xSDPe02.jpg “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I found this gem, attributed to William Butler Yeats, on Brainyquote.com as a young student and instantly fell in love with it. Pithy, passionate, and apparently profound, it made its way into more than one essay I wrote over the years about how much I loved to learn. Undeniably, the great teachers I encountered as a child “lit a fire” in me, one which has blazed a trail through college and graduate school to my career today as a historian, educator, and lifelong lover of the life of the mind. It would be equally true to say that I found a few other classes along the way tedious and unexciting, filled with all the joy of heaving gravel into a bucket.

If asked, middle- or high-school-aged me would have confidently professed to know what separated the fire-lighting teachers from the mere bucket fillers: it was Passion with a capital P.  The great educators I had encountered over the years were great, I felt certain, because they were so passionate about their subject that it was contagious. Swept up in a tide of enthusiasm, their lucky students couldn’t help but learn as they sat, rapt with attention, in the classroom. If pressed to identify a second factor separating the pedagogic greats from the rest, I would probably have said something about the kind of assignments they gave. Like many of my peers, I had no patience for anything that felt like “busy work,” rote memorization, or repetitive data entry. Yet when I put myself in the place of a colonial Loyalist and gave a speech responding to Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give me Death,” wrote my own ending to one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, or became cast as a peasant in a classroom simulation of the French Revolution, the work was not laborious but a labor of love. By crafting assignments like these that allowed me to express myself as a creative individual, my favorite teachers not only made their material memorable; they made me hungry to learn more. Again, it all came back to passion: one kind of assignment seemed calculated to kill it, while the other allowed it to flourish.

Now that I am an academic and an educator myself, I have come to read this quote with a far more critical eye. For one, I am suspicious of the simple dichotomies and false equivalencies it seems to create. Although it may have appeared that way to me in middle school, content-rich pedagogy need not be boring and passionless. Moreover, denigrating the delivery of basic knowledge in education as mere “bucket filling” is unhelpful. Teaching facts, dates, equations, and concepts may not be as sexy as “training responsible citizens” or “inspiring passionate inquirers,” but it is just as vital to their success in the classroom and beyond. At risk of stretching a metaphor too far: there has to be some raw fuel in the bucket for you to light ablaze.

Secondly, my now-tarnished Brainyquotes gem of a phrase is an object lesson in the need to critically evaluate information and substantiate claims with evidence. A little research reveals that William Butler Yeats never wrote this famous, oft-quoted line. Perhaps a garbled saying of Plutarch, the phrase cited in dozens of books and speeches appears nowhere in the Irish poet’s works. Thus, my once-favorite quote also reminds me of the need to train students to be critical researchers, not only of historical documents but of all the myriad sources they encounter daily in this age of endless information.

One thing has not changed since my secondary school days: I am still passionate about history, and just as eager to share that passion with others. Lighting a fire in my students will always remain one of my foremost goals as an educator. Along with (1) modeling and encouraging passionate engagement with history, however, there are two other pillars to my mature philosophy of teaching: (2) laying a content-rich foundation of knowledge, and (3) preparing students to be responsible citizens as well as historians by focusing on critical research skills.

When it comes to creating the conditions for “fire-lighting” passion in the classroom, I have a two-pronged approach. First, I make sure to build my own particular passionate interests into the content of my lectures and assignments: classical music, fantasy and science fiction literature, poetry, and religious history to name a few. In this way, I can model the kind of thoughtful enthusiasm I would like to see in my students. Secondly, my course assignments are designed to provide students the opportunity to explore history through the lens of their own passionate interests. Rather than assign a specific text for student papers, for example, I ask them to find their own relevant primary source text to analyze. Not only does this build training in research methods into the assignment; it also allows the student to write about subjects that interest them. An education major might write about a collection of children’s stories, a theatre major about a play, a pre-med student could look at articles in a contemporary medical journal, and so on.

