015-2016 One Book author Dayo Olopade, and to study abroad in Kenya, South Africa, and Botswana. This work infused every aspect of my day to day teaching, but it also allowed me to develop programming designed to reach the WCU community as a whole.
  2. Working collaboratively across disciplines to expand the pedagogical realm of humanities-based inquiry

    Since coming to WCU, I have developed a secondary area of pedagogical and scholarly interest: environmental literature. As a result, I have developed a 200-level Liberal Studies environmental literature course (English 206) and a graduate seminar (English 663) in environmental literature. In my environmental literature classes, students analyze literary and scientific representations of environment, climate, and ecology. In the context of these courses, my students have taken field trips to Animal Haven of Asheville, contacted and visited Eustace Conway at Turtle Mountain Preserve, and attended ecofeminist Carol J. Adams’s lecture in November of 2013. As a result of teaching English 206, students asked me to serve as advisor to the Food Choice Club, and I am working with several of these students as they develop a Sustainable Energy Initiative focused on bringing more sustainable food options to WCU.

    Because my teaching in this field deals with the environment and sustainability, it has allowed me to pedagogically collaborate with faculty from other disciplines, particular faculty in the sciences. I worked across disciplines with three STEM colleagues at different universities on an NSF grant funded teaching module that brought climate change fiction (cli-fi) into sciences courses. The module is designed to be completed in introductory natural science classes where literature is not typically included as well as in humanities classes where climate change science is not normally addressed. Students engage in activities that address both climate change science and climate change fiction (cli-fi), including graphing data, working in groups to analyze and interpret data, creating a concept map, conducting rhetorical literary analyses, and blogging. These materials were published in 2016, were featured on, and are available free of charge to any teacher who wants to use them. What my collaborators and I hope to convey to our students are the ways that science and literature convey different kinds of truths – ones that can help us move forward in productive ways – about the same complex issue.

    I piloted the module prior to publication in an unlikely class, my African Literature graduate seminar in the fall of 2015, even though the course material was not particularly amenable to the pilot. But because Global Climate Change Conference in Paris also occurred during that semester, my class used that event to consider the global consequences, politics, and intercultural interactions of multiple nations as they tried to work toward a protocol for dealing with the consequences of climate change. For this course, I had chosen literature from various countries in Africa that engage with environmental issues, many of which are the product of, or exacerbated by, climate change. Such works include Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood, Sindwe Magona’s Mother to Mother, and Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness, but my students noted that the short stories that my science colleagues and I included in our module are written by authors from the United States and England. So my students engaged with and challenged the fact that "cli-fi" is a specifically Western genre, written by white authors from the United States and England; they discovered that there is no "international" or even "African" literary understanding of the genre. As a result, several of my students wrote their final papers on the role of climate change in African literary texts – an area of original inquiry unexplored up to that point. The experience was so pedagogically important, that at the 2015 Association of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) Conference, I presented pedagogically focused work about this experience on a panel that explored best practices in teaching “cli-fi.”
  3. Developing courses that further the study of literature as a socially-engaged activist endeavor that necessitates civic and scholarly engagement

    Various scholars have examined how majoring in English and writing constitutes an activist endeavor. My courses encourage a social and political engagement characterized by empathy, civil discourse, and informed positionality. For example, in my world literature courses, my students push back against the narratives they receive from the news media, from Hollywood, and from social media about other cultures, and the first thing that we do is watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” in order to recognize the need for multiple perspectives and narratives to keep us from making uninformed assumptions about other cultures and peoples.

    In my environmental literature courses, the first thing that my students do is take a carbon footprint quiz, which completely blows their minds; many of them learn that if everyone on the planet lived lives like theirs, we would need four or five or six Earths in order to accommodate the resource consumption.

    Students read regionally significant works like Ron Rash’s Serena, a novel about the environmental and social toll of the logging industry in WNC during the Great Depression, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a novel about climate change, butterfly migration patterns, and Appalachia. And they read international works, like Helen Simpson’s “Diary of an Interesting Year,” and J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K. They attend lectures during the Rooted in the Mountains symposium, participate in the Tuck River Cleanup, and collaborate with their peers to develop action plans to make their lives at WCU more sustainable.

    Finally, this semester, for the first time, I am teaching my English 463 class as “Literature and Resistance.” Using Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a reference throughout the semester, my students explore U.S. history as defined by resistance movements. Beginning with Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” a story about a man who consistently states, “I prefer not to” (and was embraced as the literary mascot of the Occupy Wall Street movement), the novels that we read explore real and imagined acts of resistance including Toni Morrison’s masterpiece Beloved about a runaway slave’s act of murderous defiance, to Edward Abbey’s satirical The Monkey Wrench Gang about a madcap attempt to blow up the environmentally devastating Glen Canyon Dam in Utah. My students are currently working on a collaborative assignment based on the work of scholar activists who created the Charleston Syllabus after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered African American parishioners in 2015. The syllabus was designed to provide educators and the public what an extensive list of resources to help contextualize the event. My class worked together to choose two topics and divided into groups to develop strategies for creating two syllabi: one on the controversy surrounding the NFL protests and one on the reasons behind and circumstances following the Women’s March in January of 2017. They are collaboratively working via Google docs to compile, edit, and arrange their information, which we hope to publish for public consumption and information after Thanksgiving. This assignment constitutes activism on the part of my students; they are providing multiple perspectives so that interested parties might avoid the “danger of a single story” and have better informed discussions about these particular issues.

I have been teaching college English for nearly a quarter of a century – I had to stop and read that about three times before I could continue – since 1992, first as an MA candidate at East Carolina University, a lecturer at North Carolina State University, a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and a visiting Assistant Professor at Wagner College on Staten Island – where I taught in my first learning community – before coming to Western Carolina University, my father’s alma mater, in 2005. My pedagogical focus has shifted over that time, but since I’ve been at WCU, my pedagogy has been increasingly concerned with questions that explore and critique the politics and fluidity of borders between peoples, cultures, institutions, and individuals as represented in literary and media-based texts and as experienced within the day-to-day lives of my students.

During my second year as a lecturer in the English Department at North Carolina State University, I got a call from a local newspaper asking if I would say a few words about my teaching experiences and philosophy as someone who both belonged to “Generation X” and who taught Generation X-age students.  The Gen X hype was still a big deal in 1996, and the call was prompted by the release of Peter Sacks’s book, Generation X Goes to College: An Eye Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America (Open Court, 1996), a text that questions and critiques many of the negative stereotypes often attributed to the generation of students born roughly between 1960 and 1980. In 1996, I told the reporter that those of us within the academy, like the students we teach, are neither homogenous nor distinct; we are an interdependent community whose interactions should, by their mutually critical nature, expose the limitations of stereotypical thinking while simultaneously enhancing respect for individuality.

In the years since I gave that interview, I have continued to maintain this philosophy and believe that no matter how much distance – chronological, aesthetic, or political – opens up between my students and myself over the course of my teaching career, I will never stop viewing my students as complex people with real-life sets of circumstances that shape them as scholars and as individuals whose life experiences inform the work they do in the classroom. At the end of every semester, my students have to tell me what I need to read, and they have to write me a letter telling me what they have learned, while I write to them telling them what they have taught me.  As I stated in my initial narrative to this committee, perhaps because I have been teaching for so long, I view the world as a teacher; I find that nearly everything I encounter – whether on the news, while on a hike, or while buying groceries – is a potential teachable moment. If the entire world is a collection of constantly changing texts, teaching them can never get old, even as I grow older and, I hope, a bit wiser.

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