Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Stepping onto the Teaching Stage -- Are We Ever Prepared?


As a first-time teacher of the American history survey, I’ll be contributing to the TUSH blog to share my experiences and cull some much needed advice from you veterans. I’m a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Rice University, examining how nineteenth-century African American women utilized the material and visual culture of their domestic lives to fight cultural stereotypes and justify their rights to citizenship. I’m also the Jameson Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Bayou Bend Collection, currently curating a digital exhibit on the African American material culture in the collection. But right now much of my energy is directed towards staying afloat in the classroom.

“They’ll eat you alive,” she said, with a look of pity in her eyes. “They don’t want to listen to you drone on about history.” Coming from the History Department administrative assistant just moments before I walked into my first class, I almost believed it. This was not only my first survey class, it was my first class ever. Aside from teaching ballet and tap to four year-olds, I had never stood in front of a classroom with all the power and responsibility that teaching entails. As a dancer, I’ve always loved being on a stage, yet there was something terrifying about teaching. I stepped behind the podium on that first day with my heart racing. I am prepared enough? Will they respect me? Will they like me? Can I convince them that history is interesting and important?

But, just like the moment when I’d step on stage with my pointe shoes and tutu, the moment my lecture began I knew I was ready. And that’s because graduate school actually does prepare you to teach, though in ways I didn’t expect. All the comps reading I completed over the last summer prepared me to ask big, broad questions that intrigue students. Comps encouraged me to connect a wide variety of historical monographs with themes that span all eras of American and Atlantic World history. I bring these themes to the classroom, yet I don’t “dumb down” the complexities. I incorporate complicated concepts from seminal works like Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom that, for example, press them to think critically about the development of race and racism in this country. Students have responded to the introduction of these big concepts by asking for more: “Can you explain more about the connections between class tensions and racism?” These moments have also been one of the few where I can visibly see students “getting it.” Heads bobbing up in down with a surprised look on their face, it is as if this concept of racism they’ve heard about for so long now has some much needed background to it.

Additionally, the culturally diverse and young student population seems to find my particular interest in material culture (they like things!) quite relevant to their own past and present. They are curious to explore how an object might tell a story beyond the confines of its materiality, to contemplate how the objects in their own lives reflect, reify, and sometimes alter cultural norms. By making them think more deeply about what their own material culture says about themselves and their society, they begin to grapple with the tricky relationship between people and structure that motivates history. I hope to include more material and visual culture sources in class, as it appears to alter their mindset of what constitutes the “stuff” of history. I saw this when we analyzed indigenous Aztec maps from the Codex Mendoza and the Relaciones Geográficas collection, when they discovered that maps are not just a representation of some scientific spatial reality but that they (like documents) have a point of view, a bias, an audience, and an argument.

Colleagues often told me that I would feel a serious let-down after I completed comps, as if all that studying, thinking, and writing was for one thing only: the exams themselves. Yet I’m finding that all the preparation establishing connections between dozens of books, especially when coupled with my own historical interests, is in fact a boon for teaching. What do you think is the relationship between graduate school and teaching? Is there anything we can do to enhance this relationship? And (as I seek guidance from y'all) how do you incorporate your own historical interests into the classroom?

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