I view the college classroom as a vital space for young adults to critically examine ideas about the world they live in with their peers, with whom they will essentially be building their future. In this space, I see myself as a facilitator, who helps students navigate new concepts and provides constructive feedback as they learn how to build logical arguments based on evidence and reasoning. I do that by offering material that challenges their preconceived notions, by asking questions that encourage them to apply new insights to their own lives, and by prodding them to ask discerning questions of their own.
As a humanities and social science scholar, I believe that college should be a place for students to explore abstract ideas and imagine different possible worlds in order to become well-rounded citizens and critical thinkers. At the same time, having worked in the corporate world for several years, I also see college as offering the most significant opportunity for students to gain broad experience by practicing essential skills needed in the workplace. I therefore see it as my responsibility to point out how the skills they are honing in my classes will be useful in their future endeavors. I emphasize standards that are useful beyond the academic world, such as communicating clearly, as well as being proactive, reliable, punctual, cordial, and respectful in everything students do.
I try to set the tone for a class in the first meeting, which I usually start by asking students to answer course-related questions as they introduce themselves to the class. In my immigration courses, for example, I always begin by asking about students’ familiarity with immigrants. In the last iteration of the U.S. through Foreign Eyes course, I asked students to write down their definition of the course title and then share it with the class during introductions. Then I asked the entire class several more detailed questions related to the course topic, for example:
- How do you learn about other countries?
- How do you think others learn about the United States?
- Does it matter what “foreigners” think? If so, why?
- What does “foreign eyes” mean?
- Have you ever experienced the U.S. “through foreign eyes”?
- What would you recommend for a “foreigner” to do if he or she had one week, two weeks, three weeks, etc. to get to know the United States?
- What non-U.S.-based news sources are you aware of/do you consult?
Responding to these questions empowers students because they share what they already know, but these questions also allow them to reflect on the relationship between themselves and the course topic, making it more personally meaningful. Students know from the first meeting on that their input is valued.
Since reading is essential for studying history and American Studies, I give students an incentive to digest content outside of the classroom by asking them to respond to questions about the readings by email or by giving online quizzes that are due the evening before the class meeting. This allows me to ascertain not only whether or not they read the assigned text, but also what parts they may have had trouble with. I then use this information during class when we discuss the readings in depth. My lectures provide context for the readings.
I am a firm believer in the benefits of collaborative work, but am sympathetic to students’ fear of being graded as a group. I therefore started using rotating roles for group work last spring semester. A group of 5 students, for example, will have three “hot roles,” where the students who have one of those roles for the week have to perform additional individual tasks that contribute to the group work but are graded separately. This seemed to alleviate the students’ concerns about grading and allowed them to relax while practicing how to work together.
Overall, I am always looking for ways of teaching the course material that will help students approach a constantly changing world long after they leave my classroom.
To my mind, graduate education is primarily about professionalization. In that context, I see myself as a guide who has fairly recently been through the process that graduate students are now undergoing. In addition to teaching historiography, my goal is therefore to help students plan their careers by taking advantage of a broad field of traditional and nontraditional opportunities. I concur, for example, with Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman, who suggested in the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History that public history should no longer be viewed as “Plan B.”
I would therefore encourage students to hone their skills in applying for fellowships and grants. Not only will that help them find funding outside of the regular job market, but it also teaches how to think through multiple aspects of a research project and how to address a non-specialist audience. I would require students to prepare literature reviews on a chosen topic because it teaches how to quickly prepare a new area of scholarship, which is an invaluable skill in a job market that is tight even for adjunct professors. I would also ask students to seek opportunities for presenting their research to academic as well as general audiences, which will expose them to additional ways of thinking beyond the world of academia. I would assign book reviews and encourage students to form writing groups with their peers, which will teach them how to navigate different styles of critique and how to solicit and provide useful feedback to colleagues. In order to introduce students to a variety of potential careers, I would invite guest speakers who are topic experts but have chosen career paths outside of academia. I would furthermore challenge students to work with non-academic communities and to explore public and digital history options for their research projects.