Teaching: Philosophy and Approach

My foremost pedagogical goal is for students to emerge from my courses empowered to use historical understanding and analysis to think critically about the contemporary challenges that shape their lives.  My classroom practice is oriented towards creating collaborative learning environments, where students work together to pose historical questions, attempt interpretations, and produce and evaluate knowledge about the past in a continuous process of inquiry.  This student-centered approach necessarily entails careful attention to each student’s needs; through my experience with the incredibly diverse student body at Rutgers, I have developed the practices and competencies necessary to ensure that the classroom is a safe space where minority students feel fully empowered to participate.  I am especially interested in using and developing digital learning tools to help achieve these goals.

This approach to teaching is best illustrated by this website Empire’s Progeny: Race and Imperialism in the Americas (empiresprogeny.org).  Through this digital curriculum my students at Rutgers Newark are currently investigating the development of racialized power over four centuries of imperialism in Latin America.  Over the course of the semester, students collaboratively and independently analyze and evaluate six dozen hand-selected primary and secondary sources that illuminate the variety and formation of racial ideas over time and space, the role of racial structures in reinforcing imperial power (including intersections with gender and sexuality), and the myriad ways that imperial subjects accommodated, subverted, and contested such structures.  Course readings and discussion anchor students with a shared repertoire of critical approaches and methods, while in-class lessons feature instruction and practice in reading and writing skills and an extended peer-editing process.  Together, students create a database of sources, write and edit short analyses of each, plot their sources and essays on a shared online map and timeline, and finish the semester with a term paper reflecting on the topic and the process.  Through Empire’s Progeny, students engage with the ethical and political implications of historical interpretation and develop skills for creating usable pasts that they can continue long after the semester is complete.  In coming years, I will continue to improve this project and will use it as a model for similar curricula treating different global and transnational themes and topics, such as science and empire, environmental history, globalization, and migration and borders.  I am also very interested in adapting my approach for hybrid and online teaching (with which I have experience) and advancing it with service-learning, study abroad, and other experiential methods.

As is borne out by Empire’s Progeny, my teaching emphasizes making global connections, posing challenging questions, and opening possible interpretations over recounting historical sequences.  I aspire for my courses to enable students to envision the emergence of a globalized world and to think critically about where this ethically and politically leaves us now.  My course on Modern Latin American History (Spring 2019), for instance, stressed the development of nationalism, its imbrications with racial hierarchy, gendered power, European imperialism, and the rising influence of the United States.  Across the twentieth century, we explored how popular classes became invested in national identities and contemplated the complicated and unresolved consequences of post-war migrations across the hemisphere.  Students of many backgrounds discussed what it has meant, and what it means now, to be an inhabitant of the Americas and the political and social structures that shape and constrain identity and experience.

An active, student-centered approach to teaching history is also how I believe I can best instruct my students in the core skills of the humanities.  I find inspiration in the Core Competencies outlined by the American Historical Association (https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning-the-history-discipline/2016-history-discipline-core) and dedicate large parts of my courses to the fundamental skills of critical reading, nuanced interpretation, analytical writing, and evaluation.  Through teaching Expository Writing, I have learned how to very intentionally integrate these skills into my courses and to adapt such lessons to the needs of students with varying prior training.  My courses in Latin American History at Rutgers Newark, for example, feature sustained projects of interpretation and reinterpretation, drafting and redrafting, and peer-led editing and criticism coupled with more formal exercises in writing and analysis.  I provide students with my own extensive feedback on their writing and spend additional time with struggling students to ensure they receive the instruction they require.  In my pedagogy, these core skills of the humanities share equal emphasis with the particular methods of the field of history.

In my years of teaching, one of my areas of greatest growth has been in the techniques and awareness necessary to ensure that all students feel they are equal members of our learning community.  As I experienced in my first semester as instructor, the goal of inclusivity tempts one to avoid controversial subjects and purge course contents of their political relevance.  I found, however, that the results of this tactic were lessons devoid of significance for instructor and student alike.  Subsequently, my methods have transformed towards fostering a space where controversy can be brought to the surface in respectful and substantive ways and where this heightened investment inspires a shared project of historical inquiry.  Moreover, as instructor I know I bear the responsibility to ensure that minority students’ voices are heard and respected, which requires active measures on my part to account for and counteract long legacies of disempowerment.  I pursue this through efforts to keep in touch with how students experience the classroom, by creating activities that invite the participation of reluctant students, by validating their contributions, by exposing students to a diversity of authoritative voices, and by highlighting the plurality of historical experience, interpretation, and perspective.  From the students of Rutgers, who are as diverse as anywhere, I have learned much about how to forge an inclusive learning environment; this will continue to be an area of very conscious advancement in my future as a teacher.

My experiences in New Brunswick and Newark have taught me to think very purposefully about how to educate students with diverse needs, interests, and experiences.  I have especially enjoyed and dedicated myself to helping struggling students to find the intellectual confidence to excel in college.  A former student of mine, now entering law school, recently wrote to me: “I really felt that you actually believed in me, and that made me want to do better and it helped me in ways I cannot even explain. With now feeling like I was a stronger writer, I actually continued on to take a number of writing intensive classes, most with a focus in law, which I had been discouraged from taking because of having to write long papers.  And that was all because of you and I am extremely grateful to you for that. My ability to now follow through with something that I am passionate about and going to law school simply would not have been possible without your help.”  I believe my role as an instructor includes figuring out where students want to go and showing them that they have the ability to get there.

Finally, I am a passionate teacher and look forward to working with colleagues and peers to create innovative curricula to best serve our students in a changing world.