Monday, December 06, 2004


Notes for a Philosophy of Teaching

As the semester draws to a close, here are some ideas I've been waving in the general direction of a personal teaching philosophy.

1. My goal as a teacher of history is not just to provide information, but to model inquisitiveness about the past. This is an important distinction to make, because it is impossible to cover all the material on any subject during a semester. I do want my students to walk away from my classes with knowledge that they did not have before. But I've failed as a teacher if they leave my class with a dead mass of knowledge that will never grow. I have succeeded only if they walk away with the desire to know more. I aim to teach my students how to keep asking questions, how to keep posing provisional answers, and then how to raise questions again, long after a particular semester has ended. In short, I believe successful teaching has a more powerful effect on the character of a mind than on its content.

2. This philosophy about teaching grows directly out of my philosophy about history. I believe that the semester is an inherently limited container of historical knowledge, for the same reason that I believe there is no container of history -- an article, a book, an encyclopedia, a memorial -- that is ever big enough. The past's complexity also constantly spills over the categories into which we try to confine it -- class, gender, race, nation, economics, politics, culture. History is an ongoing argument about a constantly proliferating subject. The case is never closed. On a practical level, this means that I prefer to structure syllabi around the discussion of primary sources. As an historian, I don't want students to sit at my feet; I want them to see what it is like to sit in my seat.

3. I also prefer to use very recent examples of historical practice, because students engage most eagerly with scholarly readings that explicitly address one another. For example, in a course I recently taught on the history of American activists abroad, I assigned an essay on transnational history by David Thelen, along with an essay by David Hollinger that directly criticized Thelen's article. During another week, I assigned an op-ed by Richard Rorty on patriotism, a direct response to Rorty by Martha Nussbaum, and then a direct response to Nussbaum by Kwame Anthony Appiah. This kind of active reading encouraged my students to enter the debates themselves. Once they turned to Hollinger, they knew enough about Thelen to believe that they too could participate in the arguments at hand. By reading both the critic and the criticized, they were naturally forced to become critics themselves and to articulate their own critique, whether in defense of one author, both, or neither.

4. By reading historians in conversation with one another, students also learn a valuable lesson about history itself. If I assign only one piece of historical scholarship, it misleads students to believe that this piece is authoritative. But when I assign several pieces of scholarship whose authors are in dialogue with each other, they learn to see one text in the context of others. My goal is ultimately to help them approach the primal stuff of history in the same way -- to think of individual texts or artifacts from the past as parts of a larger whole. Understanding them requires shuttling back and forth from the particular to the general, realizing that to stop at either pole would be to risk misunderstanding.

5. For instance, in a course on abolitionists, I would assign not just the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), but also Douglass's later autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Understanding why the texts are different requires seeing each one in the context of the other: What were the circumstances under which each book was produced? Why would Douglass want to write a separate book, after the spectacular success of the first? Why are the introductions to each book written by different abolitionists -- in the first case, by white reformer William Lloyd Garrison, and in the second case, by the African American doctor James McCune Smith? And how should those questions be placed in the larger contexts of the antislavery movement and Douglass's life? History is an ongoing argument precisely because these interpretive processes must always keep going. I've succeeded as a history teacher if students learn this.

6. Learning this -- that historical judgments are seldom settled -- can be unsettling for students. Part of being a successful teacher is thus to model how to be okay with that. It is much like teaching someone how to ride a bicycle -- you'll never learn how to ride until you accept that the imbalance which feels so precarious is the right feeling to have. It may be hard to convince some students that this is better than just being told who, what, when, where, and why. But simply giving pat answers to those questions is like letting them continue to use training wheels. It simply delays the inevitable realization that asking complicated questions with complicated answers is part of what it means to be a human being. In fact, that is the ultimate lesson my students can learn about history: that its agents --including themselves -- will always be trying to figure out where they came from and why that matters. My philosophy of teaching is to raise those kinds of questions, with respect both for the questions and for the questioners, and in such a way that students will keep raising them after they walk through the door.

Collective Improvisation:

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