Even when my students and I are analyzing a shared classroom text, we each approach it from our own “starting place.” I first heard the phrase “starting place” used in this way during a seminar with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan author, as he described approaches to teaching world literatures to undergraduates. Since then, I have aimed to recognize the diverse starting places that collide in a college classroom. This has resulted in a greater awareness, on my part, of the paths students travel on their way to, through, and beyond my classroom. This sense of diversity has informed not only my interactions with individual students as a mentor and instructor, but also the course readings and design.
In addition to literature classes, I have taught College Writing, a first-year composition course, over the course of five years. The small class sizes of fifteen students gave me the opportunity to notice when students were struggling with adjusting to university life, or having difficulty navigating university requirements and expectations. I have come to appreciate the ways that a “starting place” can impact a student’s ability to negotiate the conventions, expectations, and even policies of the university institution. Depending on her “starting place,” a student might not intuit the conventions of “academic prose,” or even what counts as a reputable source. As a result, I have liaised with offices like the Dean of Students, Disability Services, Learning and Writing Centers, and Residential Life to draw attention to the network of resources available for students. I understand that my classes are just one of many that students will take in their undergraduate careers, so I aim to build this network for the future as well. For example, when we discuss finding sources for research papers, I require that the class meets in the library. Students are introduced to the library and its resources directly, and in my experience, are more likely to return to the library in the future. We discuss the subject-specific guides that the library has, as well as librarians assigned to their specific disciplines. As students move through their degrees from their various starting points, they will nevertheless be equipped with a similar set of tools—an understanding of academic writing as well as university offices and resources, close-reading and analytical skills, and a larger academic community to which they belong—to transfer to their next course and beyond.
As a consequence of being cognizant of students’ starting places, I recognize the fullness of my students’ lives outside of the classroom as well. When I was a teaching assistant for legal studies with the responsibility of three fully enrolled discussion sections, I encouraged two parents to unofficially attend a different discussion section so that they could drop their children at daycare or school on time. When I taught World Literature at UMass, I similarly encouraged a mother to bring her 13-year old with her to class once; the mother was commuting from more than an hour away, and needed to take her daughter to a green card interview immediately after class ended. When possible, I work with students so that their education is not compromised as they juggle their responsibilities.
In addition to brick and mortar classrooms, I have also taught online; the differences in students’ preferred learning modalities is exacerbated when a course is structured as read-only lectures and responses in written forums and papers. These experiences have underscored the importance of universal design, and I have subsequently aimed to include lecture, digital media, online forums, in-class participation, and written responses to give students multiple ways of accessing information and demonstrating their mastery of it. This commitment to accessibility has led me to design courses with diversity—marked, and invisible—in mind as I choose readings and frame participation.
Students do not enter the classroom with the same experiences, skills, and knowledge; their starting places inform their responses to the texts we read, the other students in the classroom, and even their relationships to higher education in general. When I introduce fictional texts, we also discuss the “starting places” of the writers as well as the characters as a way of accessing conversations about diversity. My approach to teaching is to attend to the “starting places” of the students and texts that converge in my classroom.