Interview with Allyson M. Poska
6. What is your most effective classroom activity?
I think my most effective assignment is an exercise on the second day of class in Western Civilization. I divide the class into groups of five. On the screen, I put up the cover of the Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood album, with all kinds of ambiguous imagery. I ask students to talk for a few minutes together about what they see on the album cover. Then we have a class discussion about what they see and why they interpret each image that way.
This exercise has numerous benefits. First, it allows students to make personal connections from day one, hopefully tempering any fear of talking in front of their peers. Second, this exercise helps students realize that they “know” things about unfamiliar texts (or in this case, an image), and that they can use their own knowledge and experience as interpretive guides. Finally, students become familiar with the idea that there are many valid ways to interpret the same information.
7. What are your most important goals/aims in teaching the survey course? What do you most want your students to take away from a survey course with you?
I want students to see the past as populated by ordinary people like themselves. Some of those people faced problems and had exciting moments similar to their own; others had experiences with which they can only try to empathize. Either way, they have access to the past and the past has connections to their lives.
8. How do you encourage class participation?
The most important assignment is that every student must contribute to the class discussion of a primary source reading once each week. If you contribute, either with a question, an answer, or a comment, you get credit. If you don’t talk, you get no credit. The value of that contribution is high. Class discussion is 30% of the total grade.
At first, some students balk, but with time, most learn that having completed even some of the assigned reading, they have something to say about the topic at hand. I believe that learning to interpret texts and communicate those interpretations is the most important skill we can offer our students. Moreover, participating in class discussion teaches them that most of learning about history is not being right or wrong, but about thinking, analyzing, and formulating your own ideas.
Finally, although few will use the reading or writing skills that are a part of history classes, most of them will have to speak in front of people in their post-college lives. Being comfortable articulating their ideas is a useful skill that students can take with them, even if they remember little or nothing about the rest of the material.
9. What is your most memorable teaching experience?
I have had a couple of unexpected teaching moments that were almost tangential to the class, but critical learning moments nonetheless. The first was many years ago in the historical methods class. We all taught the same syllabus for the class and it required students to dress up for their final presentations. I told that class that they had to dress nicely, but not gender-specifically (men did not have to wear ties and women did not have to wear dresses).
Much to my surprise, I arrived on the final presentation day to find two of the young men in the class dressed in drag. They had not consulted one another. Listening to a presentation on Napoleon at Waterloo and a presentation on mining strikes in West Virginia by men dressed in women’s clothing was quite an experience.
We all had a good laugh, but more importantly, we had a remarkable experience with gender expectations and how the classroom is often, by default, very traditionally gendered. My students had never considered how asking men to wear a tie and women to wear dresses made visible manifestations of masculinity and femininity a part of an assignment in which gender should not have been a factor.
I also had a terrific learning moment in a seminar on Women in Latin America. At the end of the semester, I have the students read a recent collection of fiction by Latina writers to discuss how the women’s history has impacted the experience of Latinas in the present.
As it turned out, that year many of the writers in the collection were lesbians. Before class, the Latinas in my class all came to tell me that they didn’t like the stories because, as they assured me, there were no gays or lesbians in Latin culture. They believed that homosexuality was an Anglo thing. They knew… they were Latinas.
We then talked about how homosexuality was often not acknowledged in their community, a topic discussed by many of the writers. I asked whether any of them had an aunt or cousin or friend who had lived with the same woman for years “as a roommate.” However, when that aunt moved to Los Angeles, her roommate moved along her. Or, did any of them have an uncle who never married, but brought his same male “friend” to family events for decades.
With each new hypothetical example I offered, the students began to think of people in their families who fit the bill. One by one, they would say, “no way! Uncle Ricardo and Michael!,” or “not Tia Susana and Laura!” Suddenly, homosexuality was not just a fictional construct or the export of another culture, but something that they could consider as a possibility in their community and in their own families. This lesson was not the point of the class, but I know from later conversations with those same students that it was a transitional moment in some of their lives.
10. How has teaching changed over your career?
When I was a new teacher, I was very concerned about what I perceived as conflicting demands of my students, my colleagues, my intellectual interests, and the discipline. Students expected to learn one type of history, my colleagues expected me to teach another, I was interested in yet another part of history, and (so I believed) the discipline expected me to bring key concepts to the classroom.
However, with time, I began to see that these different expectations were not as inflexible as I had imagined and that I was a better teacher when I taught my own topics and concepts. My passion was infectious. Students learned more and learned more easily.
Moreover, my colleagues were less interested in the details of my classes than I had imagined. By changing tactics, my students got a better education and my needs as a teacher and intellectual were better meshed.
11. What constitutes good teaching?
Good teaching differs from person to person, but for me the best teaching happens when I am at a critical nexus with my students. At that moment I am able to work with my students as intellectuals and as people with a certain set of skills and experiences and at the same time encourage them to move beyond that place both socio/emotionally and intellectually. It is a hard place to find, but when I can help students move to a new point in their development, they learn the most, are most changed by what they learn, and find the process the most enjoyable.
