Monday, January 21, 2008

I Love Teaching History Because

The fabulous and wonderful Tenured Radical has tagged me for a meme on “Why I love teaching history" (which she explains in her post on her own list of reasons -- many of which may be echoed here).

Here goes:

1) Teaching is NEVER boring. You get exhausted and frustrated, but you are never bored. If you are bored, you have the power to make whatever changes necessary to cure the boredom. For instance, I tended to get bored teaching the Progressive era. Don’t ask why, because I’m not sure. So I found hooks on which to hang my lectures: birth control, prostitution, the Lower East Tenement Museum website. Coca-cola was my most recent find. Now, I have trouble controlling the material into a lecture or two. For another instance, I found myself bored in reading the students’ writing assignments (this was for an online class). I figured that they must be bored doing the assignments. I changed the assignments from the “explain the reasons for the Spanish-American War” generic types of questions to “You are a young man facing the prospect of going to war in Cuba or the Phillipines during the Spanish American War. Do you join or not? Why?” type of role playing question. Then, I made them play devil’s advocate with another student. The class took off after that. None of us were bored.

2) I love history, and I love learning about history. Teaching history, especially at a community college where you end up teaching classes that force you to venture outside of your specialization, allows you to constantly learn about history. You end up learning not only the developing interpretations of your own field, but also simply the raw facts about history in another field. This past semester, I taught a 20th century world history class. I was out of my league in about ten different ways for that, so I had to learn the history before I taught it. That made for a stressful and exhausting semester, but what fun! I was reminded of the reason that I loved being an undergraduate so much: I was constantly learning new subjects, which made the world seem so much bigger and exciting. Which brings me to….

3) I love sharing the subject that I love with other people. More importantly, I love seeing them develop an interest in that subject. That’s one of the many reasons that I despise standardized tests in grade schools and this movement for “outcomes assessment” at the college level (its coming to your college, if it hasn’t already, the bastards). Those tests are Trivial Pursuit. They hammer “facts” into students head. That is not education, it does not foster an understanding of the subject, it doesn’t teach students to think about a subject, it doesn’t make the subject interesting and therefore doesn’t lead to a lifelong desire to continue learning the subject. Lifelong learning is one of my goals in teaching. We, as teachers, can only do so much in a semester; but if we have inspired students to continue to learn, to have them visit historical sites, read history books, and – most importantly – ask about the historical context of current events, then we have given them a beautiful gift and a means of empowerment. Which leads to….

4) I love seeing students learn to love history (or at least not hate it). I love watching them realize that history is not a list of dates and dead white men. I love watching them realize that humans lived history, made decisions about events, that those decisions had a context, and that those events led to the conditions that we live in today. In other words, I love seeing them find that history is, in fact, relevant; and I love seeing them realize that they do, in fact, need to understand history in order to understand their own world. I love hearing them ask “why?” even when I don’t know the answer. I love seeing them go and find out “why?” I love seeing them – and I’ve found that this is especially true of my African American history students – become transformed and empowered by the subject.

5) I love that my students bring the world into my classroom. This has been especially true this past semester when I have had classrooms that have been up to 90% immigrant and look 100% different from me. I have no idea where they are coming from, but some gradually reveal themselves through the semester, and I want to foster more of that. For example, I have had students from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Gabon in my African American history classes. Now, imagine that: their predecessors were, over the course of 3 centuries, kidnapped from Africa, taken to America, returned to Africa, and now here these students are, sitting in a classroom in America. I also had a student from Ethiopia and a student from Eritrea in the same world history classroom, and they both explained to me the situation between their two countries. This has meant that I have had to relinquish some of my control over the subject, my role as the “expert” to allow their voices to contribute to the subject. As a teacher, and as a person who gives a damn about the condition of other people in the world, this is a humbling experience. I love that.

6) Bonus! I love the performance of teaching. I love getting in front of an audience and doing my thing. I love putting together an interesting presentation with images and maps. I love acting out history – like the Pocahontas/John Smith myth or the Brooks-Sumner incident (but I never hit a student, of course!) -- to make it come alive. I love reading out part of a Frederick Douglass speech. I love that, when I did that, a student was so inspired that he took over and read the next paragraph of the speech. I love that, when I read “Aren’t I a Woman” out loud, the women in the class responded as if in a church service “uh-huh,” “I know that’s right,” and “Amen.” I love when YouTube allows the historical figure to enter the classroom. I love that the history creates a character and lines for me. I love that this performance makes teaching history creative in ways that no other job that I have held has allowed.
You're it!
I tag anyone who teaches (or has ever taught, at whatever level and in whatever way) who reads this blog.
Also, to alter the meme: because it is so rare, if you love what you do, you are tagged to give five reasons as to why you love it.


GayProf said...

You forgot the fantastic money. Oh, right...

Belle said...

Hey, if we did it for the money, we'd be paying them. Oh wait, I've been subsidizing them for years...

One of the things I love about teaching history is the scope. At my SLAC, I can basically pitch and teach whatever tickles my fancy. Which, as you note, then forces you into a frantic spasm of learning, which is such a rush. And then you get to teach it!


Hahn at Home said...

All of my greatest teachers were also great performers - capturing our attention, our curiousity, and our imagination. They loved the performance, they loved their subject, and they knew how to make us love it too.

My oldest son is not a big reader. But, he loves to read fiction related to WWII - not just any fiction, the fiction where someone like himself is involved - a young man off to war. He connects with it some way - and that's thanks to a history teacher he had.

I would think that teacher in a CC environment would be doubly interesting because of all the non-traditional learners. What they bring. Their experiences and interpretations.

Lucky you.

Tenured Radical said...

Nice Clio! Your college and students sound fascinating, btw.


Miss Rasselas said...

I loved this entry as much as I love teaching. You illuminated every reason why I am a teacher. I've only been teaching for one year; I'm a newbie and afraid that one day I will become jaded. Your thoughts gave me faith that I won't become jaded. All the reasons you listed are too good. Money and paychecks don't factor into the equation when the other things you listed are the job "perks."


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