Students as Stakeholders
In any educational setting, people learn best when they are active partners in their development, engaging with materials and practices in meaningful ways. As educators, we cannot expect that knowledge or training can simply be conferred upon students. I have found guided discussions focused on the assigned materials, rather than lectures and slideshows, a more organic and fruitful means of achieving learning outcomes. Bringing the class into a conversation serves multiple ends. It lets students come to important historical questions and conclusions on their own, making them stakeholders in the class’s intellectual process. It can foster participation from reticent class members. And it gives me the opportunity to learn from my students.
Creating a classroom culture that encourages productive discussion requires both diligent commitment and an explicit structural framing. Making class participation a significant part of the grade is not always sufficient for engaging students; I need to provide them with both the means and the space to participate. In the past, I have established pathways for engagement by requiring students to post reading responses on the course Blackboard site prior to the start of class. Their postings do not need to be long, but they need to be substantive. This guarantees that students come into the classroom having at least thought about the material, and with something prepared to contribute. Some of the most productive classroom discussions have come out of these postings (one of my faculty observation reports speaks to this point).
After providing the means, I need to help create the intellectual and emotional space for open dialogue. Students have to believe that their contributions have merit, and that an admission of not understanding can be as generative as an analysis based on comprehension. To achieve this, I need to set the tone for the class culture at the start of the semester, both by working to bring all students into our conversations and by making sure that their contributions are valued. I have found that establishing a high standard for participation early in the course pays dividends in consistently robust discussions throughout the semester, where students feel comfortable both putting forth ideas and appropriately challenging each other’s thoughts.
Active and Kinetic Learning
To further engage students, I employ a range of active teaching techniques, such as jigsaws and student-led instruction. However, I also strongly believe in the value of physical movement and place-memory in teaching. My previous career as a volleyball coach taught me the value of involving multiple modalities of learning into single lessons; students learn, and remember, best when the process requires not only their mental attention, but also some degree of physical attention. In fine, muscle memory aids cognitive memory. I frequently require my students to move around the classroom, using whiteboards on opposing walls and shifting groups and locations within the learning space. This allows them to employ the classically medieval memory technique of using pathways of movement as mnemonic containers. They can assign specific pieces of learning to specific places within the classroom, which aids in retention and recall. This type of active, kinetic learning breaks up the static patterns and expected state of the classroom, keeping students’ interest while facilitating their learning.
Teaching as a Historian
As a teacher of history, I must begin with one basic truth: most students sitting in my classroom – even those who might major in history – are unlikely to become historians. However, throughout their lives they will repeatedly have to deal with the past. Historical narratives underpin the textures of current moments, lending authority to social movements and political arguments, informing perceptions of identity, belonging, and exclusion. None of us can escape our historicized present. Consequently, the most valuable thing that I can do is to for my students is to help them to understand, interrogate, and process the narrative historical claims that will confront them. Even if they will not be historians, they will be well-served if I can help them to think like historians.
Perhaps the most important step towards this goal is to teach them that history is, in fact, a narrative production. The majority of students come from high school with the perception of history as an established and definitive record — their history textbooks hold the same weight of absolute authority as their chemistry textbooks. From this perspective, the quality and value of history writing can be measured by assessing its degree of variance from an unbiased baseline of reported fact. Students are generally uncomfortable with the idea that historical truth might be perspectively contingent, and that historians constantly reassess and argue about the past. In working to move my students past this point, I have had success in using lessons that demonstrate the futility of trying to write a complete and unbiased history.
In one such lesson, I will ask a student to count to five out loud, while the rest of the class waits. I then lead a discussion about whether we could write a complete and unbiased history of our classroom in those five seconds. Once we begin considering the scope of the variables, by asking what different people noticed during the five seconds, what they were thinking about, and what types of things we did not notice, the impossibility of the exercise quickly becomes apparent. This type of activity, which upsets students’ comfort with the concept of history as a single, fixed, and knowable timeline, encourages them to question the motives and arguments of historical narratives in the world around them.
The Social and Disciplinary Value of Academic Teaching
This kind of pedagogical focus needs to be central to the work of academic historians. The teaching that we do is essential, both to the general public welfare and to the sustainability of our discipline. It is imperative that historians be a part of the public discourse, speaking to broad audiences as teachers. As professionals who study the past, our voices are needed in the civic square. If we do not speak out, others will say our parts for us; the recent incorporation of ahistorical European medievalisms into American white nationalist mythology should remind us of the important role that historians must play in helping to create and maintain an educated and historically conscious citizenry.
In this, academics must be educators for the long haul. Most learning in life happens outside of a university setting, and we should aim to educate on a longer timeline than a mere four years. We need to try to reach people across the whole course of their lives, and to reach them where they are. To do so, historians need to embrace the idea of outreach and public engagement as constituent parts of our scholarship. Digital humanities projects, more accessible academic writing, and personal participation at the local level are all ways that academic historians can expand the scope of their teaching to include a broader public.
Valuing the role of teaching in historical practice is not only socially necessary, but it is an emerging disciplinary necessity as well. We live in a moment where social and political actors are increasingly questioning the value of humanities programs in the curriculum. STEM fields are attracting more attention and more funding, both because of their easily obvious career streams into industry, and because their requisite skillsets appear comparatively clear-cut and measurable. To be remain viable in this marketplace of funding and resources, historians need to make a counter-argument for our own value. We cannot do this by remaining isolated, and by talking only to ourselves. We have moved past the time when humanities scholars could afford to remain professionally secluded. Teaching broadly, and helping to create a better educated, intellectually careful public is perhaps the single most effective way that historians can demonstrate our social, political, and economic worth.