The interior work of course development

[This post is part of a series that chronicles ENGL 6820: Public-facing Humanities, a new graduate class that incorporates career discernment and professional formation.]

I wrote in my last post that so many classes and programs are developed and offered based on assumptions. Do our students even want to be there? Why are they in our programs?

In this post, I turn the tables to ask faculty: Why do we teach the classes we teach? On one level, the answer is easy. We teach based on our areas of expertise and interests.

But it’s deeper than that. Beyond degrees, certifications, and professional experience, who are we to teach our classes? Why are we there?

This question came up repeatedly as I reimagined ENGL 6820. I wrestled with mindset and perspective shifts. I needed to see myself more than a public-facing humanities scholar who has research and business experience in this area. It wasn’t only the scholar who was being invited into the classroom. It was another part of me that’s been there this whole time, waiting to come forth.

Along with that question, I felt other questions emerge as I chose books, created assignments and projects, and planned in-class activities, all of which I’ll write about in future posts. How much of my own journey am I willing to share in the classroom? Am I prepared to teach a class where the readings discuss God, the Bible, and sexuality all as part of discernment? Am I asking too much of myself and the students? How are we going to learn to trust one another?

In answering those questions, I’m re-learning who I am as a teacher and how a writing classroom can look and feel.

To re-learn what “content” means

Usually in my writing and rhetoric classes, content means reading about the topic at hand, writing about it, and creating projects where students demonstrate their applications of writing and rhetoric principles (career dossiers, white papers, pitch decks, etc.). That didn’t feel right for this class, so I had to re-define what content was in this context.

Discernment for me has come to mean something highly personal – and students wouldn’t be able to learn about it from books alone. There are no books specifically dedicated to the discernment process and interior life for students. So, this course doesn’t have content in the traditional sense. We’re reading one book about discernment, and another about putting the humanities to work. This class, though, is about so much more than academic content.

For this class, content includes silence, space, and time. It’s what comes from this silence, space, and time that becomes the content of the students’ experiences, and thus, content of the course.

To embrace discomfort

As a spiritual process, discernment invokes the concept of a Higher Power. It is also engaged with embodied knowledge, desire, and freedom. This meant I was being invited to talk about topics I’ve never brought into my writing classes before: God and sexuality.

The discernment readings this semester use the word God, quote the Bible, and talk about Jesus. Yes, I’m at a Catholic school – but I’m not there to teach doctrine or theology. Knowing that these terms are loaded for many people, I felt uncomfortable teaching them. As I sat with that discomfort, an ease surrounded it and a path forward emerged. This class could be a space where students could explore their idea of God/Universe/Higher Power, which is part of discernment. (As a side note, is discernment only a Catholic, Jesuit thing? Absolutely not, but it’s the one that I’m most familiar with. If you have suggestions for what else my students and I should read, please let me know.)

In addition to discussing God and the Bible, the readings involve embodied knowledge, desire, passion, and even sexuality as a part of discernment. So much discomfort arose in me as I thought about how to create a space for students to talk about this. But that knowledge is a key part of discernment because it helps us understand our personal freedom. By not giving students a space to explore these parts of discernment, I was not allowing them to explore their own freedoms. Thankfully, I have done my own uncovering about my own sexual identity as queer. I now understand the freedom that interwoven into our sexual identity. Without that work, I don’t know that I would have made the same choice.

To show vulnerability

In our first class this week, I shared something I haven’t told students before: I went to grad school directly after college partially out of fear. I didn’t know what career options were out there for me as a psychology major/Italian studies minor. All I knew was school. I was good at it. It made me feel good, like my life had purpose and value. Work didn’t do that for me, and the thought of committing to an unsatisfying job made me feel locked into a life I didn’t want.

Now, there was a part of me that wanted to go to graduate school because that was always a goal. But as I discerned what to do after college, I actively sought out jobs that would “require” me to go to grad school. My plan after college was to teach English in Italy, so I got a Masters for that; I did not need a Masters to do that, but I sure was relieved when I realized it was an option.

I’m grateful that I went to grad school because, in the long run, it was the right decision for me. Part of the 21-year-old me knew that, too. I wish, though, that I would have had space to explore my options and to really learn what my motivations were for attending graduate school.

Knowing that our graduate program is traditionally literature based, I also felt myself apologizing that this class took the place of a literary criticism class. The students patiently listened to me as I provided context for the shift and made clear that we would not be talking about literary theory or criticism. After a brief pause, they each shared their gratitude and excitement for the new course. What a relief.

To trust myself and my students to step into the unknown

This success of this class hinges on students’ participation. I don’t mean only by talking, doing the readings, and attending all classes. I mean participating as in fully showing up for themselves and each other as we each embark on discernment and formation. If students–or I–disengage and don’t want to be there, there’s no class.

It took a lot of trust as I built the syllabus and the calendar. Class discussion, assignments, and projects would unfold only as much as the students’ fully engaged in the work. That was a huge step for me because it required me to trust students in a way I’ve never had to before. We each have to show up fully in a way to make this class work. That’s not to say we share more than we’re comfortable – that’s not the point. The point is that we’re trusting each other to create a space where our souls can show up and learn what’s next.

As such, the assignment prompts for this class are general compared to the detailed prompts for my writing-intensive classes, like Writing for Workplaces. Because of the nature of this class, assignments push students to try new things, like keeping a personal journal. They give them freedom to create projects that reflect their personal learning, discernment, and formation, not strictly to demonstrate their ability to add to a scholarly conversation or demonstrate skills.  

Nourishing the soul

At the end of our first class, students thanked me—in person and over email—for this class. That was a new experience for me. I don’t say this to congratulate myself or my department on a job well done. Rather, I say that to affirm that students are hungry for this kind of soul nourishment, exploration, and alignment.

Does my usual course development look like this? Nope. It usually is only guided by questions like, “What book is going to teach them x and y skills? Where will revision work best? What is a good week to have one-on-one conferences? How do we want to integrate presentations?” These more logistical questions informed the development of 6820, too, because this is a graduate course after all.

But these bigger, inner shifting questions happened alongside these more practical course development questions. It was soul bending and nourishing. And I wonder — what would happen if faculty would open ourselves up to these inner questions as we developed courses?

What do you want to know?

Instead of ending with questions to ponder, I’m curious to know what questions you have. These questions will guide future blog posts in this series. Email me (elizabeth dot angeli at marquette dot edu) or comment below.

  • What do you want to learn about?
  • What interests you about this class?
  • Did anything in this post challenge you?

1 thought on “The interior work of course development

  1. Amazing process! I’m anxious to see it unfold! I’ll be very interested to hear how open your students were willing to be. Even in more “traditional” classes, I think faculty members want their students to be open and take risks. My guess is that rarely happens to a significant degree.

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