Statement of Teaching Philosophy
I will never forget the day I asked my students what I thought was an easy question, and not a single one of them was able to answer it. I was working as a Teaching Assistant for a course on Europe since 1945, and the semester had just started. The course professor, Celia Applegate, had given me the opportunity to lead the discussion of that day’s assigned reading. It was a text I thought some students might have heard about: Winston Churchill’s 1947 address “The Sinews of Peace,” more commonly known as the “Iron Curtain Speech.” As the first of a series of comprehension-checking questions to start the lesson, I asked my “easy question:” who gave the speech they had read?
A stony silence descended. I tried to conceal my shock. Deeply suspicious at this point that no one had done the reading, I gritted my teeth and launched into what I feared would be a painful discussion of Churchill’s address. Instead, my students shocked me yet again. They had not only read the text, but had done so thoughtfully. They debated the effectiveness of its alternating tones of hope and warning. They discussed whether Churchill’s expressions of confidence in the nascent United Nations were naïve. They questioned whether the speech’s call for a “special relationship” between the US and Britain was a mere expression of fraternity and friendship, or a shrewdly sentimental plea for sympathy and aid after a devastating war.
I learned two invaluable lessons about teaching that day, which have shaped my pedagogical practices. First, I realized that even the brightest students required guidance on how to analyze a text like a historian. My second lesson, equally important, was that while students needed scaffolding to aid them in developing their skills in historical analysis, that scaffolding could also build upon their existing analytical “toolkits:” their unique perspectives, interests, and habits of mind. I have found this to be true of students from all backgrounds and skill levels. As Sam Wineburg observed in Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts, the past may be “a foreign country,” but it is not an alien planet. In every class I have taught, and every group of students I have encountered, someone has asked a question I would have never thought of asking; noticed something in a text that I entirely missed; or made fruitful connections between the subject at hand and other information that I did not know. Even if students’ analytical skills have not fully matured, they still possess a rich variety of experiences and an innate sense of curiosity.
Even the brightest student requires guidance on how to think like a historian.
My mature teaching philosophy, then, is simply this: integrating the delivery of course content with the inculcation of analytical skills; and providing opportunities for each student to explore history from the vantage point of their own interests, backgrounds, and abilities. Both of these pedagogical practices seek to create what Ken Bain has called a “natural critical learning environment:” one in which the critical habits of mind students learn are integrated with content and assignments that naturally pique their curiosity.
My courses use multiple approaches to fulfill these two pedagogical objectives. For training students how to read, think, and argue like a historian, I have developed what I call “CAPSI Sheets:” reading responses that ask students to identify the Context, Author and Audience, Purpose, Subject, and Importance of a primary text. These CAPSI Sheets, a form of “scaffolding,” have proven effective in introducing my students to historical thinking. This assignment is part of a wider commitment to prioritize primary source analysis in more courses, especially those at the introductory level. I also integrate activities or discussions about primary texts into my lectures, so that students regularly engage in active, rather than passive, learning. Additionally, in the first part of my midterms and final exams, I ask students to identify and discuss a “mystery document,” which we have read at some point in the course.
When I have introduced secondary source readings in upper-division courses, I have found that many students struggle to identify the thesis and key points out of what they often perceive as a sea of dense, dry information. One technique I have found useful in addressing this problem is requiring students to mark up the text, or a key page or two of the text, in a way that “makes their thinking visible:” underlining, highlighting, drawing arrows, brackets, notes in the margin, and so on. This practice, first developed by a group of researchers affiliated with Harvard University’s Project Zero, is also a topic of research at the Center for New Design in Thinking and Learning at Georgetown. The techniques developed through this research help students to not only engage in close reading, but to gain awareness of each step of their comprehension process – that is, “metacognition.” frustrated plodding thus transforms into a visual journey through the text, helping students identify key passages more readily. The technique is also creative and endlessly adaptable, allowing students to “make their thinking visible” in whatever way makes the most sense to them.
When it comes to building upon students’ unique interests, one of my favorite techniques for doing so is assigning an “objects in history paper.” Although deeply grounded in historical methods of analysis, this assignment draws on the insights of other disciplines, including anthropology, visual and cultural studies, and literary theory. It requires students to analyze the “life history” and continued significance of an object of their choosing. Students have responded to this prompt with creative and fascinating choices, from CDs and wristwatches to dentist chairs and disposable trash bags. Not only has this assignment helped students realize that the “texts” historians study can come in many forms; it has also lead them to appreciate how objects from everyday life can provide vital insights into the past. Reading these papers not only provides me the opportunity to learn about a wide variety of subjects; it also gives me a window into my students. I have used this information to incorporate related subjects into my lectures, and drawn on it as a way of entering into conversation with students who have been more reserved.
Even if students’ analytical skills have not fully matured, they still possess a rich variety of experiences and an innate sense of curiosity.
I also show respect and interest in my students by building a degree of flexibility into my assignments. I typically require students to turn in a certain number of reading responses over the course of the semester; however, I let students choose which of the many assigned readings they would like to write on and submit to me. In this way, they can avoid writing on texts they found difficult, seize the opportunity to write about those they found interesting, and time the due dates of their responses to fit their individual schedules. This strategy has not only helped to spread out my grading load, but also helped reduce the number of late assignments I have received.
In these and other ways, I seek to train my students in methods of historical analysis and invite them to pursue their own passions. This approach has evoked a positive from students, and made my own experiences in the classroom richer. By inviting students through analytical training to become historians in their own right, the dynamic of our relationship changes, and rather than playing the role of a “sage on a stage,” I am instead engaging junior colleagues in a shared effort to understand the past. By having students explore their passions, I have the privilege of witnessing their enthusiasm, and learning as much from them as they do from me.
Undergraduate Lecture Courses:
- Modern Europe
- Hitler’s Germany
- Modern Russia
- Nineteenth-Century Europe
- The World in the Twentieth Century
Undergraduate Seminar Courses:
- Women and Christianity
- Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust (coming soon)
- Nations and Nationalism in Europe (coming soon)
Graduate Seminar Courses:
- Readings in Modern German History
- From Western Civilization to Global and Transnational History (coming soon)