I’d like to think of teaching as analogous to an independent film. Both students and instructor share the responsibilities of being cast and crew, director and audience when bringing to life multiple perspectives. Together we switch from black-and-white to color, spin frames and examine close-ups to blur the distinction between object and subject of the gaze. Much like a film, successful teaching follows recognizable conventions, all the while upsetting and challenging the same. At its best, teaching, I’d like to think, inspires new ways of seeing and making sense of the world for both student and teacher. Collectively thinking about history, rather than leaving it to those in-the-know, might help us to see our busy lives in a different, more nuanced, and less fragmentary way.
In the classroom, I insist that we take ourselves seriously – as subjects and as primary investigators of history. Asking questions, interpreting sources, and engaging with the arguments made by others, students recognize that history isn’t static and fixed, that there is always more than a second way to look at any given question or problem, and that their own perspectives matter. That doesn’t mean that in academia “anything goes.” Rather, the university in general and history classroom in particular should provide the space to ask new questions, explore unconventional ideas and find an ear for interpretations that fly in the face of what has been thought, said, and written before.
Since history is a discipline which foregrounds the very process of meaning-making as it tries to reconstruct a past from recoverable traces, I tend to focus as much on the investigator as on what is being investigated. Critical reading is key. Analyzing primary sources, we discover windows into unfamiliar worlds. Reading scholarly works, models historical practice and allows us to put our own questions in context. I know that it is more difficult to come up with an interesting question than to memorize a right answer. And I am aware that students find it irritating if their teachers prefer educated guesses and thick descriptions over absolute statements. But I do prefer the messiness of debate to the orderliness of absolute certainty.
I try to stay mindful of differences in power – in society and my classroom. I also know that one cannot legislate relationships. I value intellectual exchange, I believe that learning should be fun, that teaching is exciting, and that history is fascinating. In the hope that my enthusiasm proves contagious, I continuously work to upset my own and my students’ implicit understandings of the prototypical classroom. A willing recession of authority on my part hardly creates an equal playing field, but it places responsibility (as well as power) in multiple sets of hands.