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Professor discovered affinity for literary analysis


February 2, 2017

David Sweeten

Editor's note: This is one in a series profiling local educators each week.

Eastern New Mexico University Assistant Professor of Early British Literature David Sweeten may lecture on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, but he makes sure his subjects can be used by his students.

"I don't want students to leave my class not able to apply what they've learned. I want them to understand that I'm not just teaching them about one text or one approach to writing," he said. "I'm teaching them how to approach writing or approach analysis in general, and so I want them to have kind of real fluency and proficiency in the use of those tools."

Sweeten, who is in his first year teaching at ENMU, received his bachelor's degree from Sam Houston State University, followed by a master's from Purdue University and a doctorate from Ohio State University.

What drew you to teaching early British literature?

When I started school, I thought I was going to go into computer programming or something. I started kind of late. I didn't start until I was in my mid-to-late 20s. I really thought that this was what I wanted to do, but then I started taking some of the core English classes. I discovered that I had a real strong acumen for it. I was good at literary analysis.

I really got interested in theoretical perspectives, and then I really began to be drawn to medieval texts in particular, looking at how romances that focus on heroic conventions that we're used to seeing - how they're really saying a a lot about what's going on in the culture and social structures of the time. At large, what really drew me was reading texts to discuss and evaluate the social and historical context that surrounds the text; what influenced it, and how those texts sort of push back on those things.

Describe a moment that reaffirmed your love of teaching.

One of the first times I taught at Purdue, for example: It was a composition class, and I think one of the greatest things I was able to do was be able to step back and let my students do the work. By that, I mean, generally speaking, I see my objective as an educator as to arm my students with the tools to conduct their own analysis, their own work.

I feel like learning by doing is a kind of important avenue. I had been guiding them toward elements of rhetorical analysis and ways to evaluate and ways to discuss, and we had a discussion responding to a video, and I was able to sit back and just kind of guide occasionally, but for the most part I had to almost say nothing for them to really themselves go in, break down the video, talk about what was going on, and then push back on this idea in a very civil kind of setting.

Describe the differences you've noticed between teaching at a large university such as Purdue and teaching at a small university such as ENMU.

The biggest difference, really, is differences in crowd anonymity. At Ohio State and Purdue both - Purdue's got over 40,000 students, Ohio State's got over 60,000. You kind of get lost in the sea there. There's just so much going on, there's so many people all the time, that it gets really hard to kind of keep up. Even in the English department itself, amongst the educators and instructors there, it's hard to keep up with what everybody's doing when you have a department that has 100 faculty. That's just incredible to try to do.

What's really great about Eastern, I think, is that it's a lot easier to make connections and maintain connections. This is only my first year, but I already have students that I'm seeing in multiple classes. I have students that I'm seeing even outside of classes that I know from previous classes on a much more regular basis. I can make and maintain those kinds of connections, which I think is very valuable. It's something I appreciated in my undergrad: Continued contact with faculty members, both in and out of the class, really shaped my approach to education, and my general demeanor.

How do you think teaching has helped make you a better person?

In some ways, it just gives me an audience to make bad jokes to, and occasionally they laugh. What it really helps with is I can bring people to understanding things that I really appreciate, and I think guiding people to that - both understanding and being able to engage with those elements, those texts, those ideas, those concepts - I think it helps me understand them better as well.

It's kind of like when you're studying martial arts. You reach a point where you really can't learn unless you're teaching, and there's something to that, where beginning to teach it makes me see texts differently.

For example, when I start teaching, it makes my own research better, because I'm forced not to make any assumptions. I'm forced to be certain we're covering things, and it makes me go back to kind of core elements and core understandings of things. It really kind of helps me understand and appreciate what we're doing in general, and also, it keeps me in touch with what people think and how people are advancing. I come across new kinds of trends and societal concepts through my students a lot; ideas that I would not otherwise encounter. There are things that are important and are changing across generations, so teaching also helps me kind of stay in contact with those, and then, by understanding that, it kind of helps me understand how to interact with new generations better.

- Compiled by Staff Writer Eamon Scarbrough


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