Xabier Granja

Xabier Granja, Assistant Professor, Department of Modern Languages & Classics

232 BB Comer Hall | (205) 348-7649 | xgranja@ua.edu

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Teaching early modern literature can be challenging: some students are eager to explore its literary production, others dread what they perceive as outdated materials. In our contemporary culture of information overload, how can we make centuries-old content relevant to students today? I strive to form connections: culture, society, community, religion, politics. These elements form the reality of any individual throughout history. Establishing connections between modern and early modern values repeatedly succeeds in engaging my students. Once they understand early modern socio-cultural codes and connect them to their 21st-century ones, their view of reality is indelibly enriched – like seeing the code in The Matrix, they cannot unsee it. Old materials become meaningful. Layers of meaning emerge in their everyday life. Be it through second language acquisition, active learning activities, canonical authors, research projects or service-learning… I consider it my responsibility to generate those connections to empower the next generation workforce.

Deborah Keene, Associate Director, Blount Scholars Program

147 Blount Living-Learning Center | (205) 348-3334 | dakeene@ua.edu

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This is one of my favorite quotes and one that I pass out to my students on the first day of class:

“Do teachers hold that it is their thoughts that are perceived and grasped rather than the very disciplines they take themselves to pass on by speaking? After all, who is so foolishly curious as to send his son to school to learn what the teacher thinks? When the teachers have explained by means of words all the disciplines they profess to teach, even the disciplines of virtue and of wisdom, then those who are called “students” consider within themselves whether truths have been stated. – St. Augustine

In the Blount Scholars Program, I am privileged to teach amazingly bright, interested, and engaged first-year students in our Foundations class. We start with Plato and read our way through a wide range of ancient and modern authors in nearly every discipline. We want our students to wrestle with the concepts of truth, justice, equality, and knowledge —questions for which there aren’t necessarily correct answers, but humanity seems to have decided there must be some kind of answer. I learned early on that my best approach as a teacher in this situation is to act as a guide rather than an authority. Thinking of Plato and his cave, I think my approach is to let as much sunlight into the cave as I can, but allow the students to free themselves and make the actual journey. The tools I use for this are giving the students plenty of background about what they are reading, helping them to make connections between different works, leading the class discussion into difficult places, and asking for textual evidence to back up strong arguments. In short, it is all about giving the students what they need in order to be students worthy of St. Augustine.

John Miller

John Miller, Assistant Professor, New College

209 Lloyd Hall | (205) 348-2642 | mille031@ua.edu

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What we do in the classroom affects the world into which students graduate. Increasingly I see accounts, like the recent article in Psychology Today, decrying a general decline in problem-solving skills, attributed by many to high-stakes testing. And on the more scholarly side, champions of Liberal Arts education like Martha Nussbaum warn against skills-based educations turning graduates into “useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations” unable to critique authority.* Between these two narratives, I see the debt contemporary education owes pioneers of democratic, engaged teaching like John Dewey and Paulo Freire. As a consequence, I frame my duty to students not just as imparting the best information I can, but also as equipping those students to see how actively participating in their educations empowers them.

*Nussbaum, Martha. “Political Soul-making and the Imminent Demise of Liberal Education.” Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 37.2, (2006): 301-313.

Erik Peterson

Erik Peterson, Assistant Professor, Department of History

201 ten Hoor Hall | (205) 348-7100 | elpeterson@ua.edu

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Two young fish — undergraduates — were on their way to class one morning when an old professor swam by in the other direction.

“How’s the water, boys?” the professor fish asked.

“Fine, Dr. Mackerel,” they said, smiling politely at the professor as they continued.

Once they were safely out of earshot, one turned to the other, troubled, “Uh, dude, what’s water…?”
[based on a joke told by David Foster Wallace in 2005]

Our students are swimming in a medium that, by and large, they do not recognize. For a fish, water is as banal as it is vital. As I see it, a good portion of my job—that is, if “Ph.D.” still stands for a teacher who is a friend of wisdom—is to help them actually consider that basic, unquestioned, banal, vital reality.

A disturbingly large portion of what we all take for granted turns out to be off somehow—stories about things that never happened, stories that make us feel like we are something that we are not. And those myths that we collectively tell ourselves, stories about famous people in the past, for instance, ripple out to homes and voting booths and statehouses, to policy decisions that impact people in the present and future. The past isn’t past because the past is also us.

So as a historian, teaching is the way to unmask what is hidden in plain sight. It is the wonderful and terrible task that we at the university have to profess: “This is water… this is water.” And if we don’t point it out, no one else will.