College students learn the most when they feel personally engaged with and invested in the topic at hand. For many undergraduates, however, the past can seem like a mere abstraction: a collection of inert facts sprinkled across an orderly timeline. As a scholar and a teacher, it is my goal to help students overturn this passive conception of the past and see history as a set of open questions awaiting interpretation from their generation.
I present history as an unending argument about the circumstances and meaning of past events, in which historians evaluate new ideas based upon the historical evidence offered to support them. In classroom discussions and written assignments, I use a primary source reader to facilitate student analysis of historical evidence.
By examining accounts of loyalists exiled during the American Revolution, for example, students gain the source material needed to explain why people might have remained loyal in the face of such hardships, and how their stories complicate our understanding of the Revolution. To highlight the uncertainty all colonists faced in 1776, I ask my students to consider the consequences of a hypothetical, present-day bid for independence by their state. Debating the pros and cons of a California or Texas revolution frees them from the burden of knowing how past events played out and enables them to relate more personally to the primary source reading.
When assigning essays, I avoid specific paper prompts and, instead, challenge my students to create their own arguments, supported by evidence from their reader. I promote student success on these essays by providing examples of quality student work, dedicating class time to writing instruction, and requiring paper outlines and rewrites.
Occasionally focusing on the future rather than the past can also help make students feel invested in a history course. I highlight the future utility of the skill-set taught in my courses by asking the students to craft a cover letter on behalf of a past presidential candidate, using the Constitution’s description of the executive branch as a job posting. The letters detail the qualifications of the candidate and should be tailored to address the nation’s needs at the time of the election. Well-written letters that connect past experiences to the skills needed for the job receive high marks.
It is my hope that, like historical debate, my courses will be continually evolving and always meeting the needs of the present generation. Only by adapting my teaching skills to the changing needs of the student body will I be able to guide my future students toward a personal connection with our shifting understanding of the past.