Interview with Justine Van Meter

A Look Into Teaching

Image Source: KopyKitab

I recently interviewed, via email, Dr. Justine Van Meter, who teaches literature and English at Chapman University. I’ve had two classes with Dr. Van Meter and both of them were so much fun and made me think about not just myself, but worldwide and local cultures. The classes I’ve taken focused on approaching literature from cultural viewpoints and looking at the authors themselves. Because I’ve thought about teaching English and/or Creative Writing at the university level, I interviewed Dr. Van Meter on the matter of creating courses. 

How long does it usually take to design a course and do other people help with that?

“It’s unfortunately a solo project that often takes weeks, since there is the short-term aspect (the day-to-day) as well as the long-term objective (15 weeks). So there’s a lot to think about in terms of which assignments will work within an overall purpose for the course. From my own experience and colleagues’ communication with me about theirs I’d say that we all tend to “play” with the materials used, reading and writing assignments, etc. to get a sense of how a semester might go, which means that we’re tinkering for weeks until we get a syllabus that works on these many levels.”

How do you decide what parts of grading get more points than others (like how much a percentage participation gets and how much the percentage of papers gets)? 

“Everyone does this differently, but with my courses, I think a lot about the fact that I know students are so often trying to find out what I “expect” rather than thinking about creating a solid work that reflects their interests/arguments; in other words, I really hope to find a way to encourage students to rely on their own expectations of themselves rather than relying on working around me. Another way of saying this is that students have been trained to “work the system.” As part of my attempt to undermine this, earlier assignments are worth fewer points so that everyone has a better sense of what the expectations are in terms of the basics and can use comments/feedback on those as a guide for future assignments. The hope is that this approach gives students a chance to see that they have a lot of freedom when it comes to how they engage with a topic and materials, rather than being stuck in certain prompts that are determined by me. The later assignments are worth more so that there’s an ascent in the whole process as they become more comfortable with finding their own way, while also honing certain writing and critical thinking skills.” 

Do you have to usually alter courses at all each time you teach them (the differences the pandemic has forced everyone to make aside)?

“It really depends. I do typically alter a syllabus each time I teach a course that I’ve offered before, since each semester provides different feedback from both students and myself based on our experiences. So, I might find out that a certain text just didn’t work to really connect certain dots that I had hoped or an assignment needs more clarification to really support students in taking more ownership of their work, etc. Conversely, there are some courses wherein a novel is repeatedly resisted and that makes me keep that text in there since touching a collective nerve can result in really amazing results. With some classes, I keep everything the same because the materials, the pacing (or fluidity) of the weeks and how they culminate in a reinforcement of a certain theme I may want to focus on, works (for me, for them, for us both).”

Dr. Van Meter concluded the email interview by telling me it’s an extremely complicated process. As someone who enjoys creating, teaching, and designing methods of study for myself and others, I think I would like the challenge and am considering this career even more now.