Heather Barrett, Writing Program instructor and PhD candidate in the English department, was recently recognized as the 2015 Outstanding Teaching Fellow in the Writing Program. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences gives an award to one teaching fellow in each department or program at the end of every academic year. The WP caught up with Heather during the very busy grading week for an interview.
Congratulations on the Outstanding Teaching Award, Heather!
Thank you. It was a total shock, but a really nice surprise at such a busy time in the semester.
It must be a challenge to teach a WR course, and tutor in the Writing Center, while trying to finish up your dissertation. How have you balanced teaching and research so far?
Maintaining a balance is definitely a challenge. Some weeks I’m much better at it than others. I try to set aside at least a bit of time each day to do my own reading and writing. Even if it’s just forty-five minutes or an hour, the work I can get done in those small intervals does add up. On a similar note, I once had a professor advise me to leave something undone when I stop doing work for the day; that way I will automatically have somewhere to start the next day. At first I thought this approach seemed counterproductive, but it actually works more often than not.
I also try to give myself breaks from staring my computer screen, which is something I do a lot between reading students’ papers and doing my own writing. I take breaks by knitting socks and watching reruns of Gilmore Girls or Castle with my partner Resi. When you’re a teacher, there’s always one more paper you can read; when you’re a doctoral student, there’s always one more sentence you can write. I’ve learned (well, I’m learning) to be a little more realistic in my expectations of the amount of work I can get done each day.
Could you talk a bit about your Gothic Tales course and how you find it particularly conducive to teaching English language learners?
I think that Gothic tales work particularly well in a writing seminar for English language learners because fear is a universal emotion. We all experience it sometimes, but the things that trigger it vary widely. In addition, some fears are very personal, while others are shaped by the cultures in which we live. Gothic tales help us to understand how fear works and why people cope with it in both productive and destructive ways.
Most students who sign up for the class expect that we’re going to talk about vampires and zombies – and we do, but that’s just the starting point. We begin by reading British and Chinese ghost stories. Then we read a collection of Japanese short stories about ordinary humans with dark desires. Finally, we read a series of more realistic stories with Gothic elements. For example, we read a story about two brothers escaping from North Korea who are haunted by the ghost of their little sister. We also read a story set during the Rwandan genocide where the narrator starts to believe that she lives in a haunted house. These stories are beautifully written but also pretty brutal to read, so I make sure that we set ground rules for class discussions that create a safe environment. I also have students write reflections on the stories before we discuss them. That way, they have time to work through their own thoughts before they share them with their classmates.
At the end of the semester, I have students select a text, film, TV show, song, or piece of artwork with Gothic elements and present it to the class. This assignment encourages them to transfer their knowledge outside of the classroom. It also helps them to practice their public speaking skills, which can be a terrifying experience for English language learners. But because they get to pick their topic, they usually get really invested in the assignment and wind up doing a great job. It’s an appropriate way to end a course about experiencing and coping with fear, since it gives students a chance to overcome their own fears about speaking in English.
What have been the highlights of working as a tutor in the Writing Center?
This might sound a little corny, but I love being a tutor because it gives me a chance to learn so much. I get to eavesdrop on a whole bunch of WR courses throughout the semester. I’ve read papers on everything from the politics of forced sterilization and the experiences of children growing up in brothels to the culture of yoga pants and the business of video games. I genuinely love having conversations with students about their papers and asking questions that push them to reconsider or refine their ideas.
I also love it when I’ve been working with a student who keeps making a certain kind of error – she keeps forgetting the “s” at the end of third-person singular verbs, for example – and as we’re going along and reading her paper, she suddenly finds one of those errors and corrects it on her own without my help. It’s so rewarding when you get to see students have these “aha!” moments. They might seem small, but if you can make a student feel good about an accomplishment like this in a tutoring session, it can really boost their confidence.
Do you have any advice for instructors of Writing? For instance, what have been some of your tried-and-true approaches to teaching?
Being a tutor helps me tremendously as a teacher because it has taught me to prioritize. When we tutor, we only have forty-five minutes with a student. We can get a lot done in that time, but not everything. At the beginning of each session, I set an agenda so the student and I have a clear set of goals. Similarly, when I give my students paper assignments, I give them a list of specific skills I expect them to work on. When I give them feedback on their writing, I try to focus on how well they’ve demonstrated those skills. I think that students learn best when you set manageable goals for them and gradually build on what they have learned. Learning takes time, after all, so you have to be patient and acknowledge small successes.
Some of my best pedagogical training has also come from one of my summer jobs: I work as a National Park Service ranger and give tours of historic sites. When you give a tour, you never know what beliefs or values your visitors bring with them. You have to adapt to different learning styles and acknowledge multiple viewpoints even as you try to convey your own message. When I teach in the classroom, I try to remember that my students have knowledge and experiences that I know nothing about. I certainly have ideas that I want my students to take away from my course, but I do my best to listen to and learn from them as well.
Writing Program colleagues, please join us in congratulating Heather Barrett on a well-deserved recognition of the excellent work she does as part of the Boston University teaching faculty.