Ian Marshall, Ph.D.

 

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Penn State Altoona

 

COURSES TAUGHT           

 

                Honors Composition                                                         Independent Studies Directed:

                Rhetoric and Composition                                                 19th Century American Women’s Fiction

                Writing in the Humanities                                                   American Nature Writing

                College Reading and Writing                                             Place and Self in American Non-fiction

                                                                                                         Freedom and Environmental Writing

                Great Traditions in American Literature                              

                Introduction to American Studies                                  

                American Literature to 1865                                       

                African American Literature                                              

                American Nature Writing                                                

                American Novel to 1900                                                   

                Great American Writers

                American Short Story

                American Comedy

               

                Mapping Identity, Difference and Place:  The Literature of the Appalachians

                Literature and the Natural World

                Literature and Society: Zen and the Art of American Nature Writing

                Studies in Genre:  Ecofiction

                Studies in Genre:  Contemporary American Nature Writing

                Visions of Nature (Environmental Studies)

 

                Understanding Literature

                Reading Nonfiction

                Reading Fiction

                Reading Poetry

                Women Writers               

                Short Story

 

 Statement of Teaching Philosophy

 

The literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin once said that “the most creative work of a culture takes place on its margins.”   Bakhtin was referring to literature, but it seems to me that his observation applies equally well to the classroom.  To borrow freely from Bakhtin, I believe that the most creative work of a teacher takes place on the margins as well—on the margins and across borderlines.

 

Sometimes those margins are quite literal.  One of my standard teaching spiels comes soon after students have had their first reading assignments.  I ask them to hold up their books, and I show them mine.  There’s usually a striking difference.  Mine is the special teacher’s edition—the one with my scribbling in the margins.  Theirs are usually blank in the margins.  I tell them that we typically remember only about 30% of what we read—but that you can double that by doing something active, even something as simple as underlining key points, and responding with objections and summaries in the margins. The lesson, of course, goes beyond mere note taking.  The point, I say, is to read actively, to participate in the act of reading, to become engaged with what you are studying, to cross the boundary line between student and object of study. In a nutshell, that is what I aim for in all my teaching.

 

I also let my students in on the great secret of teaching—that the best way to learn something is to teach it.  Students teach by participating in discussions, conveying to one another their assessments of what they are reading, helping each other hone their writing skills.  Participation in class is another way of moving from passive reception of knowledge to active engagement with it.   My role is to get them going, show them the way, provide the necessary equipment.

 

I remember early on in my teaching career making a mental distinction about the difference between high school teachers and college professors.  Teachers teach students, I thought then, and professors teach their subject.  I remember too overhearing a remark at a conference:  “The truth is, we teach ourselves.”  My sense now is that the truth is some combination of all these.  Perhaps a geographic metaphor will help explain (and help me return to the idea of margins!).  The students in my class dwell in a space of the known.  It is comfortable and familiar.  I know of another place, the space of my subject—whether it be the structure of an evaluation essay, or the style of Annie Dillard’s writing, or the pastoral elements in a Hemingway story, or the cultural implications of contemporary literary theory—and to my students that space is the unknown.  My function is to lead them there, across the border into the unfamiliar.  I have to know my way around there, which means I have to know my subject.  In essence, teachers draw maps their students can follow.  But I also have to know my students, and be willing to engage them, and that usually means finding innovative ways to present information.  So teachers are not just mapmakers, but guides as well.   On the path we take in each other’s company, we can show our students, by our enthusiasm and excitement and curiosity, that the journey is worth taking, that satisfactions and rewards come all along the way and not just after we reach some destination called a test, or a job.

 

Partly what I’m saying is that the boundary lines between teaching and learning need not be unyielding.   I urge students to be involved in the process so that they are teaching themselves and each other through their engagement with the subject.  And I want to model for my students the process of active learning.  I frequently focus readings in my composition classes on nature—a nice broad topic that students of any major can relate to.  Much of the information in our readings concerns biology.  Occasionally students express surprise that an English teacher is curious about—even gets excited about—something other than language use.  Another sort of margin that I want my students to explore, then, is that space between academic fields.  I urge my students to make connections, to find ways to make their bits of learning from different courses fit into a pattern, to see that what we learn in, say, physics ties in with literary theory, or that aesthetic appreciation may have some basis in evolutionary biology.  This is teaching as ecology lesson.  I’m reminded of John Muir’s line about the interconnectedness of all living things:  “When we try to pick out anything in the universe,” he said, “we find it hitched to everything else.”

 

Another boundary that I try to get beyond is that formed by the walls of the classroom.  There is something to regret in the way our culture segregates the process of education.  We give it its own space, a bland, confining, restrictive space, and all too often our students thereby learn the unfortunate lesson that what happens in that classroom has little to do with what happens in other classrooms, or with the world beyond the classroom.  How do we move beyond those boundaries?  It can be as simple as taking class outside on a sunny day—and delighting in the fact that our students may be distracted by the call of a bird or the wind in the trees.  (Be grateful they still notice!)  Or it can happen by bringing in a guest speaker (I have brought in writers like Pattiann Rogers and Marcia Bonta), or by setting up a class list-serve (as I did in an honors section of English 180), or by viewing a film outside of class time, in a dormitory conference room, with pizza (as I do regularly in my composition courses).  And it can happen by assigning students essay topics that require them to find out something about the world out there.  In several classes, too, I have compiled a selection of the students’ best work, put a nice cover on it featuring a student’s artwork, and distributed it to members of the class sometime after the end of the semester.  This gives them something tangible to represent the class’s efforts—and it’s something they are proud of.  The fact that the collection gets to the students after the end of the semester reminds them (I hope!) that the skills they’ve learned in class are meant to endure beyond the end of the semester.

 

It is in the spirit of these ideals that I have helped develop some innovative courses at Penn State.  Along with Robert Burkholder, associate professor of English at University Park, I developed and proposed English 180, Literature and the Natural World, a general education humanities course.  And along with Dinty Moore, associate professor of English, and Carolyn Mahan, assistant professor of biology, both colleagues at Altoona, I developed, proposed, and taught an “Outdoor Experience Block” in the fall of 1999.  This team-taught, interdisciplinary block, which included English 180, BiSci 3 (Environmental Science), English 50 (Intro to Creative Writing), and a one-credit freshman seminar, featured experiential learning through three extended field trips.  In addition to studying the academic content of the courses and exploring interconnections between those courses, students visited, among other things, a biological research site in eastern woodlands, a rattlesnake restoration site, a glaciated pond, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and salt water marshes on the Chesapeake Bay.  The students also went hiking, backpacking, canoeing, and rafting, thereby (we imagine) learning lessons of both self-reliance and team-building.  I also co-chaired the committee developing an interdisciplinary environmental studies degree program at Altoona, a program which incorporates many of the kinds of boundary-crossing ideals that I mention above (field trips, emphasis on interconnections between academic fields).

 

I don’t mean to suggest that good teaching takes place only in the margins or beyond borders of various sorts.  In any subject there is a core of knowledge that still needs to be imparted.  And I still hold the old-fashioned belief that a good test can be a learning experience.  But more and more I believe that our most memorable lessons are those that occur not just when we pass on knowledge about our subject, but when we make the effort to find ways to engage our students, and impart something of ourselves as well.