We learn by doing. This forms the basis of my entire teaching philosophy. Therefore, students should begin practicing how to organize and analyze information, come to reasonable conclusions, and express their opinions with supporting evidence. Such skills are valuable in every occupation, but they are as fundamental to the historical profession as dribbling is to basketball. I believe that the best way for students to develop their talents is to write essays, take essay tests, and complete short—answer quizzes. These, ideally, force students to do something that they are rarely allowed to do in their daily lives: contemplate complex and ambiguous topics in solitude. I want my students to make value judgements, which is why I ask them questions like “Was WWII really ‘The Good War?” and give them free rein to interpret and answer the question as they see fit. Most students step up to the challenge and appreciate my treating them as budding young scholars.
Or as one student wrote: “By asking one question only [on a test] you can stretch the answer so far back and so far forward that you get the entire world history...it was challenging for me which was exactly what I needed." Even though I have experimented with other activities (role-playing, small group discussions, formal debates between students, etc), these assignments yielded the greatest results in terms of my students’ intellectual development. But I am not only interested in their intellects. I believe that history can help with students‘ emotional maturation as well. When I began teaching in the Peace Corps, I was forced to find a way to help students connect to course material far removed from the small Ukrainian city of Drohobych.
But I learned that if I focused on the human element they were more willing to learn about the impersonal aspects of history, One day l was trying to explain the importance of the Atlantic slave trade; they were not interested. Then I asked whether any of them smoked. At first none of them admitted to smoking but after I called them on it, one young lady sheepishly handed me her pack of Winston»Salem cigarettes. That was the hook that enabled me to make a connection between the work of slaves and their own lives. The lesson stuck with me and I continue to help my students connect emotionally to their reading material. That may mean I show a Saturday Night Live sketch about Ronald Reagan to explain the Iran Contra Affair or hold a class discussion over an oil painting from 17005 that focuses on changing notions of masculinity. Doing this led me to view lecturing as a type of performance. This is critically important as I do not shy away from discussing horror, injustice, or tragedy.
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I try to balance this with humor where appropriate, but I want students to learn about the breadth of human experience. They are adults and I treat all of them as such to build a rapport with as many students as possible so that they will be more amenable to my critiques and criticisms. Because I place so much emphasis on writing, I feel it incumbent upon myself to provide each with personalized and detailed feedback. Some of this is done with written comments on their papers and some in person during mandatory office hour visits. My style of teaching does not work if I fail to provide students with insight into their intellectual strengths or weaknesses and give them advice on how to think more analytically.
If a student struggles and is willing to work, then I give them all the time I can spare. As a lecturer at a public institution, I have had many students who had never written an essay or were non-traditional students who had not stepped foot in a classroom for fifteen years. I have also had students who transferred to West Point and one who was accepted into a graduate program at Cambridge University. Each student has individual needs that I can only begin to address if I can understand their thinking. That is why I stress writing. That is why it forms the core of my teaching.
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