Teaching in Place While the World Burns

We are living in difficult times. When I was a college student at the beginning of the (undeclared) Iraq War, I was often preoccupied by the paradox of wanting to learn in a disciplined academic setting while it felt like the world was burning and I should be doing something about it. I do not believe the world feels less on fire for college students today.

Today I am a college professor (visiting assistant, but still, I got that P.h.D!) so I must, on some level, believe that there is value to institution-based learning for young adults today. I do. I firmly believe that history as a discipline teaches exactly the kind of skills that can help us understand inequality and processes of oppression. Good history teaches you how to ask questions about context and causality, how to examine biases, and how to effectively find answers across multiple forms of research. But history is also generally not a theory of action. Historians make terrible activists; we are always complicating things in moments when political activism requires simplicity. Historians make better advisors, in my opinion and should be part, but not all of the committee.

As a college professor of history I am not primarily interested in turning all my students into historians, but I do want them to see that they are learning valuable ways of seeing the world when they study history. I want them to explore dynamics of inequality, oppression and resistance in settings that are not familiar, and then use that experience to defamiliarize and question their own assumptions locally. I also want them to recognize that they are learning concrete skills in my classroom, just as they would be in a computer science classroom, an engineering course, or a carpentry workshop.

I believe that students learn best when they are asked to bring their educational experiences to bear on their worlds. I also believe that the purpose of education is to better serve the public good (once a Badger, always a Badger) and that the question of how to serve the public good is a very difficult one for undergraduates to answer by themselves. Finally, I believe that history is an omnivorous discipline that pairs well with digital technologies for research and communication and is very suited to the needs of the contemporary student. For all these reasons, I try to organize my courses to consciously engage interdisciplinary questions about the here and now, even if they discuss content that is far and then. I also design my courses to incorporate principles and practices of academic community engagement whether or not I am teaching a course that has an explicit service component.

This is a kind of teaching that Zoe Todd has called “teaching in place.1 However, in order to teach in place, you have to sink roots and create space for experimentation and failure. I am a visiting assistant professor at a small liberal arts college, and as a visiting assistant professor the nature of my job is temporary and peripatetic and the risks of failure are very high. This creates some tensions and contradictions, as you might imagine.

I hope to write about some of these tensions in the posts that follow.

  1. Zoe Todd. “Teaching in Place: Fostering Relationality and Reciprocity in the Classroom in 2017” Savage Minds. /2017/08/19/teaching-in-place-fostering-relationality-and-reciprocity-in-the-classroom-in-2017/.

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