I am passionate about the historical profession. I enjoy every aspect of the historian’s craft: surveying the historiography, isolating a question, researching in the archive, outlining an argument, crafting a narrative, presenting my ideas, and engaging with others around questions that the finished form may provoke. I know that most of my students will not share my passion, but my first principle of teaching is that students should sense my enthusiasm for my discipline. I see this as a way to encourage students to consider their own interests and generate their own passions. I learn enough about my students so that I can make connections between the history that we are studying and the students’ individual academic and career goals. I hope that they walk out of my classes feeling that they experienced something substantive, including: themes that they could relate to in some way, well-designed lectures, spirited discussion, and friendly give-and-take.
My second principle of teaching is that I am in the business of helping undergraduates to be good members of society. I believe that they will have a fighting chance at moving about easily in the world if they work on three aptitudes: story telling, writing well, and speaking clearly.
History is about telling stories. It is about interpreting sources and artifacts from the past and imagining how they fit together into a narrative. As a teacher I want students to feel comfortable and even confident about telling their own stories about the past. I give students many opportunities to work with historical artifacts and design their own narratives, which they can support with properly footnoted evidence. First, I strive to make my students adept at analyzing and contextualizing primary documents. I use short writing exercises to challenge students to analyze the content and the form of primary sources. Secondly, I help students to craft compelling stories or narratives from their primary source analysis and reading in relevant secondary source materials. I use various strategies to provoke my students to access their creative abilities to discern meaning, perspective, or drama in the historical record. We often read aloud from letters and diaries, put complex chronology to poetry, or use digital tools to depict the nuances and crucial themes of important events or conflicts. Finally, I work with students to construct persuasive arguments that are supported by the sources. I walk students through the components of a strong argument and introduce them to larger conversations, themes, and debates in the field.
Students express themselves and present their arguments through writing in every course that I teach. My classes do not limit the writing process to the few days before essays are due; rather, we begin writing consistently from the first day of class. At the University of Notre Dame, I writing course entitled, “Rhetoric of the American City.” I designed the course around the scholarship of David Fleming, a rhetoric professor who argues that physical environment “influences whom we talk to, what we talk about, and whether or not we value that talking in our hearts and minds.” Fleming concludes that “those political habits and dispositions…shape the design of the built world” (Fleming, City of Rhetoric, 2008). By studying the American city as a contested space or a site where various parties engage in argument, students assessed how our arguments determine the organization of our environment and at the same time are defined by our built environment. Students completed readings and argumentative writing assignments that addressed the social concerns of urban poverty, the redevelopment of American cities, and college-town relationships. Students also volunteered at one of the neighborhood associations in the city of South Bend. The final assignment was a research paper aimed at addressing a specific need at each of the neighborhood associations. Ideally, each student gained an understanding of the mission of the association where he or she volunteered and designed a research project that supported the association’s goals and ongoing projects. By all accounts, the course was a success. The course website includes some student writing. The password is writingnd. I still hear from that group of students several years later and a writing professor at Notre Dame has replicated my course.
My involvement in Notre Dame’s University Writing Program and community-based learning projects helped me to clarify my aims for teaching students how to argue effectively and ethically, a fundamental component of history courses. My primary concern is that students understand how to construct reasoned arguments, situate their claims within specific contexts, and engage larger conversations. Therefore, writing groups are a crucial aspect of my pedagogy; students learn how to appeal to different audiences and engage the work of others through regular opportunities for directed peer review. I also offer my students a range of counterarguments and encourage them to include others’ positions in their own writing.
Finally, I include at least one oral exercise in each class that I teach. In addition to challenging students to write well, I encourage students to be able to say what they mean clearly. I know that not all of my students will land in careers that require public speaking but I believe that all of them will benefit from being able to converse easily and well with others. I offer solution-oriented critiques of oral presentations with the same rigor that I provide comments on student writing. Three of my students in my American Experience since 1898 course (Spring 2013) entered the Norton Anthology Poetry Recitation Contest for extra credit; Norton publishers received 130 applicants and my students’ video (#3) won first place.
The German historian and social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy had a motto: “respondeo etsi mutabor” or “I respond though I have to change.” I believe that students will be better equipped not only to respond to the underlying questions in my courses and be changed by their answers but also to change their worlds, whatever that means to them, if they develop a passion and an academic urgency for that which interests them and have some level of aptitude for story telling, writing well, and speaking clearly.