Teaching Philosophy

Mara R. Wade, Teaching Philosophy

Context is everything, especially in foreign languages. For that reason my practice grounds the teaching of literature and culture in experiential learning and intensive writing. Experiential learning engages students both creatively and intellectually, while intensive writing conditions reflection, synthesis, and analysis.

A recent example from my teaching demonstrates how experiential learning stimulates students and empowers them to conduct research. As part of the SLCL Undergraduate Research Initiative, I developed “Digital Humanities: Emblematica Online,” piggybacked onto an NEH grant. Early modern European studies are highly specialized in terms of the languages, genres, and interdisciplinary skills required, and the students all rose to the demands of their research.

These students learned about Digital Humanities (DH) by helping to create metadata for a scholarly web resource. In doing so they learned about semantic web technologies, consistent vocabularies, multilingual thesauri, and scaffolded workflows. They learned how to become members of a research team. They delved into the Renaissance by studying and writing about an emblem book they had chosen and indexed. In book history they learned to handle rare, even unique, materials in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML). As a cohort they presented their research at the Undergraduate Research Symposium (URS). They reported high satisfaction with this experience, saying that learning with Emblematica Online distinguished them from other students, and the seniors entered prestigious graduate programs in English, Math, and Journalism. While I intended to work with them for only one semester, three very tenacious students insisted on continuing, resulting in the multi-semester initiative, the “Emblem Scholars.”

The continuing undergraduates have indexed many more emblem mottos in European languages and Latin, learned iconographic indexing and metadata creation, written research papers, created posters and the website Emblem Scholars, and presented at campus venues. Among them, the students have earned a prestigious Mellon internship at the Art Institute, Chicago, and studied abroad in France and Ireland; one became a US citizen. They have been invited speakers at both GSLIS’s Digital Humanities Reading Group and the University Library’s Scholarly Commons. These students report that their undergraduate learning experience has transformed them. They are now graduating and applying for prestigious scholarships, internships, and graduate school. The Emblem Scholars are going places.

All my classes involve learning by doing, while the intensive writing component requires articulating the what, why, and how of things, placing it all in a discursive context. In a series of graduated interpretive and critical assignments, students comment online, advance to oral presentations, and also write formally in a variety of genres ranging from short responses and research papers and more recently to posters, Prezis, and a website. All students in every class receive extensive feedback and may revise and resubmit their work for a higher grade. Each semester my goal is to encourage students to become passionate about their topic—whatever that topic is—and to communicate about it at fairly sophisticated levels in speech and writing.

The models of experiential learning and the writing formats I use vary according to the class. The undergraduate courses range from beginning German to seminars in the Campus Honors Program, from tutorials for James scholars to large enrollment courses, and from Discovery Courses to capstone courses in German. I have taught students from all disciplines in all areas of the German undergraduate curriculum and in core classes in English, such as “Masterpieces of German Literature,” “History of German Cinema,” “German Jewish Authors,” “The Holocaust in Context,” and “Books Matter, Book Matters.” Undergraduates who learn experientially discover that study of the humanities is relevant.

The experiential learning activities in my courses have included visiting the Art Institute Chicago with undergraduates in Cinema and Holocaust courses to explore the “Degenerate Art” exhibition. I co-organized a series on silent Austrian film, working with the Austrian Consulate to borrow recently discovered prints and with the School of Music for an ensemble to play appropriate period music for the screenings. Similarly, when the Art Theater, Champaign, showed Nosferatu, my cinema and literature classes attended a screening with live music. In this way, undergraduates from across campus were able get a sense of the artistic and social contexts of early film on the big screen. After much persuasion a retired faculty member, a survivor from a Kindertransport, talked to my students every semester that I taught the Holocaust course. His testimony connected the academic generations—from the elderly, myself, and the TAs to the undergraduates—and presented a profoundly complicated history as lived experience. Based on these encounters, students were asked to connect in their written work their experiences of literature, art, film, and survivor testimony to readings from class. The papers from such courses are invariably strongly motivated and more sophisticated; they are simply better.

Undergraduates in “Books Matter” read books about books, asking why human beings care so much about stories. They have a capstone project in which they “adopt” a rare book and write a research paper about it. One puzzled student complained he had chosen a book he could not read, a 14th-century Latin codex of Aristotle from Italy. I suggested he check the University Archives to see if he could establish how the manuscript entered our library. There he discovered the correspondence documenting the volume, a gift to President James, who gave it to the Library in 1916. His research paper earned him the RBML prize for the best undergraduate essay. Students from my German literature classes also go to the RBML, and meet our printed treasures first hand. These encounters have resulted in an array of excellent student work: Sarah Bragg, a psychology major and James Scholar wrote about a century of translating Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915) and Robert Weber, an engineering major and Chancellor’s Scholar’s analyzed Luther’s Das x. gebot (1520, the Reformer’s exegesis of the Ten Commandments), both students presented at the URS. Stefanie Borntreger, a German major, wrote her honors’ thesis on Emperor Maximilian’s Theuerdank (1517), the most lavishly illustrated book of the period. My experiences confirm that undergraduates are not only capable of research: they love it.

Students learn best by doing something they care about. The high expectations that I establish for them are always within their reach. They respond well to the challenge of stretching their skills, whether it involves handling rare books, visiting a printing press and the Digital Content Creation lab, going behind the scenes at Dalkey Archives, or heading to Grainger to “stitch” a digital facsimile of a book. By exploring this University’s rich resources, they learn to connect practical experience with abstract learning. They become adept at presenting their findings in speaking and writing, and very quickly come to understand that these transferable skills prepare them well for the future. Students learn a great deal about the University’s resources, yet they are not just academic tourists. They know they must be able to frame an argument about what they have experienced. About halfway into every semester, I hear one student ask another: “So what IS your research question?” These experiences are transformative, not only for the students, but also for the instructor.