Reflections on Teaching: An Interview with Karen Thornber

Karen Thornber is Professor of Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages and Civilizations. She is currently the Department Chair and Director of Graduate Studies of Department of Comparative Literature; the Chair of Regional Studies East Asia; and Walter Channing Cabot Fellow.

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Photo by Michelle Denise Ferreol

How do you keep your teaching fresh?

There are several ways one keeps teaching fresh.   I think, first of all, all of us here at Harvard publish actively, and we’re going around the country and around the world giving talks on our research, on projects that interest us.  But one thing I’ve found over years is that the teaching and research really augment each other, and it’s difficult to imagine doing one without the other.  So I’ve come up with ideas for courses often just by things I’m stumbling across as I’m doing research.  Or if there’s a particular idea that I find fascinating as I’m doing my research, that’s the kind of thing I might be interested in turning into a course.

What sorts of considerations do you make when you’re coming up with new courses or updating courses you’ve taught in the past?

One, what am I passionate about? What do I really want to talk with students about? Another consideration is, what haven’t I read that I really want to read?  Faculty have different opinions on this: some faculty really like to teach the texts that they know everything about; other faculty (like me, at least) had a whole list of books that we really wanted to read but never had the chance to read, and figured this would be a great opportunity.

Also, looking at where the gaps are in the curriculum.  What are my colleagues teaching?  How can I add to that without overlap?  And also, where’s the field headed? You know, I did an environment course my first year here because I thought literature and environment was something we needed more of.  Digital humanities is of course already very well covered here at Harvard with Jeffrey Schnapp, otherwise, that’s something I’d want to do as well.

So you take external factors into account as much as your own personal interests.

Of course we also have to think more practically.  So, one of the things that I think about is, what does the department need?  As teachers, we’re first and foremost responsible to the department: we answer to the department, and we really want to make the department’s curriculum as robust and diverse as possible.

Another concern for teaching is also quite practical: we have to support our graduate students.  So we don’t always have the luxury of teaching things that are immediately in our research field.  But rather, we need to think, “Well, what kind of courses are going to attract undergraduates?”  Sometimes these two interests blend perfectly, for instance, my “Literature and Medicine” course, but sometimes it’s a bit further afield.

For instance, last year I developed a course called “Shakespeare Shakes the Globe,” for the Gen Ed program.  What really excited me about the course were two things:  1) for me, it would be a great opportunity to delve more into the works of Shakespeare, which is very far outside my field of expertise, but which is something I’ve been interested in since college; and 2) to teach Shakespeare in a way that’s not really taught yet here at Harvard, and teach Shakespeare in a different way from my own perspective as a comparatist.  So it was really exciting for me to think of returning to something that had interested me quite a bit back in the day, and also to contribute to the Harvard curriculum by approaching it by this different means.  Of course, the third great benefit is that a course on Shakespeare likely would attract a substantial body of undergraduates—one hopes—and so this would be very important for providing employment for my graduate students.

Was that the thinking behind your professionalization course, “Professing Literature”?

When I was Director of Graduate Studies three years ago, I ran a professional development workshop, which I thought started to meet the needs of some of our graduate students.  When the then chair of the department, David Damrosch, and I were talking about what I might do as DGS again this year, one thing he suggested was, why don’t we make this a course?  Why don’t we add more sessions and really integrate what the students were learning and make it a course?

Because what has happened to the market, of course, in the last five, six years has been very troubling and disturbing to those of us on the faculty. We admit brilliant students and we train them and we watch as they do amazing work, amazing projects, and then they can’t get jobs at the end because the market is just not very healthy. So what can we do?

Well, I looked around at peer institutions and realized that a lot of places have professional development courses; other departments here at Harvard have professional development courses.  And so I thought, why don’t we do that here.

Then the question came up with Professor Damrosch: well, when should we have students do this? And we figured that the first year is really the best time—granted, no student is thinking about the market in their first year in graduate school, and for many it’s not that important, but it should be at the back of their minds.  How they choose their courses, how they position themselves as scholars—that really is something you should start to think about in your first year of graduate school.  And it doesn’t mean closing off doors at all; it just means being conscious of where one is going and how the different courses one is taking will fit into one’s graduate career as a whole.

What does the course cover?

We have various sessions on teaching, job preparation, the digital humanities (which is one of the fastest growing fields in the humanities).  We also have a session on public speaking and performance to teach students from their very first year in graduate school how to talk about their work.  Getting confidence in that area is so important: they can go to any conference, walk up to any superstar professor, introduce themselves, and when asked, “What are you working on?” they can give a really nice, coherent summary.  By the time they are on the market, it’ll just be so easy, it’ll be second nature—they won’t come across as the very nervous job candidate that we’re all familiar with.

I thought back to the various sessions we had had when I was running our professional development series three years ago and about other initiatives we had for graduate students such as Professor John Hamilton’s Poggioli Graduate Student Colloquium, and Professor Damrosch suggested blending the two together, which I thought was a very good idea.

We have a session on the dissertation: we call it ‘Demystifying the Dissertation,’ and we talk about how to go about formulating a topic and how to think about general exam fields in relation to their topic.  We’re trying to get graduate students to think about their graduate school experience as a holistic whole and about the pieces fitting very nicely with one another.  We’re helping students take advantage of the tremendous diversity of their own expertise.

We have a session on fellowship applications with Dr. Cynthia Verba from the Fellowships Office.  We have a session on non-academic careers with a representative from the Office of Career Services to talk to students about the other career options they have.  And I think for me, that’s really important for students to know because I don’t believe that everyone should go into academia.  It suits a particular personality, it suits a particular type of intellectual, but there are so many other things one can do, and I want to make our students comfortable talking about that with me and with other faculty. I think it’s a little outdated to assume that everyone’s going into academia.

Given all of these different aspects of teaching that you’re balancing, then, what is the best part about teaching?

Without a doubt, the students.

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