Teaching

As a historian and teacher, I have three main goals in my courses. First, to encourage students to read historical sources with a critical eye and understand how historians test hypotheses and form conclusions. Second, to recognize the relationship of the past to today, and the roots of social and institutional change. And third, to improve their ability to communicate effectively — particularly in terms of writing.

To achieve these three goals, each of the courses I have taught has been strongly rooted in an examination of primary sources, balanced with a select number of secondary sources (both good and bad examples). These sources allow students to understand the challenges of historical research while, at the same time, learning about a particular time period.

A common engineering maxim is “to truly understand how something was made, you have to be willing to break it first.” In the context of teaching history, this means understanding the process of doing history. With this in mind, my written assignments are carefully designed to incrementally build skills. For instance, a first assignment might begin with an analysis of a single primary source. At a second review stage, the students might be asked to do a historiographical analysis which complements their first paper’s topic. Students would be graded not only on their written analysis, but also in their ability to incorporate feedback from each review stage.

In my smaller seminar classes, my students are often required to write something every week — even if it just a paragraph. To facilitate active discussion in class, I am a strong believer in the pedagogical value of small group work with clear objectives. I have also made successful use of blogs and wikis outside the classroom. For instance, in my senior level seminar course on “medieval monasticism”, I required students to comment on the weekly readings using an online course wiki the day before class. These online contributions proved to be very useful at sparking ideas for the in-class discussions.

I take great care in larger classes to design my lectures such that they can be readily understood and absorbed without undue reference to PowerPoint slides. It has been my experience that while PowerPoint and similar presentation programs can be powerful tools, they can also be great distractions from listening to the lecture itself. Consequently, my use of PowerPoint emphasizes maps and images, rather than endless bullet points of text.  When I do incorporate text into my presentations, I use it primarily so students can see the spelling of names, jargon and foreign words. More recently, I have begun to experiment with using Prezi for lectures which allows me to demonstrate historical concepts in a visual way. See below for links to some of my recent lectures.

Whenever possible, I have also tried to demonstrate historical concepts with reference to my own research. For instance, in the past I have included some of the key primary sources of my own research in the weekly readings, along with an excerpt of my own work. Students were able to deconstruct my own methodology and even critique it. The underlying principle is to get students to see history as process of intellectual investigation rather a set of facts to be memorized.

Some of my recent Prezi lectures:

Spread of Christianity in Early Medieval Europe

Beer and the Agricultural Revolution

Coffee and the Modern World

Life in the Year 1900

The Rise of Fascism and World War II

The Cold War

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