Students as Stakeholders
In any educational setting, people learn best when they are active partners in their own 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.
Making class participation a significant part of the grade is not always sufficient for engaging students, Creating a classroom culture that encourages productive discussion requires both diligent commitment and an explicit structural framing. 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 requirement helps to ensure that students come into the classroom with something prepared to contribute, having thought about the material beforehand. It also gives me a chance to see how my students have approached a reading, letting me prepare lessons around their questions, critiques, and needs. 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 and reception 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 student-led instruction, small-group work, and jigsaws, and I regularly introduce emerging technological tools, such as Padlet or Panopto, to help facilitate collaborative and flexible learning. However, I also strongly believe in the value of physical movement and place-memory in teaching. My earlier career as a volleyball coach taught me the value of presenting singular concepts by means of multiple learning modalities; students’ learning and knowledge retention is maximized when they apply not only mental attention, but also some degree of physical attention. 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 assign specific pieces of learning to specific places within the classroom, which aids in retention and recall. These types of kinetic learning activities break up static patterns of classroom behavior and expectation, keeping students’ interest while facilitating their learning.
I have recently won funding to teach a class in the fall of 2018 that follows from these principals. The course examines walking in literary and historical contexts, and we hold every third class discussions in motion, while walking on the track or around the campus. I hope to encourage students to think about the world around them through the combined lenses of their own walking and the assigned texts, linking physical motion to mental exertion through structurally integrated kinetic practice. I believe that helping students to draw these connections will serve them well throughout their college careers and beyond. My proposal for the class, outlining in detail my philosophy about the connections between movement and learning, is here. You may find more detailed information about the class, including the syllabus, here.
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 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 for them as their chemistry textbooks. Students are generally uncomfortable with the idea that historical truth might be perspectively contingent, or that historians constantly reassess and argue about the past rather than merely reporting it like court stenographers. In working to move my students past this point, I have had success in using lessons that demonstrate the futility of trying to write the type of complete and unbiased work that students often want to demand from historians.
In one such lesson, I will ask a student to count out loud to five, while the rest of the class waits. I then lead a discussion about whether we could write a bias-neutral and complete 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 critically 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 must embrace the idea of outreach and public engagement as constituent parts of scholarship. Digital humanities projects, more accessible academic writing in both professional and popular forums, and personal participation in activities at the local level all offer avenues through which academic historians can consciously 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. Both because of their easily obvious career streams into industry, and because their requisite skillsets appear comparatively clear-cut and measurable, STEM fields attract increasingly more attention, funding, and students. To 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 and intellectually careful public is perhaps the single most effective way that historians can demonstrate our social, political, and economic worth.