As a history instructor, I have three main objectives. First, I strive to enable and empower my students to think critically about the world around them. In the classroom, I use the study of history as a vehicle to encourage my students to form and voice their opinions, to clarify their ideas, and to communicate effectively in both oral and written forms. I stress the importance of making the connections between past and present more clear, to build their confidence and communication skills, and to demonstrate the ways in which students can use their historical knowledge and understanding to help them think critically about the present.
Next, I challenge my students’ perspectives and expand their worldview. Through both lecture and discussion, I endeavor to challenge their predetermined understandings of history, and to demonstrate the contingency inherent in history. This requires direct engagement with primary sources, contextualized with lecture and classroom discussion. I assign sources that specifically engage with each other or present varying viewpoints, while also assigning sources written by authors who can provide a wide range of perspectives on historical issues, showcasing the racial, gendered, class, regional, ethnic, and religious diversity in history. Ultimately, my goal is for students to understand that history is not an array of facts for memorization, but a process of understanding that changes depending on the perspective of the sources scholars use to analyze that historical moment.
Finally, I aim to instill in my students an appreciation—and more importantly, a passion—for the study of history. I encourage them to see the world around them as a result of historical events, actors, and forces, and in turn, to view themselves as powerful agents of historical change. I push them to see that history is as much an intellectual as a creative enterprise. I strive to make history relevant to their lives, and thus urge them to engage in the past in a critical, analytical, and empathetic manner. Even for students who are not history or public history majors, I seek to pique each student’s interest in the field and convert them to the study of history.
I have a number of general principles that I apply to structuring and executing a course every semester, regardless of the subject matter or the level of students in each class. Above all, I strive to have a student-centered classroom, focused around their needs, addressing their particular challenges (which vary from group to group), and centering discussion around their interpretation and interests. I seek to create a supportive learning environment for each of my students. I aim to get to know them both as people and as learners. Regardless of the size of my classes, I make a point to learn each of their names as early in the semester as possible, so that they know I am deeply invested in their success. I provide them with the necessary resources to give them the tools for success.
I foster a welcoming classroom community in which students feel comfortable to participate and in which I enthusiastically encourage them to voice their opinions. In trying to ensure that all students have an equal voice in class discussion, I often employ small breakout group discussion prior to having students talk about the readings with the whole class. I find this boosts students’ confidence and provides a more approachable space for those who tend to be more anxious and shy about speaking up during class.
Students in every one of my classes spend time reading and discussing primary source materials. I encourage them to dig deep into the source material, to investigate the biases of each source, and to translate those skills into observing and understanding the world around them. More recently, I have been assigning videos, news articles, Op-Eds, and other long-form journalism which has the effect of making the past seem more approachable and more relevant to their lives. Additionally, I seek to employ active learning strategies and project-based learning components in my courses wherever possible.
My public history curriculum includes a wide range of professional development activity as well. This includes field trips, guest speakers who work in a variety of public history fields, practicum work such as conducting oral histories in local retirement communities, and using digital tools in a hands-on environment in the computer lab. In my upper-level courses, I challenge students with difficult, but engaging reading materials, and I center both primary sources and historiographical conversation in the classroom.
I strive to make my courses well-organized, consistent, and accessible. I make available PowerPoints, discussion questions, and all assignments available on the LMS over the course of the semester to maximize students’ access to the course content and work. I am an advocate of free and open-access reading materials for my courses; my survey students use only freely accessible online materials, and I do not assign materials for my upper-level students that would cost them more than $50 (encouraging eBook rentals, for example, to mitigate costs of required books).
I am constantly trying to improve upon all elements of my classroom teaching, from lecture topics to reading assignments to accessibility. After each class session, I make brief notes for myself on what worked during that lesson, what did not, and how it might be improved for future semesters. Although course evaluations can often provide contradictory and problematic feedback, I read through all of these materials carefully after each semester, and take to heart students’ critical suggestions. In a number of cases, I have altered my lesson plans for future coursework, including shortening lectures and covering particular topics that students wished we had discussed. In the future, I plan to continue this regular self-reflection on my pedagogical techniques, which I expect to evolve over the course of my career as the needs of my students change.
My experience in the classroom has, for the most part, taught me that if you set a certain standard of expectations, most students will meet these expectations. Over time, I have become more trusting of my students to put in the work I ask them to do, and in turn, I seek to provide them with any guidance and assistance they might need in navigating that work. Above all, during my five years of teaching experience, I am proud of the ways in which I have grown more patient, flexible, and understanding while maintaining high expectations for student work and engagement, and I hope to continue to grow in this way as an educator.