As part of the tenure process, I have to write a statement on my teaching philosophy and give examples of putting that philosphy into practice. I always find exercises such as this to feel very strange in the doing. In part, I think that is because we (as in the royal we –> just me? or you too?) so rarely engage in this particular kind of introspection. Our graduate program has very few courses that require outright pedagogical discussion and reflection. I do think about these things, pretty much everytime I write a new course syllabus. But, thinking and articulating are two very different things. And, when only thinking about course design, I know all to often fall into the traps warned against by Mark Sample in his two Profhacker posts on course design (here and here.
At any rate, having written my teaching statement, I figure I might as well post it here. As you will see, it represents the shift in my thinking about historical education from a traditional and un-articulated sense of critical-historical thinking, into an every present interest in and concern with the collateral learning that I hope to encourage in my courses.
My teaching philosophy hinges on a set of values that have progressively clarified over the course of the past five years. As an educator, what I value most are: 1. The importance of critical-historical thinking; 2. The importance of collateral learning; 3. The importance of openness in educational resources; 4. The importance of empathy to understanding the past; and, 5. The importance of a Do-It-Yourself attitude for the cultivation of life-long learning.
I began my career at the University of Tennessee committed to the traditional notion of the nature and importance of History and Humanities education. My philosophy of undergraduate teaching was rooted in the belief that a university education and particularly a humanities education are about participating, in the words of Robert Hutchins, in “the great continuing conversation.” Following on this principle, I saw the historian’s responsibility as cultivating critical thinking skills built on a sense of temporality. The addition of time is, after all, the defining characteristic of historical education. And it is with temporal causality that historians are uniquely capable of participating in the great continuing conversation. My sense of critical thinking, and its place in my educational philosophy, was tied to a set of skills common to all historians that define critical-historical thinking:
- Reading comprehension.
- The capacity to evaluate evidence based on the typical historian’s typology of primary vs. secondary sourcing.
- The ability to identify and build causal explanations for historical events, structures, and movements (be they examples of continuity or change).
- The ability to communicate such explanations in written form.
I structured my courses to provide practical experience in each of these areas, mixing primary and secondary source material on the various topics under consideration and emphasizing in lecture and discussion the connection between explanatory narratives of the past with that evidence. I increasingly sought to include a wide variety of media as part of the source-based building blocks of my courses (texts, film, photographs, artifacts, etc.). My hope for each of my courses has been that students will leave with a keen sense of the problematic relationship between the present and the past and of the problematic nature of the relationship between information and knowledge.
The onset of my university teaching career has also coincided with a renewed crisis in Humanities education sparked by the economic instabilities of the past four years. I would be remiss to exclude the impact that this predicament has had on my teaching philosophy. In particular, the Humanities have come under attack for a perception by some of their irrelevance in an age dominated by an economic instrumentalism. I reject the notion that university education should be above all else vocational, as mere preparation for the job market. In fact, the tendency to see a university degree as essentially a credential for participation in the 21st-century economy is a source of real frustration for me. But the conversation surrounding the future of the Humanities and its critics has caused me to rethink the collateral learning that occurs in my courses.
Writing in 1938 in Experience and Education, John Dewey argued,
Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing that he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of the formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.
I would define collateral learning a bit more broadly than Dewey, including skills as well as attitudes. What collateral learning occurs in my classroom? There is the basic exposure to the culture and lifeways of peoples in Latin America that can impact attitude formation. There is the process of critical-historical thinking. I strive to combine that exposure and process to encourage empathy for others in my undergraduates. Increasingly, I have also sought to include basic technical skills that intersect with my overriding values of openness and a do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude in the educational process. Historians have been slow to reckon with the information revolution and its impact on our disciplinary culture. But, we are also well positioned to teach the type of information literacy so important for students navigating the flood brought on by the World Wide Web. For my courses, this has meant working with my students on being savvy users of problematic information, but also as producers of their own content on the web. By having students produce their own content on their own sites, I hope to demystify the web a bit for a generation that has grown up with the internet as a given in their lives and to cultivate a capacity for DIY that is collateral to the specific content of my courses on Latin American History.
Philosophy in Action
What have these educational values meant for my teaching? Above all, they have required of me willingness for experimentation. I have taken seriously Departmental needs for a wide variety of Latin American offerings at the Graduate and Undergraduate levels. As the lone tenure-track Latin Americanist in the History Department, I have sought to offer a wide variety of courses covering time periods and regions outside my immediate area of expertise. I have taught course ranging from the Conquest of the Americas to the Mexican Revolution, from the Early Latin American Survey to Modern Latin American History through Film. I have taught on gender and sexuality in the early period, on the history of indigenous peoples in both colonial and modern Latin America, and also honors and graduate courses on research methods and historiography. I have lobbied hard to keep the survey of Latin American History active, despite staff pressures, in support of the Latin American Studies program and Ready for the World. It is within this context of broad teaching that I have experimented with the incorporation of technology in ways intended to make relevant the process of my courses to the world of information we now inhabit.
