Department of English
Board of Governors Distinguished Professor for Teaching Award
In the classroom, I have found a space rich in possibilities. To make the classroom a site of self-discovery, I frequently experiment with teaching techniques.
|English professor Gregg Hecimovich, winner of a 2006 Board of Governors Distinguished Professor for Teaching Award, incorporates the classic children’s game, “Operation,” to help his students take an active role in their own education. (Photo by Marc J. Kawanishi)
For instance in my British literature survey course, to complete our study of Percy Bysshe Shelley, we read the difficult closet drama “Prometheus Unbound.” The drama is about the reintegration of universal “man” though the renunciation of hatred and the triumph of pity. (As Blake notes: “They have divided themselves by Wrath, they must be united by / Pity…in terrors of self-annihilation”).
To aid in our understanding, I bring in the popular children’s game “Operation.” In the game, players must surgically remove and then replace bones and organs without touching the electronically sensitive edges (the nose lights up and there is a buzz).
I re-stack the cards and rearrange the rules of the game. In class, the group gathers around and everyone participates. Students re-enact Shelley’s narrative by reading lines from the poetic drama before executing their tasks.
For instance, Asia’s famous lyric, “My Soul is an enchanted boat,” usually finds a student winding up a toy boat in a bowl of water and placing the plastic heart in the boat. As the boat and heart course their way through the waters, the student recites Asia’s famous lyric representing the triumph of Love and its slow procession toward re-integration.
By the end of the class, the wishbone (“Hope”), the pen (the “Arts”), love (the “heart”), the Adam’s Apple (“speech”) – all are re-integrated in the body of Prometheus. Finally, the class helps to dramatize the Epithalamion of Shelley’s fifth act by orating over the “resurrected” body of Prometheus. Shelley, like Milton Bradley, like our own class, plays with poetry.
My practical methodology (my “performance” as teacher) is largely Socratic. I find this pedagogy particularly effective in encouraging students to take an active role in their own education, since it emphasizes student agency in exploring and shaping questions and in fashioning answers.
In my courses, I mix mini-lectures, close readings, student reports, and dramatic productions to help students stage and rehearse the themes central to the course. For instance, when teaching novels and dramatic monologues, I require students to produce and perform their own interpretations of representative scenes.
First, they research the historical background of the material they present. Then they explore the social, political, or theoretical contexts of their subjects. Finally, in full costume, they perform their interpretations for their peers.
I attempt to provide in such assignments what I attempt to provide in my written work – a commitment to history and theory, grounded in a dedication to close reading and a passion for literary language.
Invariably, students who initially balk at the language of “My Last Duchess” or the narrative absurdities of Dickens’s social satire begin to understand literary performance not simply as words on a page but as a necessarily multivalent and visceral experience. The kinesthetic play of literature, I contend, models and rehearses the imaginative, physical, and practical tasks that enliven and make whole day-to-day living.
By allowing students to realize and perform meaning in my courses, I invite students to engage the many levels on which meaning and experience are structured to explore the ideas and social formations that govern an author’s world as well as our own. I remain committed to convincing students that revision occurs not merely in essays, but in the daily codes and rituals that subtly structure thoughts and lives.