21L.501 | Spring 2013 | Undergraduate

The American Novel: Stranger and Stranger

Instructor Insights

Teaching at MIT

In this section, Dr. Kelley describes her experiences of teaching at MIT.

Linking Engineering and Literary Design

MIT students are incredibly smart, with lots of background in science and engineering. I try to help students understand there is a relationship between engineering design and literary design. Over the years, I’ve come to use some ideas and concepts from engineering design and literary design because they both get at the beauty of creative art, wherever it finds itself. If you say, “What a beautiful bridge!”, the students get it. The texts we read are made out of materials that are assembled in a way that is both beautiful and helpful.

I also want my students to think logically and critically. They have to ask the same questions of a text that they ask of an engineering design, and they have to face the same kind of problems in a text that they face in a design function. Thinking of a text as a design allows them to understand that it has many parts and that there isn’t one message waiting to be extracted, but multiple elements that contribute, and that there are different shades to whatever meaning they come away with. Also, this is a process that involves other people. It’s social. It’s interactive. It’s time-consuming. It’s like slow-cooked food. 

Challenges of Teaching MIT Students

One challenge of teaching MIT students is that many of them tend to read for information—to extract data that they need to solve problems—which is a very efficient form of reading. However, this short-circuits the long, slow, patient process of weighing problems that arise through language. When people read for information, they don’t get everything; they are making choices and selecting what they need most. It’s not clear what you need most, though. Reading critically is a very different approach compared to the extractive method, but the students need to read critically, and they know it. This is what critical thinking is about—they have to learn how to solve problems in the very medium they think they know. They think they know how to use language, and they think they understand language. So the challenge is to make it mysterious to them again without mystifying them, without making them think, “Oh, I’m just not smart enough to read this" or “This text is too difficult for me.” It’s not too difficult for them. They need to tolerate some of the problems that naturally arise in texts so that they can arrive at a more lucid understanding.

Another challenge is that students in general are not used to being critical of texts. They’ve always been taught great works, so they have tremendous respect for literature. They expect every book to be great, and they instinctively strive to understand what makes each book great. I want students to be critical and thoughtful about what they read. I want to find new ways into a text to break down some of the preconceptions they have about the works. It’s a form of retraining poor reading practices and attitudes that came out of very benevolent and fine impulses and aspirations.

Teaching a Small Class

You can always work with whatever you’re given, but I have to say that I prefer smaller classes. Students love the intimacy and the chance to talk. I feel my class routine is pretty satisfactory because I don’t talk that much. Once I’ve done my bit, they do most of the talking. I don’t feel I have to do a lot of activities in the class. If they’re flagging or it’s just a bad day, I will say, “OK, let’s do some writing,” or “Let’s exchange papers,” as a way to break up the class. It really depends on the chemistry in the class. I’ve had classes that were quite quiet, and for those, I have to do more—I have to get them up at the board or doing more of the presenting. I’ve also had students who were raring to go, like in the class I taught called Bestsellers of Gothic Literature, where the students just couldn’t stop talking!

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2013
Learning Resource Types
Activity Assignments
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Written Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights