As a professor, I find it imperative to be completely engaged with the material I am teaching. If I find it interesting, my students are more likely to find it interesting as well. Therefore, teaching takes considerable preparation. A teacher does not have time to convey everything he or she knows on a subject. The choices one makes should stem from an in-depth understanding of the literature, events, historiographies, actors and places being considered.
I recognize that students need content: familiarity with basic cultural, physical, and intellectual knowledge on which they can build skills in critical thinking. Online crowd sourcing via Google and the like can provide quick sources of information, but students need enough background to know how to ask good questions. To learn how to participate in the larger world, students deserve exposure to the large issues and lasting contributions of human society. They need to know how government works and that it does mostly work, that bad things happen and they are not the first to be thinking about why, that ethics matters, that art matters, and that the natural world matters. Especially for first generation students and students from historically underprepared backgrounds, it is crucial to introduce students to academic conventions professors often take for granted. Students need content and context to contribute to ongoing academic conversations.
In my teaching, I find that digging deeply into a subject and having a wide range of possibilities for presentation, both in terms of content and medium, is imperative. In the past, I have been very aware of trying to engage a full range of students’ senses in presenting material—walking students around campus to notice architecture, watching films, and discussing slides of art. I have even served coffee to get students to think more viscerally about the stimulating atmosphere and intellectual ferment of Enlightenment coffeehouses. These kinds of activities are not always practical but the underlying motivation—to engage students on a number of different levels—is key to teaching that changes perspectives and develops clearer thinking.
Sparking students’ interest also involves listening. Teaching should consist of communication, not just talking “at” students. An effective professor pays attention to what speaks to students’ experiences and considers how to convey information so that students can understand it. Classroom teaching involves communication on a number of levels and in different directions: when students ask questions or make comments, those questions and comments can be fielded by other students as well as by the teacher, they can spark the next lecture, or point one to a seminal overlooked reading. My skill as a facilitator, paying attention to the dynamics of the classroom, plays an important role in making those conversations productive.
Finally, criteria for assessment of student learning should be as clear as possible. A course syllabus is an agreement between student and teacher. That agreement needs to be straightforward and unambiguous. For that reason, I give examples of how I assess student work and write assignment guidelines very carefully. Evaluating writing is particularly difficult because style, which may be considered somewhat subjectively, is an important element of writing well. As a teacher, I offer students the best models, take time to discuss their writing with them, and try to help them articulate what they notice in the writing that they read. I have found essay writing workshops in which students read their work out loud to be a powerful way to build critical thinking skills as well as writing facility. It is important to give students the opportunity to practice evaluating their own writing and writing multiple drafts so that they develop evaluation skills for themselves. I build that development into my syllabus.
My goal in teaching is to create space so that students can grow into people who find subjects they are interested in, who learn how to develop their skills, who nurture their own tenacity so that they can delve into those subjects more deeply, and who can evaluate their own efforts in a way that sparks joy and energy for continued study and practice.