12. Why do you think students often find history “boring”?
I think that students are bored by history for a couple of reasons. First, for some students it is just not the best way for them to understand the world. They understand how the world works through religion, science, or philosophy. Or quite frankly, many people just are not interested in understanding how the world works.
As teachers, we should not be frustrated by that fact. We should just acknowledge those differences and make the class as interesting and as meaningful as possible for those students. Not everyone has to love history.
Second, students often see no relationship between their own lives and the past. Our culture’s emphasis on the push forward towards a better, modern, or post-modern future makes history seem irrelevant to them. Although as scholars we learn from the past and make connections between the past and the present quite easily, we often need to be more assertive in providing those connections for students.
13. What tips would you give to a new history teacher?
I would tell a new teacher to teach what she/he wants and loves, not what she/he thinks students “should” know or what his/her colleagues might want. When it comes to teaching, let your passions be your guide. Also, don’t feel compelled to reinvent the wheel. Ask friends and colleagues for help with lectures and assignments. Such requests make the teaching process more collaborative and take away some of the stress of early semesters.
Interview conducted by Jenny Reeder; completed in March 2008.
Interview with Nancy A. Hewitt
14. What, in your view, constitutes good teaching?
I think good teaching can come in many forms. For me what is critical is that teachers work to their strengths. I was never going to be the kind of spellbinding lecturer that was the model of pedagogical greatness when I got out of graduate school (in 1981). But I was an excellent discussion leader as a TA, and I had read a lot of work in feminist and other progressive pedagogies that emphasized active learning and student engagement with primary sources, debates, etc. So I decided early on that I was going to incorporate discussion into my teaching no matter what size the class. Last year I taught an eighty-five student survey in American Women’s History without a TA and regularly broke the room up into groups of eight or nine students each to analyze documents, websites, or articles. It was certainly a bit chaotic at times, but it definitely engaged most students in new ways and reminded them that learning was a dynamic process.
I am less self-righteous about this teaching technique now than I used to be. I did think early on that my colleagues, almost all men, who simply lectured to their students were doing them a disservice. Now I’ve decided that some faculty really are terrific lecturers and that they can best convey information through that medium. Others are more like me, strong discussion leaders, who can integrate lecture and discussion effectively. Some of my younger colleagues have really honed their high tech skills, and can present amazing material via Power Point and CDRoms. Of course, I have also had colleagues at the various universities where I’ve taught who did not care much about teaching, and didn’t think much about teaching strategies. I am not sure that it would have mattered which techniques they used, as they were simply not engaged by undergraduate education. Teaching was what they had to do to carry on a career in research and publication.
I feel fortunate because for me, teaching has enriched my research and writing and visa versa. I think that if you can develop a teaching style that works to your strengths and a vision of yourself that combines teaching and research as central to your life as a historian, then you will create a fulfilling career for yourself, and one that is rewarding in a range of ways.
15. What tips would you give to a new history teacher—particularly someone approaching the survey course?
My tips for new teachers, especially in survey courses, emerge from my thoughts on good teaching. Hone your best skills, find a comfort zone in the classroom so that you learn to enjoy teaching and see it as intellectually challenging. Survey courses can wear you down because of their size, the writing and grading expectations, the wide range of students in any one class, and the fact that you may teach the same course over and over again. But make the survey your friend! It is the best place to introduce students to your own perspectives on the past, to recruit good students for your upper level courses, to introduce graduate students to innovative teaching techniques and strategies, and to remind yourself of the larger narratives that provide the context for your own, more focused, research and writing.
The first couple of times you teach the survey, treat it as a learning experience. Get as much advice going in as you can about what students find interesting to read, how capable they are in terms of writing assignments, what kinds of exams are expected by your department, etc. It is incredibly frustrating for both the teacher and the students if you teach at a level that is too high or too low for the students in your class. Keep experimenting, including revising assignments in the midst of the semester, if it seems like the students are either overwhelmed or bored. Ask former teachers or fellow graduate students who have already taught the survey to send you syllabi, group project assignments, etc. Teaching is a collective enterprise in the sense that we all benefit from sharing ideas, tips, even lecture outlines. Then over the years, you want to both polish what you have developed and to introduce new ideas, books, projects, assignments, lectures. To keep the survey fresh means ordering a new book, using a website in place of an article, trying out new video clips or slides, or introducing a whole new lecture or discussion topic periodically. Once you have a firm foundation—whether that’s a full set of lectures, a series of PowerPoint presentations or a group of collaborative projects and discussion topics—the survey can be a joy to teach. And even getting to that foundation can be less painful if you see it as a long term investment of time and energy, and if you remember that for many of us, a college-level survey course was what captured our imagination and started us thinking about becoming a historian in the first place.
Interview conducted by Sharon Leon; completed in May 2005.