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Reimagining Teaching

Seth C. Bruggeman was lucky to have a sabbatical during the first full-semester of the pandemic. He took that time to re-evaluate his teaching philosophy.

Spring 2020 hit hard. 

Our flight from campus that March meant that course planning had suddenly become disaster planning. What, I wondered, could my students and I save from the wreckage? How much could we reasonably take with us into the virtual classroom? How would we find each other there, and how could we go on together? Like everyone else, I was grasping for answers but finding only more questions.

And then a reprieve: a fall 2020 sabbatical! COVID-19 guaranteed that it wouldn’t be the sabbatical I had planned. But what we all needed most in that moment was time and I couldn’t have been more grateful for it. I did not, however, want to return to teaching online without a plan. And so I spent a good bit of my sabbatical doing something I hadn’t done since grad school: I wrote a statement of teaching philosophy. 

My goal was to identify what I had learned over 20 years of teaching that: 1). worked regardless of venue; 2). centered students rather than institutions; and, 3). could provide a framework for teaching during good times and bad. It wasn’t easy. I thought and wrote and revised until my statement felt like a decent summation of my personal bedrock pedagogy. I even shared it with former students and asked that they confirm whether or not it reflected their experience of my teaching. 

Highlights include:

1. Modeling inquiry, NOT delivering information, should be the chief aim of teaching.

My value as a teacher is not bound up with what I know so much as it is an index of how I respond to the much larger universe of things that I do not know. In this regard, all teachers always model inquiry. Responding to the unknown with fear and derision (e.g. feigning expertise, belittling other ways of knowing, ignoring the moment) models habits of mind that reinforce privilege and exclusivity. Beginning rather with what we don’t know, and marshaling what tools we have to explore it, models habits of mind that promote calm, kindness, and confidence in times of uncertainty.

2. Teaching is the curation of experience.

A good course is an intentional sequence of discrete experiences (e.g. reading, lectures, discussions, assignments, encounters, trips, etc.) that reveal to each student new knowledge about themselves and about the topic they’ve chosen to study. My capacity to teach well resides not primarily in my content expertise, important though that is, but rather in my ability to pick, choose, and create learning experiences that together are greater than the sum of their parts. I am a deejay, and I succeed so long as my students keep dancing.

3. Slow down.

Coverage is a myth of profit. The notion that there are a particular number of topics, or themes, or decades, or datum that must be “covered” during any given course is born of the tendency to standardize education, to mechanize it so that its costs and profits can be routinized. Yes, I have learning goals. Yes, some courses are conceived of primarily as surveys. Yes, our time is valuable. And yet, because every course is different, so is its relationship to time. Wherever possible, I will set our pace according to the particularities of the topic, the needs of my students, and the exigencies of the moment. In all cases, it is my goal to slow down and protect students from the contrivances of time and profit.

4. Resist the classroom

A learning space, such as a classroom and all of its contents, constitutes a theory of education. It is an organizing principle that silently maps onto us ideas about learning that often originate in the ledger sheets of corporate architects, furniture manufacturers, paint vendors, courseware firms, and no end of others for whom education is secondary to profit. In all instances, I will resist the classroom’s tendency to define my pedagogy. 

My capacity to teach well need not reside in a lectern or within any other topography of power. We will insist that ideas be our guide even when—especially when—those ideas conflict with what we are encouraged to accept as the normal landscape of learning.

5. Learn about by learning how.

Course expectations are too frequently infused with the veiled language of productivity and privilege. Formulations such as skills training, vocational education, hard/soft skills, life of the mind, and theory/practice all serve to reinforce the notion that thinking and doing exist on either end of a spectrum along which humans must stake their identity. My pedagogy is committed to demonstrating that thinking and doing are, in fact, one in the same. By jettisoning the old binaries, we learn to discover nuance where none seemed to exist. I aim to learn how to do something new with my students each time I teach.

6. Create safety; encourage risk.

To the best of my ability, I will strive to create learning spaces wherein it is possible for everyone to grapple with big ideas free of the anxieties associated with economic pressure, time pressure, corporate learning outcomes, health concerns, or fear that others might insist that any single characteristic of one’s self be forced to stand in for one’s whole self. I will rarely succeed in achieving this goal fully, but constantly challenging myself to do so will ensure that I always value all of my students, above all, as humans. By working together to create a safe learning space, we will empower ourselves to take intellectual risks.

7. Revel in ourselves; respect our neighbors.

In learning together we discover strength in difference. It is the mingling of our various identities, beliefs, goals, and aspirations that promotes self-awareness and sparks discovery. In learning, then, we celebrate ourselves. And yet, we must not forget that we learn together in the presence of everyone whose lives intersect in our lessons, including our neighbors and the multitudes of people whose labor makes this moment possible. We will strive to honor them by making our time together serve others beyond ourselves.

8. Course correction.

A course is called a “course” because it promises passage through a sequence of ideas. Don’t mistake a course for a map. Maps are fixed. Courses shift to accommodate obstacles and opportunities. My syllabus, therefore, though it must be clear about the duration of the voyage and its goals, need not guarantee any particular route. Set a course at the outset, but don’t be afraid to correct it early and often, and—most importantly—in conversation with your crew.

9. Accretion.

Strive always to make students aware of their accumulation of knowledge over time. Create assignments, for instance, that are iterative over the entire semester, wherein one idea leads to another, and for which each accomplishment is a necessary precondition for the next. Reveal to students how knowledge accretes through successive and purposeful acts of learning. Allow my evaluation of their success to also accrete over time.

10. Assume the best.

In almost every instance, teachers must take students at their word, no questions asked. It is true that, from time to time, we will be deceived. It may be that a student misses class or performs poorly or acts out for reasons that we cannot or need not know. And that’s o.k., SO LONG AS: the student is not in danger or endangering others; the student’s actions are not intended to exploit the vulnerabilities of others; and, the teacher has created a learning experience wherein fairness of evaluation does not require that everyone perform equally in all instances. Teaching is hard. Learning is hard. Life is hard. We can’t ever expect to know or understand all the challenges our students confront. I pledge to be a teacher, not a gatekeeper. Confusing the two promotes fear, misunderstanding, and inequity.

Was the exercise worthwhile? Absolutely! Most immediately, it helped me reimagine online teaching as an opportunity for deep experience rather than as an impediment to it. When I returned to teaching during spring 2021, for instance, I taught a graduate seminar in material culture in part from my home shop where I had been building a small boat. It allowed us to make things together, and to talk about tools and knowledge and repair and authenticity in ways that were as effective if not more so than what I’ve managed in “real” classrooms. 

I also vigorously restructured how time works in my courses. This is a two-step process. Step one involves talking with students about time. My Historian’s Craft students spend almost two weeks reading about time and examining how it works in their lives. Step two features structural changes: I’ve more-or-less abolished all hard deadlines since returning to teaching. To my great surprise that change has clearly improved the quality of my students’ work, which still comes in pretty much whenever I suggest that it should.

How fortunate I was to have stumbled into an opportunity to creatively reimagine my teaching. 

Now, though, in our rush to resume something resembling normalcy, I’ve already felt that creative impulse slip away beneath the crush of deadlines that I cannot control. 

The pandemic has reminded me that good teaching takes time, but it has also revealed how little time we are given to be good teachers. 

Whether or not the university learns that lesson will surely determine how well it deals with our ongoing disaster and what others may follow.

Seth C. Bruggeman, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts. He’s also the Director of the Center for Public History.

This story is from the June 2022 edition of the Faculty Herald.

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