Statement of Teaching Philosophy

As my student and I walk through the old Jewish cemetery in Curaçao carefully documenting gravestone iconography, foot-long whiptail lizards leap out from the enormous cracks in the tombs.  The air is hot, humid, and laden with the overwhelming stench of the nearby refinery.  Scraggly weeds choke the paths:  the only lush plants are those that feed off of the bodies of the dead.  Their green limbs crawl out from cracks in the elegant marble tombs.  These stones recall an era in which this small desert island and the Jews who lived here lay at the center of early American trade routes. 

 

For my student, learning about this community is an active and visceral process:  to test our hypothesis about what the gravestone iconography means, we collect data, photograph the stones, enter our data into seriation tables, and pause when necessary to review questions that arise.  How will we know which row corresponds to the old map?  How will we correlate the photos with the rows?  Have any stones decayed beyond recognition since the last survey?  If so, how will we account for them? Later we will visit the island’s archives to recover historical information about the cemetery’s residents.  By looking at cemeteries across racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries, we seek to better understand how group identity was defined through burial practice on the island. 

 

Although not all my teaching takes places in the field as it does above example, I try to recreate this same interactive and engaged model of education in the classroom.  I want my students to feel their questions matter, that history was about actual people, that they can develop hypotheses about the past and use data and evidence to test the validity of those hypotheses.  My classes balance delivering content with developing skills: I want students not only to read about history, but also to do history.

 

In my classes I strive to create engaged, self-directed learners who are capable of developing their own research questions and implementing them.  Many of my courses use a problem-based approach that engages students in the process of building the course's narrative.  Problem-based learning is an approach for teaching interdisciplinary studies that encourages active student participation and teaches people to reach across disciplines and boundaries in new ways. Problem-based learning argues that the best way to teach people to do this is to give them the hands-on experience of being a researcher, rather than dogmatically telling people how to be creative thinkers.  While sometimes this means taking students into the field, other times it means teaching about the politics of archiving by having them create their own digital archives, or asking them to choose which work in an anthology best answers or expands the questions we have been developing in class rather than always choosing the texts for them.  For me, my effectiveness is dependent upon how engaged my students are and whether they are able to use what they learn in class to develop their own questions and answers.

 

I teach a wide range of courses from freshmen humanities to graduate seminars.  Although I specialize in early America, I am broadly trained as an Americanist and have taught both introductory courses and specialized topics from the colonial era to the present, as well as ancient and early modern humanities.   Although I prefer discussion-based courses, I also regular team-teach in a lecture-discussion course.  In my lectures for this course, I am constantly seeking new means to deliver content effectively and to engage my audience and make their experiences relevant.  Although I do teach some classes that focus primarily on textual analysis, the vast majority of my classes tend to read texts and objects in the context of the era’s religious, cultural, and artistic movements. If these courses often contain a digital component, it is only because I believe it will enhance student learning: for me digital methods should do something old in a better way or allow new paths of inquiry, rather than solely be an end in and of themselves.

 

My deep interest writing pedagogy also underlies my courses.  For me writing happens in steps, and in each class I try to aim to help students take their writing to the next level.  In addition to having overseen Reed College’s writing improvement committee and writing center in past years, I have led faculty research and writing groups that focused on advanced academic writing and goal planning.  I am greatly influenced by the methods of Wendy Belcher and her writing workshop approach to academic genres.  My interest in academic writing also influences my advising of senior theses and master students’ degree papers. I enjoy helping students learn how to develop their ideas and express their arguments succinctly and successfully.  Some of my most pleasurable teaching moments have come during paper conferences and thesis meetings when I helped students reach their potential.

 

Whether in lecture, small classes, or working one-on-one, my goal is to help students strive to answer that fundamental question for humanists, “so what?”  What is at stake in our inquiries?  How and why does my research matter?  For me, this means teaching students to let themselves be challenged. I believe that humanism begins when we allow what we study to question our own assumptions.  Here I think of Rilke’s beautiful poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo" (1908).  In it Rilke speaks of seeing a fragment of an archaic Greek statue in the Louvre.  It is broken and worn by time; yet, like other artifacts from the past, the statue dazzles us. It is “still suffused with brilliance from inside.”  Because of this brilliance, we do not just gaze at the relic from the past; rather, it gazes back at us. “For here [in the statue] there is no place / that does not see you,” Rilke tells us. “You must change your life.” My goal as a teacher is to allow students to see the object’s gaze, to hear the text speak, and to begin to rethink themselves and their work.