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July 2017


Diane K. Olson

Teaching Statement

In all of the courses which I have taught, writing is conceived as an essential tool for social and critical inquiry into the values, limitations and effects of both the texts at hand and the experiences students bring to their readings of the texts. Inevitably, the courses raise questions about how the educational and institutional contexts in which students study literary texts have shaped the formations of their interpretations and knowledges. The courses also encourage students to think about the social and historical conditions through which the texts were originally produced, as well as the effects of the texts as they have circulated beyond the socio-historical landscape in which they were made. Since my primary interests are in critical ethnography and contemporary discourse theory, my teaching attempts to incorporate inquiries into the relationship between discourse, knowledges, subjectivity and social practices. Even in my lower-division teaching, I want students to question how what they know is contingent upon the discourses and educational practices constructing their knowledges, and thereby question how the various discourses informed by the human sciences, including pedagogical discourses, delimit what is knowable and sayable about the objects of study. In other words, I am concerned with having students inspect and unpack the narrative quality of their knowledges and concomitantly, the generative nature of discourse (as discourse constitutes one's sense of self and otherness and the boundary lines between the 'self' and the 'other') is underscored in my teaching. By using an ethnographic approach, I ask to students to investigate how various educational and disciplinary discourses have informed how they explain and understand the differences between the 'cultural' and the 'natural', the 'normal' and the 'abnormal/deviant', the 'scientific' and the 'mythological' and the 'sane' and the 'mad', and then I ask them to consider how such differentiations serve to disqualify certain knowledges, as well as function to limit their experiences of cultural differences.

No doubt, this is not an easy task, and while I, like many other critical pedagogues, meet with the predictable resistance, I have found that by beginning with readings and writing exercises that ask students to narrate and reflect upon their prior educational experiences, the students are more inclined to identify the constraints and contradictions of those experiences than if I were to ask them to immediately deconstruct the class and gender assumptions underlying a literary text. Drawing upon experiential and subjective knowledges enables them to more concretely envision the dialectics between discourse, knowledge and experience, as they are asked to contrast their narrations with the narrations of theorists like Richard Rodriqeuz, Patricia Williams and Gloria Anzaldua, amongst others. Additionally, students have a more vested stake in problematizing the construction of their subjectivities and in locating the biases within educational discourses and practices. This approach is what Linda Brodkey and other ethnographers have termed 'autoethnography' which emphasizes the critical investigation of representations of 'self' in relationship to 'other' in cultural and institutional discourses. Through adopting an 'autoethnographic' approach to begin courses, I aim to shift the focus away from abstract ideological explanations, instead honing in on questions about the various discourses from which students have derived and constructed a sense of self and of culture. This approach is admittedly informed by my interest in the theoretical work of Michel Foucault and to other post-marxist theorists who have critiqued how the educational institution itself conspires to present unified transcendent subjectivities that are perceived as existing beyond power relations and/or guaranteeing a kind of liberatory space free of power differentials. Thus, rather than holding students individually accountable for their 'complicity' in hegemonic power relations, I begin my teaching efforts with the assumption that educational discourses themselves provide students with a sense of unfettered, autonomous and transcendent agency, which indirectly impedes questions about the limitations and effects of disciplinary knowledges in the human sciences. I am interested in how educational discourses itself, as its linked to the methodologies of the human sciences, actually scripts how students and teachers make sense out of their capacities and roles within the classroom, include the scripted narratives of 'progress' and 'normal, standardized development' that tend to inflect educational discourses. While I remain concerned with teaching the forms of academic discourse to students, my teaching also goes beyond providing proficiency in academic discourses or the introduction to a discourse community, when it asks students to critically scrutinize how their writing and literary experiences have been structured by standardized and traditional assumptions about education and learning.