In course design and execution, I have experimented extensively with both modeling and teaching the values of the DIY approach and the implementation of critical-historical thinking in new technological venues. Some of these experiments have been successful, and some have not. In the column of successes I would include:
Requiring students to write regularly and critically online, with their peers as a significant part of the intended audience. My first attempts to do this in 2008 utilized discussion forums inside Blackboard for such writing and discussion. I decided, though, that I wanted my students to instead write (reacting to readings, discussion, films, news, etc.) in an online venue that they could take individual ownership over. Beginning in Fall 2009, I have required my students to sign-up for their own free website using a blogging service such as wordpress.com or blogger.com, and to write and comment on weekly essays. In addition to the specific Latin American History content they discuss, I have witnessed my students come to see this space as a space of their own on the Internet, and come to understand more clearly where content on the web comes from. This has been the case in both upper division courses and graduate seminars.
Encouraging digital literacy. Sometimes small steps can be important in developing digital literacy skills. Each semester I try to help students understand how search works, and to help them become better searchers. I have tried to combine the use of online and physical resources from the library for research and historiography across the courses I teach. Likewise, I’ve started to use simple strategies such as only providing citations for work that is available through the library catalogue, requiring students to find it rather than directly linking.
The design and implementation of the online presence of my courses using free and open source software, including on the WordPress platform. I have left Blackboard for hosting my courses, and their online interactions, in part to model DIY for my students (both graduate and undergraduate). Doing so forced me to look under the hood, as it were, of how the web and web publishing platforms work. As importantly, I am able to make all of my teaching materials freely and publicly available for curious individuals, other Latin American Historians, and graduate students.
Experimenting with the hybrid classroom. Many of our graduate students will be faced with the prospect of online teaching in one form or another in the coming decade. Very few faculty in our Department have experience with online teaching, podcasting, or the like. In Fall 2010, I decided to experiment with video-casting one lecture per week from my History 255 Survey of Colonial Latin America to gain in understanding of the mechanics of online and hybrid teaching. In addition to putting half of the lectures for the semester online, I produced response quizzes using Google Docs to track students’ participation in the online lecture. Students also had discussion sections for the more practical exercises in evaluating primary documents related to the course. By both mid-term and final surveys of the students, the use of online lectures for part of the class was very successful. Students complained that I packed more information into the video lectures, and they spent much more time watching and note taking than in the live lectures. From the experience of producing and delivering the online lectures, I also learned much about the technical and time demands required. From this experience, I know that I can better advise our graduate students on handling questions on online teaching on the job market.
In the column of less successful experiments, I would include my Spring 2011 course on Modern Latin American History through Film. Spring 2011 was the second time I have taught the course, only in this case I tried to adapt it to a 90-seat class to meet demand for upper-division courses in the Department of History. Having 90 students significantly challenged discussion, which I again tried to move online to account for the awkwardness of the hall in which we met. My blog infrastructure, which as worked very well in classes ranging from 10 to 35, was overwhelmed by the shear volume of students writing. Additionally, I assigned a semester-long collaborative project as the main task of the assignment that was hosted on a wiki. Student groups were charged with constructing a comprehensive wiki on an assigned film, including critical engagement with the historical issues presented by that film. The students and I struggled over our mutual expectations for what constituted a semester’s worth of work on such a project. Likewise, I offered tutorials for writing on the wiki, but few attended and many later struggled with the technical realization of their projects. I also assigned too many films. In the end, I will have to rethink the course’s implementation if I need to teach it to such a large group again.
A note on graduate education
Much of what I have written above relates to my philosophy of undergraduate teaching. I have enjoyed significant interaction with out graduate students as well, despite the fact that we offer no degree in Latin American History. I have forged this ground for myself because I value graduate education highly. I taught History 510 three time from 2008-2010. As our Foundations class, 510 is a joy to teach in part because of the practical skills of reading, analysis, and communication that form its core. Readings are often theoretical and outside of the scope of experience many of our graduate students bring with them. I have also taught seminars on the Spanish Conquest and on the authority and power in the early modern Spanish Empire. More importantly, outside of the seminar room I have sought opportunities to support and train our graduate students, most notably with the Dissertation Writing Group (DWG) I founded and have directed since 2007. With 510 and the DWG, I have had pleasure of being a sort of bookend for our PhD students progress, from the foundational skills of 510 through their realization in writing the dissertation.
(All of my course materials are publicly available through individual course sites linked on my website)
Note for this post
I recognize that this statement is pragmatic more than it is philosophical, at least in the way I would have imagined writing such a statement as a graduate student or at the beginning of my career. I wonder, in looking over it, to what extent I’m actually falling prey to the functionalism I detest. What I want to communicate is that I see the traditional sense of historical-critical thinking and writing that has formed the core of history education at the collegiate level as still salient. I don’t like notions of “relevance” — ie, that students will only learn or care about things that their 18 or 20 year-old brains perceive of as relevant to their lives. But, what I want is to port those traditional skills, if you will accept the metaphor, to a context that is relevant, ie to the context of the post-industrial world.
At any rate, what are your educational values? How do they impact your teaching choices?
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