The works of Immanuel Kant contributed greatly to both my research focus and my teaching philosophy. When I first read Kant’s 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?,” I was taken aback with its powerful endorsement of critical thinking and what to me seemed like logic for universal education. I came to similar conclusions over two hundred years later. Everyone can benefit from higher education and moreover, the purpose of education is to teach students to value critical inquiry. As a history professor, my goal is to inform and empower my students. This means introducing them to new information, but also equipping them with the tools needed to ask tough questions and to find creative solutions. As such, my three goals for the classroom are to promote the study of diversity, to develop critical thinking and writing skills (as associated with Writing Across the Curriculum), and to enhance the use of technology in the humanities.
I encourage students to make connections with the past and develop critical thinking skills through active learning. When I lecture, I use the Socratic method to keep students engaged. I ask questions to lead students to complex conclusions. Rather than detailing, for instance, the various implications of the Black Plague on European demographics in the fourteenth century, I ask students to describe the effects of such a loss in infrastructural, political, religious, and cultural terms. After such a discussion, I give students certain historical examples to reinforce our discussion. Most of my classes incorporate primary and secondary source readings that become the fodder for group discussions as well. In my upper division courses, I have students lead discussions, so they can practice their work through their own critical analysis as well as become better leaders in general. On occasion, I also incorporate historical simulations into the classroom. For example, in my Age of Enlightenment course, we built a feudal society from the “state of nature” — a phrase with great significance for Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Each student acted as a family unit, made choices when faced with disease, famine, and war. They ultimately developed a fully functioning feudal order. As we moved through the Age of Enlightenment, we returned to our simulation to emphasize issues like wealth disparity and political economy, religious fanaticism and religious toleration, and the theory of natural rights all set against the backdrop of the Christian feudal order. These methods encourage active learning, which is necessary for students to engage with the material, to think critically, and to empathize with people of different cultural backgrounds.
I plan lectures, design in-class activities, and create assignments that stress critical thinking, writing, and the use of technology. For example, in my Modern European history course at SUNY Adirondack, I had students examine the origins of the French Revolution. In order to emphasize the complex and sometimes non-linear nature of cause and effect, students identified ten events, people, ideas, and trends that led to the revolutionary rupture in 1789. Students then used Timeline JS to create visually stimulating and interactive timelines that included imagery and explanatory text. My teaching philosophy aims to inform students and prepare them for their post-collegiate lives. This assignment encouraged students to think about chronology in critical terms, but it also taught them how to use a new digital tool. In the spring of 2017, one of my students graduated and got a job where she uses Timeline JS to develop timelines for her company's purposes. By bringing technology into the history class, we can teach an appreciation for the past as well as teach new skills that have direct and obvious value in a competitive job market.
I won the Joe Richardson Award for Excellence in Teaching at Florida State University for my focus on cross-cultural diversity, critical thinking and persuasive writing, and the application of technology in the history classroom. What my experience has taught me thus far is that teaching is a life-long learning process and I enjoy learning about pedagogy and experimenting with new teaching approaches.