While each student will therefore explore areas of particular interest to them in more depth, my courses are also designed to provide a broad foundation of knowledge. For each course, students receive an extensive list of “key terms” (significant persons, events, and concepts) at the start of the semester. Furthermore, at the beginning of each lecture they receive a lecture outline with the key terms covered that day listed at the bottom. Designed to guide their studying and note-taking, these terms also feature in the final exam where they will be asked to identify three from a list of five. Finally, throughout the semester students will be given quizzes, each of which will ask them to define a key term from the previous lecture. This simple but comprehensive system, cross-referenced through quizzes and exams, serves as a scaffolding on which I build my lectures and on which students can build their own study guides.

Finally, I see the training my students to be good researchers and critical readers as foundational to my work as an educator. Not only are these skills essential to their success as historians; they are also just as essential to their success in being informed and responsible citizens. As such, I design the assignments in my courses to drill students in picking apart texts, placing them in context and using them to develop meaningful questions for further research. One way I do this is by having my students fill out “CAPSI sheets” on the primary sources they read: that is, worksheets that require them to identify the Context, Audience, Purpose, Speaker, and Importance of each document. Not only do students prepare themselves for in-class discussion and create notes they can use to study for the final exam, but they are also repeatedly practicing how to analyze a source. Secondly, I require students who are in introductory courses, or who are not yet ready to write a full-fledged research paper, to complete a sequence of two assignments: a “primary source analysis paper,” and a “secondary source analysis paper.” The first is a sort of CAPSI Sheet writ large, on a primary source of their own choosing. In the second, they are required to find a scholarly article from a peer-reviewed journal on a topic related to the primary source they analyzed in their first paper. Students then write a paper that identifies the author’s argument, what sources he or she uses, why his or her research is important, and raise a question generated by their analysis of the article. These assignments are meant to cumulatively train students not only to be historians, but to be critical and thoughtful readers of texts.

All these elements come together in the goals I set out for my courses, and the grading rubrics I use to measure student outcomes. I assess students in three different areas of increasing complexity: (1) historical knowledge, (2) historical thinking, and (3) historical skills. One can also think of these three areas as what historians know, how historians think, and what historians do.

Introductory courses will concentrate more heavily on Area 1 – that is, on learning information about the history of a particular time and place. Area 2 challenges students to ask certain questions about the information: why is it important? How do we discover this information through analyzing historical sources? What are the limits of these sources? More advanced courses will focus on Area 3, which requires students to use these questions to “do history:” conducting research with both primary and secondary sources.

1: Historical Knowledge ·         Ability to identify key figures, ideas, and events

·         Awareness of broad themes characterizing a particular historical era

·         Mastery of historical narrative, placing events in chronological sequence and drawing causal relationships between them

2: Historical Thinking ·         Ability to place primary sources in their historical context and identify their broader significance

·         Awareness of the ways in which contingency, individual beliefs and experiences, social values, and environment influence historical actors

·         Mastery of critical analysis of texts using contextual clues and outside historical knowledge

3: Historical Skills ·         Ability to construct an original argument about a historical subject supported by evidence, using primary and secondary sources

·         Awareness of existing historical scholarship and the analytical frameworks historians use

·         Mastery of creative engagement with history to produce new knowledge in conversation with other scholars


There are three different types of assignments in my courses, targeted at these different assessment areas: (1) in-class quizzes, (2) CAPSI reading responses, and (3) papers. In-class quizzes assess Area 1, Historical Knowledge; CAPSI reading responses assess Area 2, Historical Thinking; Papers assess Area 3, Historical Skills.

My final exams are also designed to target each of these three assessment areas. Part One asks you to identify key terms (a person, event, or concept) from a list of key terms covered in the course. Part Two requires students to fill out a CAPSI sheet for a short “mystery document” related to the course material. Using clues from the document and their own historical knowledge, they place the document in context and provide information about the document’s likely author, audience, and purpose, ultimately identifying its historical significance. Part Three  is a traditional long essay.

You can read student reviews of my teaching here.

Sample Syllabus: Nineteenth-Century Europe