Every course I have taught has attempted to incorporate the pedagogical philosophies and approaches I have outlined above. As with any teaching statement, however, it is by on means a complete or adequate representation of the discussions and exchanges that happen in the classroom or over the net. Every course is a challenge to interpret and translate these theoretical problematics so that they connect with the students' own inquiries. Given the contingency of knowledge-making, I want to learn form the students how they themselves comprehend the explanatory power of cultural theory, and one way of doing so is through crafting open-ended writing assignments that ask students to bring their experiences to bear critically on the theoretical texts under study. I tend to believe that cultural theory continually reinvents itself, performatively, in the teaching exchanges and in students' writings. One further reason I begin with critical reflection on prior educational experiences is that particularly with cultural studies courses, students are not always prepared for the sorts of questions about cultural and educational practices that are generally repressed in the majority of their other classes. It's been my experience that most students enter literary classes expecting to simply interpret literary texts, not to investigate how the enterprise of literary studies shapes how they interpret and evaluate texts. Recognizing the potential for intimidation, I find that autoethnographic inquiry eases the transition for those students who have not encountered cultural studies frameworks beforehand. Moreover, as far as my research interests are concerned, I have long been interested in how student agency is imagined and constructed across the spectrum of discourses within critical pedagogy, most particularly what I call 'pedagogies of demystification.' A good deal of composition theory in recent years has critiqued the ethics of case studies in which students are represented as embodying 'false consciousness' in need of liberation. Composition theorists such as Kurt Spellmeyer, Linda Brodkey and Ellen Quandahl all have adopted a "foucauldian" lense to inspect how such methodological frameworks actually counter-productively portray a sense of deficiency and lack, a representations that only further justifies and substantiates the interventionary power of teachers and administrators. Each of these composition theorists have called to task the productivity of such explanations in rationalizing the teachers' rights to diagnose what forms of critical knowledge are needed. In contrast, they often advocate a pedagogy that first investigates how students appropriate and use the frameworks of cultural studies to explain the conditions of their lives. Rather than taking the liberatory power of cultural studies to be self-evident, the preceding question is one about the difficulties of and obstacles to translating cultural studies frameworks into meaningful explanations of how power operates in the lived experience of students. In a similar fashion, my predominate concern is with the inevitable gap between the discourses and practices in cultural studies teaching. My research and teaching are intrinsically linked through my efforts to remain attentive to what students do with cultural theory, that is, how they productively use cultural theory, rather than attributing to cultural studies an inherently salvational or liberatory power. Keeping in mind Foucault's warnings about the dual dangers and benefits of any educational or social practice, I try to stay attentive to the shortcoming of cultural studies frameworks at the same time as I advocate and teach their explanatory powers.


First and foremost, we, as composition teachers, need to teach students to have faith in themselves as writers and their heart-felt, God-given purposes when writing.   Too often, our impulse when teaching writing is to judge students and their writings but so often, that only stymies the writing process and causes students to lose faith in themselves and their purposes as writers.  We need composition studies courses that inspire students to use writing creatively and purposively to understand, imagine and creatively refashion the worlds that they live in -- that is what I would call faith-based, visionary writing that encourages students to pursue their creative, imaginative purposes in writing rather than merely having them perform writing for our evaluation, assessments and judgments -- writing that really has no purpose in the larger world and does not effect social and educational change and seems useless to many students, hence their resistances to writing tasks.  When the focus of writing is on evaluation and judgment, that does not build and encourage students' faith in themselves as writers, so we need to change our focus, as composition teachers, to creating and designing the kinds of writing assignments that do build and encourage students' faith in themselves as writers who have a purpose  in writing/communicating/expressing and have something important to say that matters to the world beyond the classrooms and beyond the university.   We build students' faith in themselves as writers by showing them ways that they can make and use their writing to imaginatively shape and transform and change the social worlds that they inhabit. We build students' faith in themselves as writers when we allow students to write about the issues and concerns that are near and dear to their hearts and that they care deeply about and feel compelled to write about -- and all students -- and teachers, too -- are born with the need to express and the desire to communicate what matters most to them -- that is why expressive letter-writing and song-writing are two of the most compelling forms of communication and resonate with so many people -- because letter-writing and song-writing come from a need to be heard and to interact with other people and effect/move the people who encounter the writing.  Hence, part of building students' faiths in themselves as writers also includes offering them opportunities to engage in these forms of expressive, communicative writing and allowing them to do the writing that they truly love, need and feel compelled to do -- writing that comes from the heart and also from a concern about improving the world and making it a more compassionate, responsive place.  We, as composition teachers, need to understand that our students' often possess fresh and compelling visions of how they would like the world to be and how they would improve the worlds that they inhabit, and by encouraging students to write about their visions for a better world, we are empowering them and teaching them to have faith in themselves as writers and communicators whose words truly matter and have far greater power than simply being evaluated and institutionally judged, as composition teachers are too frequently and unfortunately called upon to do by our universities.  In order to build our students' faiths in themselves as writers, we have to give up our roles as evaluators and taskmasters and imagine ourselves as co-creators and co-visionaries and co-communicators with our students who foster a sense of creative and visionary and heart-felt purpose when writing -- that is the type of writing that most builds students' faith in themselves writers, when they see their writing reaching out to and impacting the world around them and communicating their dearest concerns, especially to engaged listeners. This is the form and type of writing that I aim to teach in my classes -- faith-based, social justice, visionary writing -- and I am still seeking a university that will bring me aboard to teach the forms of writing that I describe and advocate for on this blog. If you teach at or know of such a place, I would be happy to hear about it.   My email address is [email protected]. MORE YET TO COME ON THIS BLOG IN THE FUTURE.   Sincerely, Diane K. Olson