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. Given my training, my courses tend to be constructed historically and, especially with introductory courses, I spark my students’ passion for the study of the past by reframing their expectations.
Many are accustomed to thinking about history as names, dates, and places that must be memorized, regurgitated at exam time, and then forgotten. 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 helps students see history for what it is—an argumentative discipline built on the rigorous analysis and interpretation of available evidence.
The shift to online education necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to rethink how I engage with students, even in lecture courses. The current crisis forms part of the material for Plagues and Pandemics, a global studies class that I constructed in reverse chronological order so as to use the students’ own experiences with COVID-19 as a way to foster historical empathy.
The implementation of interactive reading annotation software has given me a better sense of what students have understood and what questions remain from reading assignments without having to spend class time gauging this. I have reduced the length of my lectures substantially, using meeting time for higher level application and assessment. Such activities have included document or image analysis in small groups, creating a “visual exhibit” of the COVID crisis, and live-chatting while screening documentary and archival films. I’ve incorporated some of the archival material that I’ve collected, so that students work with the types of sources that historians employ, in order to illustrate how “history is done.”
Bringing in primary sources and material reflecting diverse perspectives are particularly important when discussing societies, cultures, and religions that are not my own. For instance, as a gay white American male, I am particularly sensitive about the way I conduct class discussions about Middle Eastern and Muslim women.
Especially in a survey course, I want students to have access to other voices, in order to avoid presenting one particular voice or viewpoint as authoritative (including my own). I emphasize that students do not have to agree with one another as long as they do so respectfully—this semester’s discussions around COVID presented a plethora of opinions, as much be expected. Nor are they required to agree with my opinions.
I want my students to be able to express themselves freely, without fear of reprisal, so that we can address understand other value systems or the range of thoughts around complex historical events.
I also make an effort to develop methods of assessment beyond the essay, especially for general education and introductory surveys that frequently include international students and students with majors that do not involve intensive writing. While some students do chose to write essays, I have encountered equally brilliant results with alternative assignments that demonstrate in-depth engagement with course readings and impressive analytical rigor.
Some of my students will never take another history class; I want them to end the semester feeling not only that they understand the course content, but, given the current political environment that disdains the humanities and higher education in general, that they understand how knowledge about our past and present itself is formed and why it remains important.