Office Hours: Teaching English Through Slave Narratives (Meredith Farmer)
Updated: Jul 7
Out of necessity, faculty have creatively transformed their classes since the pandemic began. In this series, West End Learning celebrates their efforts and shares best practices, lessons learned, and recommended resources that extend into the future of higher education.
Meredith Farmer (Wake Forest University)
Even before COVID, Wake Forest University’s Meredith Farmer, Assistant Teaching Professor of Core Literature, was challenging what a traditional English class looks like. By replacing traditional essay assignments with community and project-based learning, Meredith hopes to inspire her students to enjoy reading beyond their college years. The move to virtual classes last year gave her an opportunity to further reimagine how students can meaningfully engage with literary texts.
Meredith’s course, English 175: Hidden Town: Slave Narratives, National and Local, explores the themes of race and racial injustice in the local Winston-Salem, NC, community. Collaborating with Old Salem Museum & Gardens, Meredith’s students developed a virtual exhibit for middle-school students, Hidden Town, sharing the stories of slavery in Old Salem through previously unpublished archives. Supporting the work of the Old Salem Museum, Meredith saw a need to tell the stories of “the enslaved people who essentially built Old Salem and led to the thriving trade city that was Salem, and then Winston-Salem… there wouldn't even be a Wake Forest in the place where it is, were it not for that history.” Meredith saw it was “an essential story to tell, both for the community and for Wake Forest.”
Students in the class begin by reading authors including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and a few lesser-known people who were enslaved, to understand the genre. Meredith explains, “I want them to understand and be literate for thinking about slavery and writing about slavery. And then we do these cool projects in Special Collections where students are building a Collection Guide by writing about other lesser-known slave narratives that are from the Piedmont region.”
Meredith was impressed with how well college students considered how to present the information so that it would be absorbed by the middle schoolers. “They were like, okay, if you want them to pay attention, there has to be engagement. You can't just give them a video essay, because the new babysitting is having them check out on their iPads.”
For example, the students created the “Impossible Crossword,” an interactive part of the exhibit that tests a user’s understanding of the different lessons. Once a middle-school user goes through a lesson, they are taken back to the related crossword clue. They repeat the lesson if they are unable to fill in the correct answer. However, some hints for the crossword don’t have answers, and their corresponding spaces cannot be filled. Part of the lesson for middle-school students is to notice “all the stuff that's missing from the archive, and the ways that we don't have those answers, and we'll never have those answers.”
Overall, Meredith’s goals go far beyond teaching literature; she wants to inspire students to read and learn after their college years end. “There's a lot of students who really don't like their English classes and are just dreaming of having this English 175 class be the last one they ever have to take. I always think about, how do I make this a class that makes you want to read a book at some point again, for the rest of your life? How can I frame it in a way that someday you will pick up one other book, at least, and will think about this as an experience that made you not hate reading?” The course appeals to a variety of non-English majors due to the development of a published virtual exhibit. “I'm finding they work so much more when they're putting something into the world.”
She also took advantage of the new online format to encourage class participation. “Instead of all coming to class for 90 minutes, I would meet with small groups, (such as) a group of six for 30 minutes each. I actually found that even though they had less time in class, more students were more engaged, and they prepared more because they all knew they would be on the spot.”
Meeting in smaller online groups helped with discussion of sensitive topics. Holding online classes vs. masked in-person sessions allowed Meredith to see the students’ expressions fully. This was especially important when discussing sensitive racial issues. "Harriet Jacobs is about a woman desperately trying to avoid being legally raped. I don’t think I should ask students to discuss something so triggering if I can’t see anyone’s face."
Moving to project-based assignments has allowed Meredith to give students flexibility in how they engage with the assignments. Instead of assigning individual papers, Meredith assigns group projects, which help students expand their individual skill sets. For example, one computer science student has focused on programming instead of writing the research paper for his group project. “He's focused on building out the audio/ visual for the project, and he could not be happier about it. At the same time, he is still interpreting American Literature really powerfully.”
Though the quick change to online learning to accommodate COVID provided challenges, Meredith is happy with how her teaching style has evolved and expanded. She plans to continue many aspects of her online-only classes when they open up to hybrid and in-person environments. “The students were incredible, and it came together infinitely better than we thought that it would. That's great. We're thrilled.”
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