PhD Candidate Wins Teaching Award
Congratulations to Andrew Hamilton, a doctoral candidate in English literature who received one of two Department of English Graduate Student Teacher Excellence Awards for 2022-2023! He is working on the dissertation “‘All the World Was America’: Property and Racial Formation in Twentieth-Century American Fiction.”
Previously, Hamilton received Department of English Graduate Research Partnership Program support, which enabled him to travel to Princeton University and visit the Toni Morrison papers. “The experience of working in the archive was incredible on its own, but interacting with Morrison’s materials was especially gratifying and instructive,” says Hamilton. “You get to see an author developing her ideas in what feels like ‘real time’: the scribbled-out notes, the coffee stains on legal pads, the odd digression in the margin which you recognize as the beginning of a line from the finished novel. It’s exhilarating, and the experience gave me a whole new appreciation for her process and thinking.” Hamilton graciously answered our questions via email.
What do you enjoy most about teaching? How would you describe your teaching approach and practice?
My favorite thing about teaching is when students make connections between the course content and their own lives and interests, develop their own ideas, and participate in larger critical conversations. I would describe my teaching approach as creating conditions where students can explore, experiment, and construct knowledge for themselves. While I definitely provide some content-specific expertise (and am notorious for talking too much when I have promised “just a few brief comments”), I firmly believe that students learn best by grappling with difficult ideas and texts for themselves, and that they bring unique knowledge, experiences, and wisdom with them into the classroom. I try to find a balance between designing open-ended, inquiry-based learning activities and being mindful that students usually benefit from an appropriate amount of context and scaffolding.
I just finished watching season two of The Bear, and I was so inspired by the character Marcus’ experience in Copenhagen with Chef Luca. Luca is consistently clear about the outcomes and purpose of each task and provides a ton of immediate, actionable feedback on how Marcus can improve. Luca is also super calm—even as he is incredibly direct—and the environment is safe, peaceful, and stocked with all the resources necessary for each task. There’s an authentic, reciprocal relationality between the two of them, and even as it’s clear who is the student and who is the teacher, the space feels democratic and conversational. Also, Luca makes it clear that mistakes are not only okay, they are central to the process of learning. So, I think that’s how I would describe my approach to teaching: recreate the Cohenhagen pastry kitchen scenes from The Bear.
Who have been models for you in terms of teaching?
Associate Professor Dan Philippon has been a fantastic model of teaching best practices. I took his spring 2018 seminar “Ecocritical Food Studies,” and I was so impressed by the intentionality of his course design, how he invited students to co-create parts of the syllabus, and how he actively created space for reflection as part of our collective learning experience. Also, Senior Lecturer Eric Daigre is an outstanding model of what experiential learning might look like in higher ed. I often poach ideas from both of their syllabi when designing my own courses!
Please describe your dissertation topic.
I am interested in the relationship between property ownership and racial identity in American literature, in particular the novels of Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, and William Faulkner. In my dissertation, I explore how each of these authors demonstrates the centrality of property to racial identity in American history and how they provide alternative models of belonging that invite us to think beyond dominant ideas of private property and possessive individualism. I focus on Morrison, Silko, and Faulkner because their work collectively centers the relationship between land, identity, and the legacy of racism in American history, and because they demonstrate how settler colonialism, anti-Black racism, and white supremacy are deeply informed by liberal theories of property ownership. I am especially interested in how these authors engage John Locke’s theory of private property, and I use their representations of Lockean ideas like improvement and waste as my starting point to analyze the relationship between property ownership and racial formation in twentieth-century American history, culture, and literary production.
What classes and/or professors have nurtured the project?
The seed for the project was planted when Professor Qadri Ismail assigned Locke’s Second Treatise of Government to my cohort in his fall 2017 theory colloquium. I hadn’t read the Treatise in years at that point, and I had only ever considered it as a document of political theory, never as an inspiration for literary analysis. I became fascinated by Locke’s theory of property ownership and started hearing its echoes in the most unlikely of places, including Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, Tommy Orange’s There There, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Associate Professor Nate Mills’ seminars on African American literature in the Great Depression and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements were incredibly useful, as I started connecting the dots between anti-Black racism and liberal theories of property ownership; and Nate’s insightful feedback on the project and support as my dissertation advisor has been invaluable. Associate Professor Chris Pexa’s spring 2018 seminar “The Treaty Moment” was a major turning point in helping me think about Indigenous critiques of property ownership and understandings of land as kin, and Chris (now at Harvard University) has been instrumental for my project as well. Associate Professor Amit Yahav’s seminar “The Rise of the Public Sphere in the Eighteenth Century” was also enormously influential as a model of how to trace the progression of an idea across different historical moments and theoretical treatments.
What have you appreciated most about your studies here at the U?
I have appreciated being pushed by my professors and fellow graduate students to move beyond my self-imposed limits. While sometimes being pushed does not feel very good, I have appreciated how others have believed in me and encouraged me to go to the next level, even when I doubt my own capabilities. I am grateful for the amazing community of graduate students at the U, both in the English department and beyond—they have been incredibly supportive, and I have learned so much from the friends I have made here.