As a historian, I spark my students’ passion for the study of the past by reframing their expectations of the discipline I love. I move them away from thinking about history as memorizing names, dates, and places, all of which must be duly regurgitated at exam time and then forgotten. As an educator, my philosophy is to serve as the facilitator of classroom discussion and guide student inquiry, rather than to act as the gatekeeper of definitive answers. This helps students see history for what it is—an argumentative discipline built on the rigorous analysis of available evidence.
In my teaching, I emphasize the notion of history-as-inquiry, encouraging students to think not only about what we know, but how and why we know it. This semester (Spring 2020), in my course World War I: The Colonial Experience, we began by reading calls from pre-eminent historians to re-conceptualize the wartime experience as an imperial event, a historiographical shift that has its roots in the late 1990s. Most of the material we’re reading in class is less than fifteen years old, and I have emphasized how even the questions that framed the course are new and reflect the evolving nature of the field of history, and colonial and postcolonial studies. I’ve also brought in some of the archival material I’ve collected so that students can interact with the types of sources historians employ in their articles. By letting them in on the way history is constructed, students are able to engage with the course in a more substantive way.
In both contemporary and historically-focused classes, I create packets of primary source documents for students to work with and analyze in small groups. These are particularly important when discussing societies, cultures, and religions that are not my own; for instance, as a gay white male, I am particularly sensitive about the way I conduct class discussions about Middle Eastern and Muslim women. By bringing in as many alternative perspectives as possible, students hear from voices other than my own, and I can avoid presenting one particular voice or viewpoint as authoritative. I emphasize that students do not have to agree with one another as long as they do so respectfully. (I managed to get through a semester with one of the Students for Justice in Palestine and the president of the campus chapter of Texans for Israel in the same class without incident.) Nor are they required to agree with my opinions. Instead, I want my students to be able to express themselves openly, without fear of reprisal, so that we can address understand other value systems or complex historical events.
I make an effort to incorporate different presentation styles in my teaching, and I am always looking for innovative methods of assessment beyond the essay, especially for general education and introductory surveys. Early in my teaching, several students—international students and non-Humanities majors—asked if I could occasionally give assignments that did not require as much in-depth writing. In response, I offered students a take-home midterm with two options: they could either write an essay in response to a prompt or create a “Fakebook” wall that recounted one of several historical events that we had studied as a series of “newsfeed” posts (such as the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the Iranian oil nationalization crisis of 1953, or the Suez Crisis of 1956). While many students chose the essay, the “Fakebook” results were brilliant, displaying in-depth engagement with course readings and impressive analytical rigor.
I want my students to leave my class at the end of the semester not only feeling as though they have a better handle on the content, but that they have a better comprehension of the discipline, and how knowledge about our past and present itself is formed.