By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Not many courses conclude with the students voting to exile the instructor.
Not many instructors would be happy about it.
But Jeremy Wells, associate professor of English, isn’t just any instructor.
Wearing a zombie mask and communicating only in grunts, Wells humbly accepted banishment at the end of his literature class called Zombies, Cyborgs and Posthumanity.
He had, after all, just returned from a zombie-infected region, and his continued presence might have threatened the health of the collective.
In this inspired mashup of literature, neuroscience, bioethics and television can be detected the mind and method of an instructor who sees teaching as a creative space that empowers students to both venture and gain in the search for intellectual courage and self-awareness.
What else can we do?
Since joining the faculty at IU Southeast in 2012, Wells has taught courses in Western World Masterpieces and William Faulkner, besides the aforementioned Zombie class and Critical Practices.
Each involves a measure of innovation, though for Wells, innovation is not a one-size-fits-all paradigm imposed on the lesson plan. It is an organic process of teaching and learning that is intentionally open-ended.
“The study of literature is fundamentally a contemplation of questions,” Wells said.
And the question most often heard in his class is, “What else can we do with this text?”
He begins by holding off on the syllabus until the second class—a symbolic but crucial disruption that gives a taste of what is to follow.
“I want students to feel off balance,” Wells said. “I want them to trust me that I’ve got a place we’re going to, but that getting sidetracked is even better.”
Getting sidetracked means “entertaining interpretive possibilities,” coming at a text from as many different angles as possible. When interpretations become personal, students have found their opening into the world of literary criticism, the act of continuing to extract meaning from a written text.
All of this takes place within a traditional framework that involves deliberately sequenced texts and assignments, quizzes, and papers of varying lengths. Wells makes a point of explaining to students early in the term how the semester will unfold, which enables him to keep them focused on ultimate goals and explain to them how a given assignment fits into the overall course objectives.
This blend of structure and serendipity allows students to develop the habit of being conscious of their own critical process, and important step in becoming critical thinkers.
“I want the student to be able to reflect on what she just did,” Wells said. “This is meta-pedagogy, always asking: what am I doing here?”
For Wells, the ultimate goal is to nourish a love of learning, through a presentation of material that is as stimulating as it is entertaining. And that is best achieved when critical thinking becomes less about a book that someone wrote, and more about how the act of analyzing the book can lead to more insight about both the book and the critic. To study a text is also to study oneself, and the world, in relation to the text.
“When I read, I’m both comprehending and watching,” Wells said.
Finding your perspective
Wells is conscious of place—both physical and mental—and brings that to bear in teaching.
He grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, in a family of tradespeople and small business operators, and he was a first-generation college student, giving him a connection to many of those he teaches—and a certain perspective on life and literature.
Wanting to see more of the world, and move beyond what he considered the cramped mental confines of his mid-sized city, he left to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, then continued his professional peregrinations on other campuses, gaining new geographical perspectives as well as coming into contact with varied analytical points of view: post-structuralism, new criticism, queer theory, post-colonial analysis.
All those encounters have positioned him perfectly to teach critical thinking.
“A lot of what I do as a teacher is to ask students to see things from a new position, which is essential to critical thinking,” Wells said. “Otherwise your tendency is to repeat what you already know–or what you think you know, having never really considered it from a different vantage point.”
For Wells, the quintessentially American fusion of place and perspective is not a superficial pastiche of regional clichés, but a lived reality that enables him to remain free of the bias of a singular school of thought.
“Having lived all over the South as well as in places as demonstrably northern as Michigan and Pennsylvania, I’ve literally had to see things from different positions,” Wells said. “I haven’t been able to settle in to one way of thinking, and I think this has helped me to illustrate critical thinking.”
Not surprisingly, those divergent vantage points are in constant conversation, which is why classroom discussions are the heart and soul of Wells’ courses.
“They are the foremost reason why we study literature,” Wells said.
He structures the discussion to make room for both organization and free-flow. At the core is a pivotal word.
“It’s a hazardous pedagogy,” Wells said of his method. “Not in the sense of dangerous, but in the old meaning, of hazarding an idea and seeing where it goes.”
Like Wells setting out from Huntsville, students are challenged to leave the comforts of their intellectual homes and venture into uncharted realms.
“Students are expected not only to demonstrate comprehension of texts and concepts but also to hazard ideas, propose connections, engage in dialectical learning with their peers, and achieve insights,” Wells said. “My paper and project assignments are designed similarly: I offer guidelines that make clear the purpose and parameters of the assignment but also allow students room to explore.”
That allowance has resulted in evaluations that he has used to shape the boundaries of future courses.
Wells’ book, Romances of the White Man’s Burden: Race, Empire, and the Plantation in American Literature, 1880-1936, and his numerous articles and presentations, deal with the creation of meanings ex post facto, reinterpretation, reconstruction not only of a place but of a history in a new time. It’s about the creation of a narrative that became a sustaining delusion for generations of Southerners. But in the end, that narrative is a fiction, and deconstructing it enables readers to understand not only something about narrative strategy and literature, but also culture and politics.
Wells blends his flair for textual analysis with an interdisciplinary interest in the relationships between literature and other fields, such as neuroscience, all to answer the question: What happens in the brain when we read fiction?
It turns out that a lot happens, chemically, and that fact renders literary endeavor less rarified, and more relevant, a thing of and in the world, a thing of existential importance.
“What the new field is revealing is something English professors have long known intuitively: studying literature matters,” Wells said. “My field allows students to work both individually and collaboratively toward a variety of goals, some of which possess immediate practical value—such as research and writing skills—and others of which make possible discoveries that cannot immediately be anticipated.”
Wells is a confessed word nerd, who at age three was reciting letters from billboards he saw from the family car. But far from worshipping them unquestioningly, he finds them most interesting for their plasticity.
“Words have no inherent meaning,” Wells said. “Words acquire meaning via usage.”
Inspiring students to look behind the constructs of prevailing cultural narratives by analyzing the shifting uses of words themselves is part of a process that ends with Wells turning over the final book assignment to the students themselves, who by this time have become, in his words, proto-colleagues.
“When I ask students in my survey courses to imagine a new unit by recombining texts from different parts of the syllabus, I am treating them like emerging experts, like teachers in their own right,” Wells said. “When I leave the final day of the zombie/cyborg syllabus blank, and tell them to figure out what we’re doing, I communicate respect, knowing they will come up with something as good as any exercise I might devise.”
The vanishing act
Wells sees pedagogical success as the ultimate vanishing act, and quotes the Georgetown University writing professor Sherry Lee Linkon to the effect that, “The goal of the expert is in some ways to recede.”
Gradually, over the course of the semester, as his class evolves into a discussion, he removes himself from the podium. Students stop looking to him, and start looking to one another, and to the text, and inward, for the impetus and self-reliance to explore and critique.
His is the ultimate act of trust, as students take charge of their own intellectual destiny.
To be banished isn’t so bad.
In some ways, it’s the ultimate sign of success.