What’s in Your Pedagogy Toolbox?

A few weeks ago, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver, I had the opportunity to chair a session centered around rethinking History Ph.D. education. It was a great conversation, and the two panelists–both Ph.D. students doing some really remarkable work–powerfully articulated the ways in which we can expand some of the training Ph.D. students get in their departments in order to more effectively navigate the radically changed landscape of post-graduate employment in our field. As part of my comments for the session, I talked about the need for increased training in pedagogy. I made it clear that I was not just talking about the usual half-day graduate TA “orientation” that happens in August, where we all learned that we needed to ask our supervising professor for help if we ran into problems, to not date our students,…aaaand that’s really about it. (Funny story about that: at the Graduate School-hosted orientation I attended before my first semester of Ph.D. work, a panel of profs who’d won teaching awards sat around a table onstage in front of several hundred of us newbies and dispensed various nuggets of teaching wisdom. One of the profs (the historian, of course) dozed off ON STAGE DURING HIS OWN PANEL DISCUSSION and was snoring into his lapel mic. That’s what I remember from my grad-school teaching orientation.)

Preparing those comments forced me to reflect on how it is we do development when it comes to our pedagogy. Some of us are fortunate enough to be at institutions with teaching centers (full disclosure: I direct my university’s teaching center, so I am enormously biased in favor of them), and we have the opportunity to participate in faculty development opportunities that are essentially built for us. Some Universities’ teaching centers have Preparing Future Faculty programs designed to train Ph.D. students to enter the job market with excellent pedagogical training and preparation. Other institutions may have these centers, but the History departments (and thus, their Ph.D. students) may not intersect with them effectively. And other places may not have these types of institutional resources at all-and that includes many of the colleges and universities at which we’ve begun our academic careers. So how do historians, beginning with Ph.D. students but continuing into all phases of their careers, undertake the type of development opportunities that make them more effective teachers, even in the absence of external opportunities or support for doing so?

Part of the answer lies in our own autodidacticism, for lack of a better term. In this regard, social media and online communities play a large role in creating what the teaching and learning field calls “communities of practice.” Blogs like this one, for example, are a great place to go for not only what the contributors post, but the often engaging and collaborative discussions that occur in the comment threads (one of the few places on the internet where reading the comments won’t ruin your opinion of humanity). There is a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning which, at its best, combines both qualitative and quantitative research to inform pedagogy–to create “scholarly teaching.” A small but growing literature exists in the History-specific area of this larger corpus. The History Teacher journal (published via the Society for History Education) is an excellent and long-running source of both theoretical and practical material. Notable articles, like Lendol Calder’s essential discussion of “uncoverage,” are essential parts of a scholarly teacher’s repertoire. Books by Sam Wineburg (Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts) and Bruce Vansledright (The Challenge of Rethinking History Education) are essential places to start, I think, in thinking about the scholarly work of teaching history. And, finally, the growing body of literature in teaching and learning contains much within it to inform our own professional and pedagogical development. Indeed, the intersection of work by scholars in psychology, neuroscience, and the humanities has deepened our understanding of not only how students learn, but why we ought to adopt certain types of pedagogical practices and how those practices need to be seen as nuanced and context-dependent. In my own work, I’ve found Ambrose, et al.,’s How Learning Works  and James Lang’s Small Teaching to be two of the most effective examples of how this type of scholarly research can actually shape and refine our everyday pedagogical practice. I firmly believe that our training as historians is ideally-suited to the type of professional development we ought to engage in as scholarly teachers: we have keenly-honed skills in researching a topic, absorbing the literature, drawing conclusions, and applying that knowledge to our own thinking and practice. Moreover, in doing so, we model the very type of continuing engagement and problem-solving habits that we try to instill in our students as well. 

What are your go-to resources for professional and pedagogical development? How do you develop and maintain a reflective and adaptable teaching practice? What are the tools in your pedagogical toolbox? Let us know in the comments!

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