Teaching Philosophy

My goal as a teacher is to help students develop skills of analysis and communication grounded in a deeper understanding of the past. I place questions of identity, social position, and power—of race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, region, nation, and the global—in relation to aesthetic form, economic structure, and political ideologies and practices. A consistent theme in all my courses is engagement with a wide range of primary source evidence: students work not only work with written texts, but also with music, film, radio, television, maps, speeches, architecture, urban space, material culture, and visual artifacts. Then, through multimedia-based lectures, classroom activities, field trips, guest speakers, and digital projects, students and I contextualize source materials by applying different methodological approaches, examining past historiographical debates, and linking classroom study to broader issues of public life.

I believe the classroom can be a far richer environment if it moves beyond the standard lecture format. In my courses, students conduct interviews, develop websites and audio podcasts, attend intellectual events of interest, go on field trips, and even role-play and act out the past themselves. For example, to investigate industrialization in the United States during the late-nineteenth century, my students break up into three groups—upper-class owners, working-class laborers, and middle-class managers—to debate the question “Who built America?” Utilizing materials they have read and studied, each group of student makes their case. Once, my “working-class laborers” went so far as to stage a strike and walk out of the classroom.

I have also grown interested in how to teach effective historical writing. In my United States History Since 1865 course, I work to develop a set of related assignments that serve as building blocks toward a final essay. Students move through assignments on the component parts of a successful piece of analytic writing: a thesis; a successful body paragraph that analyzes evidence; introduction; conclusion; and transitions between sections of an essay. As they work on these smaller assignments, students receive feedback on their writing. The assignment culminates in a final essay in which students put together the materials and the writing skills they worked on during the term.

More recently, I have explored the use of digital tools for historical study: students in my methods and research seminars on digital history use annotation software, database design, computational analysis, mapping, visualization strategies, glitching experiments, and multimedia storytelling tactics for both historical analysis of evidence and the communication of findings to fellow scholars and broader public audiences. Students investigate how digital technologies reinvigorate core historical questions. They complete assignments that help them better track the movement from evidence to interpretation; and they deepen skills of expressing evidence-based arguments in more dynamic and effective prose as well as in new multimedia forms. In my digital pedagogy, technology often becomes a way not of speeding up, but rather of slowing down the analytic and communicative processes so that students can begin to examine and improve their skills and capacities for conveying information and meaning.

For instance, in a course called Digitizing Folk Music History, students develop interpretive digital research projects based on primary sources in the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Collection at Northwestern University. Students not only acquire digital skills and literacy in the course and learn more about the folk music revival and American cultural history, they also confront basic methodological questions in historical scholarship: how does one frame a research question, describe existing interpretations, and offer new analysis based on archival sources? Helping students to think about these questions, my digital history course looks toward future ways of doing history digitally while also emphasizing that this future circles back to core skills and practices of historical study. In service of this dialectic between past and future, I also teach a history of technology course on the history of the computer itself. By applying digital tactics to historical inquiry and, simultaneously, rooting digital technologies themselves in historical context, we can help students better navigate today’s disorienting wireless world.

I have also worked extensively with graduate students in both traditional PhD programs and in more non-traditional adult education settings. I encourage graduate students to delve into both primary sources and historiographical debates through intensive reading, discussion, and writing. I have overseen thesis projects on a range of topics: American nurses in the Vietnam War; the development of Old Town as a countercultural neighborhood in 1960s Chicago; the emergence of the contemporary craft movement; portrayals of the Civil War in high school textbooks; “scramble” marching bands at US universities in the 1960s; and muckraking novels during the Progressive Era. Interacting with and mentoring graduate students has been one of my most rewarding intellectual experiences as a teacher and scholar. Most recently, I have introduced a course, Introduction to Cultural Analysis, in which graduate students draw upon a wide range of intellectual sources to help access different theoretical approaches that can enhance particular research interests.

My teaching also extends beyond the classroom. Museums, historical societies, outside speakers, film screenings, plays, concerts, dance companies, and other institutions and events provide new pathways to knowledge. For instance, I work as a historian-in-residence and dramaturg for a contemporary dance company in Chicago, helping to facilitate conversations on college campuses between the ensemble’s research-driven performance and departments far beyond the dance world. At Northwestern, I helped to conceptualize the Graduate Engagement Opportunities field study program and taught a public humanities seminar, The Challenge of the Citizen-Scholar, that accompanied graduate internships and fieldwork. And in a course I taught on the cultural history of the Americas, students and I traveled to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art to learn about an exhibition focused on the Brazilian Tropicalia arts movement; meeting with the show’s curator, students learned about the decisions that determined which art objects were chosen and why; the class had an opportunity to see how the history of Tropicalia—its controversial aesthetics and continued political relevance in Brazil—affected the creation of a contemporary museum exhibition. I have also developed a course in digital cultural criticism and museum studies in which students meet with curators, read historical examples of critical writing, and write in digital modes about contemporary art, performance, culture, and politics.

Overall, my approach to teaching encourages students to grapple with the meaning of history as both a specialized area of scholarly inquiry and a foundation from which to address pressing issues in contemporary life. Whether in methodological, historiographical, or topical courses, I help students bring together primary materials, absorb existing scholarly debates, raise relevant questions, map out explanatory problems and quandaries, connect the classroom to public life, and improve their skills of communication. I work to foster an inclusive atmosphere in which students can discover and relish history as a deeply relevant field of intellectual inquiry. At its best, my classroom becomes an active community of practice in which students improve their capacities for research, writing, acts of generous listening, the cogent expression of evidence-based arguments, and sharpened senses of critical awareness.

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