A literature professor’s odyssey in higher ed, from Scotland to Kansas City

stephen-dilks
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Stephen Dilks has to get creative to teach the required readings in his University of Missouri–Kansas City courses.

As a scholar and longtime professor of English and Irish literature, Dr. Dilks’ syllabus includes some of the most challenging books produced in the English language. To keep his students from getting intimidated, he’ll use Google Maps to teach James Joyce’s Ulysses and assign essays about rock band lyrics for a modern literature class.

“I treat my class as a social event,” said Dr. Dilks, who joined UMKC in 1997. “My job as a teacher is to engage with every single student in the room.”

The veteran educator was one of 52 UMKC faculty members who took ACUE’s pilot Course on Effective Teaching Practices. UMKC is one of 11 institutions across the country that participated in ACUE’s fall pilot, which consisted of six, one-hour-long modules on techniques, knowledge and skills that can improve instructional techniques.

Dr. Dilks, 55, said his favorite part of the pilot was the ability to meet UMKC faculty members from other disciplines and departments who were also taking the course. Eventually, he said, the course spawned a separate email thread and they continued having discussions about their different pedagogical practices.

“It was really good for that kind of community-building and getting to know other teachers across the campus and their approaches to teaching,” Dilks said.

Dr. Dilks has had an eclectic teaching career in higher education that began at the University of Stirling in Scotland and included stints at Rutgers University and in North Dakota before landing at UMKC. Now an instructional leader in the university’s Department of English Language and Literature, Dr. Dilks says his career arch has been unusual.

In an area where instructional practice historically gets short shrift, “I was actually taught how to teach,” he said.

When he started out as a professor of composition, he recalled that aspiring toward high levels of student engagement were seen as unrealistic.

“If you had 25 students in your class and you got 12, then you were doing well,” he said.

Dr. Dilks said that a lot has changed in the decades since, especially since he joined UMKC in 1997. He said the university is known for recognizing the faculty’s instructional role (Dilks himself won the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2013).

This year, Dr. Dilks has 35 students in a British literature class that spans from 1790 to the present. One student didn’t become interested until he and Professor Dilks began exchanging links to songs and music videos over email. Now, the student is writing essays connecting lyrics from British rock bands (one example: New Order) to postmodern literature in the same era.

For Ulysses, Dr. Dilks said he strives to make sense of the literary novel by making it relevant. Instead of summoning back to Homer’s The Odyssey, the epic Greek poem that inspired Joyce, Dr. Dilks instead has his class recreate Joyce’s Dublin scenes using Google Maps “to really make connections with the text.”

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