Teaching Philosophy

On “Risking the Self”

My pedagogy is inspired by the theories and practices of queer studies. Following Deborah Britzman, I believe that pedagogy is “always about risking the self, about confronting one’s own theory of reading, and about engaging one’s own alterity” (Lost Subjects, 1998, p. 94). I foster a “safe” and “brave” classroom that centres respectful dialogue: I value the contributions of all students and encourage them to recognize that we relate to texts differently given our personal beliefs and experiences. I also believe in a “risky” classroom, however: one in which I push students to reconsider the narratives that constitute the foundation of how we understand ourselves, our relations with one another, our reading practices, and my core disciplines of English and children’s literature studies.

Along these lines, across my English classes, I teach a range of texts—novels, poetry, film, digital apps and games, and graphic narrative—in order to challenge disciplinary boundaries while offering students diverse, stimulating, and meaningful opportunities for learning and engagement. I assign texts that surprise at the levels of genre, form, and content; texts that defy their generic conventions; texts about outsiders that are themselves outsiders in relation to the genres to which they ostensibly belong. Given how texts for and about young people frequently deal with themes of identity and belonging, they are well suited to this enterprise. My favourite texts to teach include Sarah Polley’s genre-bending documentary Stories We Tell, which sneakily contains staged archival footage to raise questions about memory, truth, and how we as adults retrospectively narrate our childhoods; Lynnea Glasser’s digital story app Creatures Such As We, which invites players—through interactive narrative elements—to contemplate our agency as readers; and Raziel Reid’s controversial, Governor General award-winning young adult novel When Everything Feels Like the Movies, whose explicit themes defy expectations about the constitution of children’s literature. These are difficult texts, and high enrolment courses (such as my 150-student Literature for Young People class) can make conversation challenging. I ensure students have access to the necessary resources and language for framing discussion, and I use a variety of formats to invite participation: TopHat is effective for sparking debate, and small group discussions permit a kind of interactivity uncommon to large lecture-style classes.

Although I challenge students to think and read differently, I design assignments with options that allow them to capitalize on their strengths, engage their interests, and steadily improve. Inspired by Sherry Lee Linkon’s Literary Learning: Teaching the English Major (2011), I often structure my upper-year and graduate classes as term-long inquiry projects, which provide students with both intellectual freedom and helpful assignment scaffolding, including regular, low-stakes writing assignments. Many of these assignments, such as my “Let’s Play” video game essays, are designed based on my own research into the scholarship of teaching and learning. The inquiry project structure enables students to receive targeted feedback—from me and one another—as the term progresses. In multiple classes, I give students the chance to share their work with the broader university community as they collaborate to stage exhibits and displays. My advanced young adult literature class, for example, includes a group poster presentation session; “The Virtual Child,” a class on digital texts for young people, culminates in an interactive exhibit for which students collectively curate digital content and create material objects in the Taylor Family Digital Library’s MakerSpace. Collaboration is central to my overall teaching and learning practice: I was a co-investigator on a close reading lesson study grant with two students, I am working with three student researchers on my current SSHRC-funded project, and I have co-authored several articles and conference presentations with graduate students.

Through my teaching, I offer students a spectrum of possibilities for identification while interrogating our reliance on narrative, its role in creating these very possibilities, and the way certain stories accrue privilege and power. For me, teaching is a form of storytelling about storytelling: one that gets students excited to learn, talk, and think about the power of stories to both shape and risk our relations with ourselves and one another.

– Dr. Derritt Mason

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