Students as Stakeholders
I want my students to be stakeholders in their 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 grow to see their agency and opportunity. History courses offer students a space where their own backgrounds and interpretations can add substantively to everyone’s understanding. 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 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 open up intellectual and emotional room for dialogue, letting students come to important questions and conclusions on their own.
Part of engaging students as stakeholders means giving them ways to identify with 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 zone of intersecting racial and ethnic interactions, connected to the broader world by the movements of goods, ideas, and people of all backgrounds and genders. Teaching a global 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 and technological platforms to help facilitate learning. 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 physical attention. Muscle memory aids cognitive memory. I frequently require my students to move around the classroom, using whiteboards on opposing walls and shifting locations within the class space. These types of kinetic learning activities break up static patterns of classroom behavior and hierarchy, keeping students’ interest while facilitating their engagement with the day’s work.
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. The coursework encourages learners to think about the world around them, working to mediate their day-to-day experiences of space through course readings and discussions, and 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.
Digital Tools and Projects
Digital tools and projects can be a wonderful way to enhance student learning and engagement. I employ four basic types of digital materials in the classroom. The first are Digital Humanities (DH) projects that I make myself, to aid in student learning. My award-winning Mapping Mandeville Project is an excellent example of this: a DH project built to support students in understanding a difficult medieval text. The second type of digital materials are third-party tools that aid in active learning. Apps such as PollEverywhere or Padlet let students participate in real time, and anonymously if they prefer, with the lecture materials. These tools can be useful for keeping larger groups of students engaged with a lecture, or for giving small discussion groups places to focus their thoughts. Included in this category, too, is the class’s page on the university’s Learning Management System, with threaded discussions, wiki-building features, and collaboration opportunities. The third type of digital tools are those that I teach students to help them with their research and work. Websites like Voyant, that offer basic text analysis tools, fall into the category, as do citation management platforms like Zotero, and database programs programs such as Access. Fourth, and last, are digital projects that I set my students as ways of presenting their work. In the past I have had students create podcasts using Garageband, and employ their phones or library-owned GPS trackers for mapping assignments. This semester, the students in one of my classes are creating their final projects using ArcGIS’s StoryMaps.
A critical component of employing digital tools in the classroom is to ensure that they work in service to course outcomes. If they do not, then they are often a distraction. My chapter in Teaching Gradually focused the helping teachers decide if, and how, to set digital project assignments in undergraduate classrooms. The chapter walks the reader through the process of deciding whether a project fits with the course’s learning objectives, and then offers a step-by-step rubric for building a project. A well-crafted DH project that aligns with the goals of the course can help connect students to the material in lasting ways.
For students to want to stay in a history course, or within the department, they need to feel that their coursework is engaging, that the materials are useful to them, and that their professors care about them. The pedagogical approaches that I have discussed so far — both in terms of course materials and in terms of classroom teaching — speak to the first two points. I have a history of using creative, active teaching to meet students where they are, and help them connect with the course materials. I have actively pursued opportunities to improve my classroom teaching, including participating in numerous workshops and implementing several Teaching-As-Research projects to help with course assessment. I would continue this at Nebraska, and would be available to lead workshops on pedagogy and teaching, as I did as a Fellow with Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation. Offering interesting, innovative classes and developing a reputation for good teaching are keys for retention.
Attracting students to the discipline and keeping their interest also requires showing them how the materials that they are learning will matter to them. In most of my courses I try to draw connections to events in the modern world that are affecting my students. In doing so, I hope to show them that, while understanding the past matters, what matters more are the tools and techniques they learn for assessing historical events and narratives. As a teacher of history, I must begin with one basic truth: most students sitting in my classroom are unlikely to become historians. However, throughout their lives they will repeatedly have to deal with the past. 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. Perhaps the most important step towards this goal is to teach them that history is, in fact, a narrative production. Even if they will not be historians, I want them to be able to think like historians.
Lastly, retention will suffer if students do not believe that they matter. I go out of my way to get to know my students, and to work with them to make it clear that I see their studies with me as a part of their broader life. I have made a habit out of attending my students’ concerts, presentations, and athletic contests. I reach out to the other stakeholders in their campus lives, such as their coaches, to make sure that I am working for my students’ benefit, and honoring the importance of their competing priorities. In class, I am flexible with students’ situations, recognizing that students come from a range of backgrounds. First-generation students, or non-traditional learners, have different sets of skills and time commitments than traditional students. I work to get to know my students, and to meet them where they are. I have written in more detail about this in my Diversity Statement.
Teaching Beyond the Academy
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 general public welfare and to the sustainability of our discipline. As professionals who study the past, our voices are needed in the civic square as teachers. 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. In the past several years I have had great success in using social media platforms such as Twitter to reach non-academic audiences, sharing my research and making it relevant to modern concerns. This type of outreach, often overlooked, is as important an aspect of teaching as the work I do in front of a classroom: it helps to build active public stakeholders through engaging historical narrative.
Image citation: Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, 620 (572)