The ink was barely dry on Dr. Sara Grewal’s Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin when she signed up to spend a summer training with Teach For America. The program, which aims to bridge the gap between high-income and low-income schools, prepares high-achieving university grads to teach in the lowest performing school districts in the U.S.
For two years between finishing her BA and beginning a PhD in comparative literature, the now assistant professor of English taught Grade 7 language arts at a middle school in South Side Chicago. The experience, she says, formed many of the threads that continue to wind their way through her teaching philosophy.
“When you’re in your students’ homes, you see just how much is going on in their lives and how that has an impact on their learning,” says Dr. Grewal. “One student might not have a jacket; another doesn’t get to eat breakfast. I learned the importance of encouraging my students to be open about the challenges they face, making them feel comfortable coming to me with those challenges and finding ways to deal with them.”
We talked to Dr. Grewal about how her early teaching experience helped shape her as an educator, her passion for language and literature, and what motivates her.
MacEwan University’s Distinguished Teaching Awards recognize outstanding faculty members who have shown extraordinary commitment to teaching and have inspired their students and colleagues. Watch for the 2021 award winners' profiles throughout July and August: Dr. Sara Grewal (assistant professor, English), Dr. Cam Macdonell (associate professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science), Eaman Mah (instructor, English as an Additional Language) and Allan Wesley (assistant professor, Decision Sciences).
Q. How does your experience as a middle school teacher influence you today?
Because university students are adults, there’s a tendency to think that they should be able to stay on top of everything, but even adults need help. I believe that students are motivated and that they care, so I take responsibility for everything that happens in my classroom. If students aren’t turning in the work, I don’t think that it’s always just their fault; it’s also my responsibility. If students are struggling, it’s usually because something is holding them back, and it’s my job to figure out what that is.
Q. Why were you attracted to studying language and literature?
I grew up in a very literary household. Before I could speak, my parents were reading William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson to me. Those were my lullabies.
I’ve always loved reading and literature, but when I started university, I went into the sciences because I felt that's what my parents expected of me, and because, like a lot of undergrads today, I thought it would lead to a more concrete career path. In my science classes, I could master the material and spit it back out, but it didn’t excite me. It was my literature courses that changed my view of the world and helped me understand who I was in the broad scheme of things.
Around the same time that I began thinking about a degree in English, I started studying Urdu – a language both of my parents speak, but that I never learned when I was growing up. I had been studying Urdu for about two years when a friend dared me to take an Urdu literature class. Being able to access literature in a language that belonged to my family blew my mind. I was already thinking about doing a PhD in comparative literature, so I focused my research on Urdu literature and the politics of translation.
Q. What motivates you as a teacher?
Not everyone is the kind of person who can be out at a protest every weekend, but I believe that every class period is an opportunity to have a small, quiet revolution. I think that is why I got into teaching – because I wanted to do something that was contributing to society.
In my classes, I am always asking my students what a particular text is not telling us. What’s being left out? Where is the spin? Why is an author using a particular word? For example, when they describe an event as a riot rather than an uprising, what does that choice mean? Studying literature is about reading novels and poems, but the close-reading skills that we learn from doing so should be applied in every single text we encounter – from commercials to news stories to social media posts.
I teach two sections of English 102 every semester and I focus that class around hip hop and gangsta rap, which is also one of my research subfields. We talk about the genre’s reputation for being vulgar, violent or misogynistic. And we keep coming back to example songs throughout the term. As we pick apart those stereotypes, we can really see the relevance of what we are studying – that often a song that appears to be violent is actually a critique of violence.
I love the moment when I see the light bulb come on and students come to their own conclusions. It’s a gift I regularly receive from our English majors.
Q. Do you have a favourite class to teach?
I love our literature classes in the English department, but I don’t know if I can pick a favourite. It’s the particular mix of students and the magic that happens in the classroom – the energy you can feel when everyone's really vibing – that I really love.
In a super dense (and arguably boring) 400-level seminar I taught called Lyric Theory, I saw the personalities in the class come together as a community in an amazing way. One student totally tricked me. She wrote a brilliant analysis of a poem and at the end basically said, “Just kidding. That wasn’t a poem, it was a list of the first 25 book titles on my shelf.” Then she “unread” the poem, using an argument from one of the texts we had studied to explain that applying a certain reading practice makes us think of words strung together in a particular way as a poem. This is just one example of how she and the other students in that class were invested in the materials far beyond what I ever could have hoped for.
Q. What does this award mean to you?
I’m always telling my own children that whatever you put out there is what you get back. If you put out goodness, you get back goodness. If you put out grumpiness, you get back grumpiness. To me, this award is confirmation that what I've been putting out is meaningful and good and important. My students are the ones in the trenches with me, who see me and know what I’m doing. For them to nominate me for this award is the greatest gift that any instructor can receive.
Announcing the 2021 Distinguished Teaching Award recipients
University recognizes inspiring faculty members for their dedication to teaching.
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