My philosophy of teaching is an informally concocted, complex (even, at times, contradictory), and ever-evolving web of concepts, ideas, and practices shaped both by my own instructors at every level and ongoing and intensive reflection on more than twelve years worth of college teaching experience of my own.
I have been affiliated with institutions that have varied dramatically in size and scope, both public and private, and that have been steered by a range of mandates within their respective communities and regions. I have taught graduate school-bound history majors in upper level seminars and senior colloquia and I have taught general education history, English, and humanities courses, often among populations of students for whom development of basic literacy and communication skills outweighed any need to explore the finer points of the Progressive Era or New Deal. Similarly, I have taught courses in formats ranging from the conventional face-to-face lecture and seminar to fully online and hybrid courses supported by WebCT, Blackboard, Canvas, and a range of smaller, proprietary learning tools. I have experience developing and presenting a broad range of courses on my own, developing curricula and team teaching, as well as operating as a more conventional teaching assistant. Additionally, I have worked collaboratively with colleagues in my subfield of environmental history to apply conceptual themes relating to space, time, resources, and landscapes to re-evaluating academic spaces and practices and considering (and experimenting with) pedagogical innovations that could contribute to the discipline. While I certainly believe in challenging the conventions of the academic landscape—the fifty minute lecture, the hall, the podium, the seminar table—I recognize, too, that most who gravitate to this profession do so because something within those conventions spoke to them. Thus, while I am a proponent of the accessibility and flexibility provided by online and distance education technologies, I am also dedicated to making the most effective use of those conventions as I can.
Additionally, I am the product of a small liberal arts college, where the lessons of the classroom, despite some extraordinary instruction, paled by comparison to the experience of living and interacting within a community of intellectual activity. As such I am a staunch proponent of using technological tools to create virtual spaces for discussion and advising outside of the classroom, and of meeting with students individually and in small groups as frequently as possible to promote and facilitate intellectual development both as it pertains to my discipline and beyond. Faculty, I believe, have a critical role to play in fostering a robust and vibrant campus community replete with lectures, debates, film screenings, and academic and social clubs and activities. While a small number of my students may one day choose to become historians, all of my students will become citizens, employees, colleagues and friends—and the lessons learned, both by example and by instruction, from a college or university community will play a large part in shaping their approaches to these roles. If we are to promote among young people a commitment to a lifetime of learning and civic engagement, the most important lesson therein is that learning transcends the classroom, and thus so must any philosophy of teaching.
In the classroom itself I am a proponent of the notion that one must entertain in order to inform. The current generation of “digital natives” live in a world in which many things compete for their attention. An effective educator must be able to compete. To my mind this begins very simply with being transparently passionate about my subject, speaking with enthusiasm as well as clarity, and frequently altering my position in the room, the volume of my voice, and directing the audience’s attention continually from me, to a board, to a screen, to a map, to any of a variety of resources I may have incorporated into the experience. Equally as important is demonstrating at every opportunity the relevance and presence of history all around us. While I warn students about the problems of making hard and fast comparisons between past and present, I build my lessons around themes such that students can appreciate that history is an ever-evolving process and not the static recitation of facts and dates that they so often assume. My students consume lectures and discussions that are rooted in the news, popular culture, and regional concerns of their own time and place—enabling them to see that history is a function of perspective, and that that perspective changes to incorporate new realities with each passing day. While themes and details may be reused from one semester to the next, I am a firm believer that a lecture has no shelf life. It is only relevant—and thus only effective—once. This, I believe, encourages non-history majors to think historically and critically about the world around them, and it lays the foundation for history majors and future graduate students to begin to understand historiography. History at its most basic level is a study of change over time. To my mind one would not be a very good student if they adhered continually to one philosophy or set of pedagogical approaches to teaching. A good historian’s philosophy of teaching must be continually reconsidered, challenged, and revised—just like their research, just like the discipline itself.