Transformative, fantastical power has always been embodied in writing and language, and it is in that spirit that I approach teaching. I have come to see writing as a kind of alchemical process, where we invent our transformative magic by combining disparate ingredients to create something that had not quite been expressed before. Today, I consider my highest goal as a teacher to be this: I want to encourage students to discover their own sense of the fantastic, to reimagine and perhaps recreate the world through its transformative power.
In my classroom, I ask students to bring their own interests to each conversation our class has. Whether this takes the form of public controversy, professional concerns, or even fantastical literature, I ask students to put as much of themselves and their interests as possible into our course of study. While I introduce ideas of my own and ask students to examine them in substantive and nuanced ways, I do this with the goal of students learning to engage their own areas of interest with the same critical eye. With rhetorical analysis assignments, I ask them to interrogate their assumptions, to build better questions, to examine the circumstances that give rise to texts or other messages and to look beyond the most obvious meanings. I ask them to consider the underlying goals of any text: What does the writer want the reader to think, feel, know, understand, believe, or do? Asking students to engage with questions of rhetoric lets them struggle with complex and ambiguous issues of motivation, purpose, and values. In research-based assignments, I ask students to investigate their own interests with real, practical questions. When a student demonstrates the ability to understand their own interests in a new way, it illustrates a greater understanding of how meaning has been made.
Magic and fantasy have been widely discussed but are perhaps still most popularly understood as little more than conventions of market-genred fiction. If fantasy is the capacity to see the world differently than it exists in a given moment, this might mean seeing elves and wizards, or it might mean seeing a world of increased access, greater social justice, or other very material transformations. I am perhaps most influenced by T. R. Johnson, who advocated for “a rhetoric of pleasure” where students are encouraged to take interest in their work, and by bell hooks, in that teaching can be both transgressive and transformative, but most importantly it must come from a genuine place of love. In the classroom, this means attending as much as possible to individual student needs, creating options for the students to bring their own interests to class, and fostering an atmosphere where they feel empowered to challenge expectations—to engage in the practice of enacting the fantastic, of understanding (as a former instructor of mine put it) both the word and the world, so that they may in turn reimagine both.
Like Bastian from The Neverending Story, I grew up with a lustful attachment to stories and fantastical worlds. This has often led me to view life through the lens of imagined possibility, of where the path into the woods might lead, of what might exist over rainbows and down rabbit holes. My central research interest is in rhetorics of the fantastic, and this informs what I have come to think of as “a pedagogy of possibility.” I have found that work which engages the student’s imagination, rather than work that caters to the instructor’s interests, leads to discovery, creation, transformation. As a teacher and academic, I seek to help others harness their own fantastical, transformative powers, much as I find that others continually enhance and challenge my own understanding of the world and of the very concept of “understanding.” If language has transformative power, then it is my goal as a writing instructor to help students to better harness that power within their own interests and for their own purposes.