I want my students to imagine themselves as emerging scholars who can bring something new to an ever-evolving field of study.

Elena Machado Sáez

Professor Elena Machado Sáez, English, first experienced the power of critical thinking in a high school film studies class on the works of Alfred Hitchcock. The hidden meanings revealed by symbolism and camera perspective thrilled the teenager, who realized that she didn't have to be a passive consumer of art. With the right vocabulary and approach, she could draw her own connections and join the critical analysis.    

"It was exciting to be part of a conversation of interpretation," recalls Machado Sáez, who specializes in U.S. Latino/a and Caribbean diasporic literature. "A director uses different perspectives to get viewers to identify with certain characters. Authors do the same thing in literature."

Her interest in perspective grew in college, where she took a course on the writings of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Reading their works as side-by-side reactions to the same historical moments revealed the evolution of their personal experiences. Machado Sáez was hooked by comparison and contrast, as well as the turbulence of the 1960s, which later became the basis for her analyses of U.S. Latino/a literature of the era and beyond.

Now, as a professor, the first-generation college graduate frequently begins courses by introducing her students to the existence of critical debate behind books in the literary canon. Making students aware of these background discussions helps them understand why certain works appear — or don't appear — on required reading lists. It also helps them acquire the language used in the discipline so that they are equipped to understand, contribute and even challenge it.

In her course on multicultural American literature, the class reads a selection of articles by literary critics as well as two texts by each of three creative writers. "It's rare that students get to read more than one book by an author in a survey course. It lets them analyze both a shift and a continuum in the author's writing," says Machado Sáez. Empowered by the tools of academic discourse, the class develops into an intellectual community, moving past the plot to peel back the layers of nuanced, complex texts.

"I want my students to imagine themselves as emerging scholars who can bring something new to an ever-evolving field of study," she says. "The best part is that this skill is not confined to literature. Once the tools of interpretation are yours, you transform the way you perceive and engage with the world that surrounds you."

Posted Oct. 7, 2015