Students as Stakeholders
I want my students to be stakeholders in their own learning. When they have the chance to be active partners in their own development, when the curriculum is open to their experiences and they can see ways to apply their studies to their lives, learners stop being passive targets for the transfer of facts and become agents of their own development. Humanities courses offer students a space where their own backgrounds and interpretations can add substantively to everyone’s growth; a space where they can claim shared ownership in a field of knowledge. Effective teaching in the humanities means opening up the stage, the curriculum, and the outcomes to learners. And it does not happen accidentally.
I offer my students multiple low-risk pathways for participation to bring them into conversation with their classmates and the course materials. Pre-class writing, small-group discussions, and instant survey technologies like PollEverywhere.com allow less-sure students to voice their thoughts with confidence. Text visualization activities, such as asking learners to map out a text’s geography, give scope to multiple modes of thought and memory. Gallery walks make informal graffiti out of asynchronous collaborative work. These techniques help to open up intellectual and emotional room for dialogue, letting students come to important questions and conclusions on their own. For these to be effective, however, students have to believe that their contributions have merit, and buy into the idea that an admission of not understanding can be as generative as an analysis based on comprehension.
Part of engaging students as stakeholders means giving them ways to identify to the materials, and this can be a challenge with medieval history. Popular film and video game cultures usually articulate a white, male, cis-gendered, and European image of the period. Students of color, learners from traditionally underrepresented minorities, and women frequently struggle to find personal relevance in this version of the Middle Ages. But medieval Europe was a racially and ethnically diverse zone, connected to the broader world by the movements of goods, ideas, and people. Women played important roles in culture, trade, and politics throughout the period. Teaching a global and diverse perspective on medieval history that confronts our cultural misapprehensions about the Middle Ages helps to make the classroom more inclusive, demonstrating to a broader range of people that they have a stake, and a voice, in the field.
Active and Kinetic Learning
I believe that inaction is antithetical to learning, and I employ a range of active teaching techniques such as student-led instruction, small-group work, and jigsaws, as well as emerging technological tools, such as Padlet or Panopto, to help facilitate collaborative learning. However, I also strongly believe in the value of physical movement and place-memory in teaching. My earlier career as a volleyball coach taught me the value of presenting singular concepts through multiple modalities; students’ understanding and knowledge retention is maximized when they apply not only mental attention, but also some degree of physical attention. Muscle memory aids cognitive memory. I frequently require my students to move around the classroom, using whiteboards on opposing walls and shifting groups and locations within the class space. These types of kinetic learning activities break up static patterns of classroom behavior and expectation, keeping students’ interest while facilitating their engagement with the day’s materials and ideas.
In the past I have taught a course on the History of Walking that takes students outside of the classroom to integrate learning and motion. We held every third class session while walking on the track or around campus in mobile discussion groups. I taught this course in 2018 with a special grant from Cornell’s Knight Institute, and I taught it again in 2020 because of the positive impact it had on my students. The coursework encourages learners to think about the world around them through the combined lenses of their own walking and the assigned texts. They work to mediate their own experiences through course readings and discussions, keeping a walking journal throughout the term that serves as a platform for the course’s writing assignments. The class links physical motion to mental exertion through structurally integrated kinetic practice. I believe that helping students to draw these connections will serve them well throughout their college careers and beyond.
My proposal for the class, outlining in detail my philosophy about the connections between movement and learning, is here. You may find more detailed information about the course, including the syllabus and student evaluations, here.
Teaching as a Historian
As a teacher of history, I must begin with one basic truth: most students sitting in my classroom — even those who might major in history — are unlikely to become historians. However, throughout their lives they will repeatedly have to deal with the past. Historical narratives underpin the textures of current moments, lending authority to social movements and political arguments, informing perceptions of identity, belonging, and exclusion. None of us can escape our historicized present. Consequently, the most valuable thing that I can do for my students is to help them to understand, interrogate, and process the narrative historical claims that will confront them. Even if they will not be historians, they will be well-served if I can help them to think like historians.
Perhaps the most important step towards this goal is to teach them that history is, in fact, a narrative production. The majority of students come from high school with the perception of history as an established and definitive record — their history textbooks hold the same weight of absolute authority for them as their chemistry textbooks. Students are generally uncomfortable with the idea that historical truth might be perspectively contingent, or that historians constantly reassess and argue about the past rather than merely reporting it like court stenographers. They often believe in, and expect, an unbiased historical account. In working to move my students past this point, I have had success in using lessons that demonstrate the futility of trying to write the type of complete and wholly detached work that students often demand from historical writing.
In one such lesson, I will ask a student to count out loud to five, while the rest of the class waits. I then lead a discussion about whether we could write a bias-neutral and complete history of our classroom in those five seconds. Once we begin considering the scope of the variables, by asking what different people noticed during the five seconds, what they were thinking about, and what types of things we did not notice, the impossibility of the exercise quickly becomes apparent. This type of activity, which upsets students’ comfort with the concept of history as a single, fixed, and knowable timeline, encourages them to question critically the motives and arguments of historical narratives in the world around them.
The Social and Disciplinary Value of Academic Teaching
I strongly believe that teaching needs to be central to the mission of academic historians. The work that we do as educators is essential, both to the general public welfare and to the sustainability of our discipline. It is imperative that historians be a part of the public discourse, speaking to broad audiences as teachers. As professionals who study the past, our voices are needed in the civic square. If we do not speak out, others will say our parts for us; the recent incorporation of ahistorical European medievalisms into American white nationalist mythology reminds us of the important role that historians must play in helping to create and maintain an educated and historically conscious citizenry.
In this, academics must be educators for the long haul. Most learning in life happens outside of a university setting, and we should aim to educate on a longer timeline than a mere four years. We need to try to reach people across the whole course of their lives, and to reach them where they are. To do so, historians must embrace the idea of outreach and public engagement as constituent parts of scholarship. Digital humanities projects, more accessible academic writing in both professional and popular forums, and personal participation in activities at the local level all offer avenues through which academic historians can consciously expand the scope of their teaching to include a broader public.
Valuing the role of teaching in historical practice is not only socially necessary, but it is an emerging disciplinary necessity as well. We live in a moment where social and political actors are increasingly questioning the value of humanities programs in the curriculum. Both because of their easily obvious career streams into industry, and because their requisite skillsets appear comparatively clear-cut and measurable, STEM fields attract increasingly more attention, funding, and students. To remain viable in this marketplace of funding and resources, historians need to make a counter-argument for our own value. We cannot do this by remaining isolated, and by talking only to ourselves. We have moved past the time when humanities scholars could afford to remain professionally secluded. Teaching broadly, and helping to create a better educated and intellectually careful public is perhaps the single most effective way that historians can demonstrate our social, political, and economic worth.