Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #2)

Here on the UIC campus it’s now week two and I’m already starting to fall behind. I’m sure that many of you reading this post can relate. Navigating my course schedule for the new semester, attending committee meetings, working on various writing projects, the to do list goes on. With a few spare moments in the schedule, I wanted to continue my conversation with you (the NEMLA membership) on issues relating to the research and teaching of American Literature. This month I’d like to consider what connection (if any) our research has on what takes place inside the classroom.

To start this discussion, I’ll share a bit of my own experience. My position at UIC is classified as teaching intensive.  As a full time non-tenure eligible “Lecturer,” I teach a 3-3 course load on a one year contract. Of course, this year’s unexpectedly large enrollment of first year students means that most Lecturers in my department are actually teaching 4 courses with the additional class considered an “over-comp” (i.e. pay in addition to faculty base salary).

Evaluation of Lecturers is based solely on teaching and teaching related activities.  What this means in practice is that student evaluations, syllabi, and faculty observations (by both TT and NTT colleagues) serve as the basis for hiring, retention, and promotion to Senior Lecturer.  Research (unless it relates directly to teaching) is not considered relevant in the assessment of UIC’s fairly sizable teaching intensive faculty pool.

Course assignments for Lecturers in the UIC English Department are determined primarily by the needs of its First Year Writing Program.  Nearly all of our department’s Lecturers can expect to each at least one first year writing course in a semester. On occasion, as enrollment allows, NTT faculty in the department might also be assigned to teach General Education or introductory level courses for the English Major.  Some of our NTT faculty in Creative Writing also teach upper level writing workshops.

You might very well ask yourself at this point why I’m focusing on what might properly be considered “human resources” issues.  These issues, however, are at the heart of the question of how research relates to teaching in my department. For Tenure Track faculty, research is the main focus of their job description with teaching assumed to follow in a holistic way from that research.  NTT Lecturers, hired solely on the basis of their teaching ability, face a different situation with research considered an outside interest that runs parallel to their duties for the university.  In essence, for a Lecturer at UIC, there is not (in most cases) a connection between their research and teaching, nor does the university expect such a connection to exist.

That said, many of my NTT colleagues persist in conducting research in a wide variety of fields and find ways to “smuggle” their interests into first year writing and general education literature courses. This might include course readings that either analyze an area of research interest for faculty or represent a concept crucial to their studies as scholars.  Our first year writing program also encourages faculty to have topics for their courses, and a casual glance at those topics will quickly give an outsider a sense of what the research interests are of Lecturers in the UIC English Department.

So far so good, but what about my research interests?  If you’ve taken a chance to read through my CV and skim through some of the writing samples on my website, you can see that my central research interest is in veterans of the United States Civil War and the cultural legacy associated with them in the late nineteenth-century.  How exactly that might be turned into a first year writing course still escapes me, so I haven’t tried to create one with that as its course topic (yet).  Nor have I had a chance to shape a lower level literature course to fit that topic since I haven’t (Oprah moment here) taught a literature course since 2011 (Introduction to American Literature and Culture).

The main venue through which my research has managed to cross over into my teaching has been in my methodology, which relies upon archival research. Each semester that I’ve taught the research paper course at UIC (ENGL 161), this method has managed to find its way into my syllabus and influences the topics that my students select.  It also influenced the way I taught many of the units in my Introduction to Critical Theory and Literary Criticism course (ENGL 240), especially the one on Digital Humanities.  Another way that my research has found its way into my teaching is the emphasis that I put on place and community in all my courses. Both of these themes were central to what it meant to be a veteran in the late nineteenth-century United States. Feeling out of place or in the wrong community is a feeling that shows up in many of the narratives examined in my book New Men.  

Never in my life have I been good at conclusions. Even though I’m an introvert by nature, I love to talk and talk and talk and talk.  Especially if the topic is one in which I have an interest. Yet even a blog post needs an ending and this is where I’d like to leave you all this month.  Teaching has become for me a place to test ideas and find new interests that might not develop if I were sitting at home with a stack of books working alone on my next article or book chapter. The constraints of my working conditions also serve a purpose as they teach me that good ideas need skilled pitchmen and women to make their way out into the world. Rhetoric, I have swiftly learned, is not just a departmental staffing need but the mother discipline, especially in these times of budget cuts for the humanities.

In my next blog post, I’d like to share some of your experiences teaching and researching on American Literature.  How do you understand the relationship between teaching and research?  What types of classes do you tend to teach and how do you find ways to emphasize your interest/understanding of American Literature in those classes?  You can send your thoughts on this topic to me directly via email (jcasey3@uic.edu) with the subject line NEMLA Blog Post #3.  I’ll share selections of those emails with you all in my next post.

Until next time…

John Casey

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