The essential pedagogical task of the professional scholar is to teach students how to think critically: how to ask good questions, and how to measure evidence and interpretation. By reflecting on the past, we develop a sense of who we are and gain critical insights into the present and future.
I embrace the challenge of making lecture and reading material resonate with students in relevant ways, whether I am teaching an introductory survey course or leading a specialized graduate seminar. It takes creativity on the part of the instructor, who must translate particular course material in a manner that offers insights to and inspires a diverse group of students on various life and career paths. Different students take university degrees and courses for different reasons, and a university teacher has to respect these multifarious needs.
As a regular consultant to government and non-governmental organizations and collaborator with scholars from various disciplines, I believe emphatically that an interdisciplinary approach fosters independent, creative thinking and is relevant to careers within and beyond the academy. It is our responsibility to educate students for various possibilities and opportunities. My teaching strategies have evolved with this in mind.
I try to present lecture material in a manner that leaves students with historical and philosophical dilemmas to ponder. In seminars, I encourage students to critically analyze readings, to articulate their observations and assessments on the bases of theory and evidence, and to challenge their colleagues in a constructive manner. Although I have always enjoyed engaging in vigorous debate, I am a facilitator and mediator of discussion in seminars rather than a direct commentator as much as possible, in recognition that a professor’s “authority” can stifle as much as encourage lively debate if she or he is not self-aware.
Students require positive, critical encouragement and consistency. I carefully explain my expectations of students in class and reiterate them prior to examinations, and my grading policy remains “firm but fair.” I provide students with extensive feedback on assignments that do not denigrate their efforts but allow them to develop their skills. I also provide as much constructive critical comment to strong students as I do to weaker ones. We can all develop as thinkers and writers, and I explain to all of my classes that professors are resources to facilitate their learning.
An instructor needs to be flexible to individual exigencies, but not a pushover. When I am at the university, my door is always open to allow students to meet with me inside and outside of formal office hours. When I am away on travel, I invite them to contact me by email, Skype, or cell phone. I try to be accessible – even with a busy schedule. I believe in developing open and relaxed relationships with students, talking informally with them before and after class. I try to learn their names. They should not feel like “just another face in the crowd” – the St. Jerome’s philosophy and our emphasis on smaller class sizes allows us to connect with them as individuals. This approach helps to foster a cooperative spirit, collegiality, and a sense of community.
If we practice what we preach – that studies of history, governance, cultures, and identities are important and interesting conduits to broader and deeper understanding – then enthusiasm is essential to an historian’s vocation. Inspirational and imaginative teaching convinced me that I wanted to study and teach history. Each class should be an experience in itself, and I prepare every lecture or seminar accordingly. An instructor who is interested in and excited about course material will transfer that energy to students. The process is interactive, and those who take my classes learn from me, and I from them. Course discussions, student questions, and teaching evaluations all provide indispensable feedback that allows me to strengthen my teaching skills. I remind students that I am always learning, just as they are, and that the study of history is first and foremost about critical inquiry. Teaching is a dialogue, as is scholarly research, and my passion for learning and for knowledge is unmistakable.
My lectures are high tempo, which captures and maintains the interest and attention of a generation of students accustomed to multi-media stimuli. As a supplement to traditional forums of knowledge exchange, evolving technologies can facilitate the transfer of pertinent information to students with diverse learning needs (sensory modality preferences). I usually use PowerPoint presentations comprised largely of maps and pictures (rather than mere bullet points of text) to supplement, but not direct, my lectures. I also use guest speakers, documentary films, poetry and prose, and music to introduce different perspectives in the classroom. I develop websites for each of my courses, post detailed course and lecture outlines, and provide students with links to credible online resources.
Being a teacher is an honour and comes with tremendous responsibility. My own commitment to lifelong learning and to fostering a thinking society is mirrored in my approach to teaching. We create a sense of community – and everyone benefits – when we draw upon the knowledge, experience and skills of one another. Posing “deep questions” to students encourages them to weigh evidence and solve problems through self-reflection and debate. They learn about their own values, engage alternate perspectives, and question assumptions and orthodoxies. In this way, we can instil – in the words of St. Jerome’s founder Louis Funcken – an “enthusiasm for truth.”