My Teaching Philosophy

“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. PitxSDPe02.jpghy, 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.

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 Thus, my once-favorite quote also reminds me of the need to train students to be critical researchers, not only of historical documents but of all the myriad sources they encounter daily in this age of endless information.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 learning, 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 course material, 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.

My Teaching Experience

My pedagogical philosophy and methods have grown from my experiences as a student, but even more so as an educator. In courses at the University of Rochester and Vanderbilt University, I have given lectures on a variety of topics; written mid-term, final exam, and take-home essay questions; developed lesson plans; and led class discussions. In the classroom, I have been able to draw not only on my training as a German historian, but also from the teaching fields I completed on global and transnational history as well as Russian and Soviet history.

Although I find my research fulfilling and enjoyable, it was my dream of teaching college students that motivated me to pursue a graduate degree. Inspired by the incredible teachers and professors I have had, I have been writing down ideas for my own lectures, discussions, and class activities for years. Some of these ideas I have been able to put into practice as a Teaching Assistant. These include having students brainstorm what they would need to occupy, take over, and sustain control of their local city government, as a segueway into discussing the revolutions of 1989; placing Pope Pius XII on trial in the “court of history” for his response to Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, with students role-playing as defense and prosecution attorneys; and having small groups come up with different display objects and accompanying placards to include in a hypothetical museum exhibit about the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can read student evaluations of my teaching here.

My Course Design Methods

My invaluable teaching experiences have helped me develop tried-and-tested methods of engaging students which translate my pedagogical philosophy into practice.  For example, I have developed what I call the CAPSI system to teach students how to analyze primary source texts. This system grew out of an experience when, in their rush to digest its content, nearly my entire class neglected to notice who had written a political speech they were assigned to read.  I now require my students to fill out CAPSI Sheets: worksheets which briefly describe the historical Context, Audience, Purpose, Speaker, and Importance of a source. This system has been very effective in setting expectations for course preparation, as well as training undergraduates from a variety of backgrounds in the rudiments of historical thinking. I believe very strongly in having my students grapple with primary sources, not only because they provide direct windows onto the past, but also because students learn to think critically, empathetically, and creatively as they practice “picking apart” a text. I have come to see these abilities as essential not only in the history classroom, but in the exercise of responsible citizenship in the digital “Age of Information.”

CAPSI Sheets are a type of “scaffolding:” that is, they provide a supportive framework for students as they build their knowledge and skills. I incorporate scaffolding throughout my course design, not to coddle students or rigidly structure their thinking, but to ensure they have the tools they need to succeed regardless of their skill level. For example, 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 writing assignments: a Primary Source Paper and a Secondary Source 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.

This sequence of paper assignments also highlights another aspect of my course design: allowing students to help shape their assignments and pursue their own interests. My approach to teaching is student-centered: that is, I believe I have a responsibility as an educator to make my courses accessible to every student, and I believe my students have a responsibility to take an active rather than passive role in their learning experience by helping to structure it.Providing students the opportunity to explore history through the lens of their own passionate interests also helps create the conditions for “fire-lighting” passion in the classroom.

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 structure on which I build my lectures and on which students can build their own study guides.

How I Measure Student Outcomes

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


The assignments in my courses are targeted at these different assessment areas: (1) in-class quizzes, (2) CAPSI Sheets, and (3) papers. In-class quizzes assess Area 1, Historical Knowledge; CAPSI Sheets 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.

My Syllabi

Undergraduate Lecture Courses:

Undergraduate Seminar Courses:

  • Women and Christianity
  • Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust (coming soon)
  • Nations and Nationalism in Europe (coming soon)

Graduate Seminar Courses: