My Teaching Philosophy

For as long as humans have existed, they have been telling stories about one another and the world around them, and every human phenomenon that involves representation and interpretation is, to some extent, an engagement with history. In this way history is not a mere box, or subset of information about the world, but a way of looking at the world that interrogates time, memory, and social action. This is part of the reason why history is so difficult to categorize as either a humanity or a social science; history lives in both worlds, and, at its best, historical work holds both constantly in view.

img_0742My philosophy of teaching is inseparable from my view of historical thinking. To think like a historian means to consider questions with contingency in mind; that is, to recognize the possibility of limitations, even of explanations that appear to be comprehensive. For me, moving students from a passive focus on data (the battle of so-and-so happened in such-and-such a year, et cetera) to an active and critical engagement with sources, is of paramount importance. Students must never leave my classroom assuming an unproblematic relationship between “the facts” as they are transmitted and the process by which they come to us. History in my classroom is the story of “the changing past,” to recall the title of Ken Smith’s magisterial work on South African historiography—complex, contested, and fundamental to our understanding of what is “real” in a particular time and place.

Because history is common to all—we all participate in it, and we all interpret it in some way—it is a profoundly humanistic discipline. This is why class discussion is so important to me. By engaging with the perspectives of others students not only consider various points of view but become aware of the ways others have struggled with the same ideas at different times and places. This in turn cultivates empathy—an appreciation of the fact that the people who inhabit the past were complete in their humanity, with all the complexity and contradiction that entails.

Discussions for me work best when the ulterior motives of history—the explicit and implicit concerns that shape its construction and determine much of its value—are laid bare, and conversations are somewhat free to drift between the immediate subject at hand and the significance of that subject for the people in the room. I believe this is a useful way to break the barrier between history and the so-called “present day” that is so frequently the result of high school history education.