Why I Teach

Let’s get something clear from the start: I love teaching. I love teaching history. I love teaching students at a school that prioritizes teaching. I love walking in to a classroom with historical documents and scholarly readings and images and strategies for how I’m going to talk with students about the past (and often the present and the future).  I love that I walk out from that same classroom an hour or so later simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated, having learned as much as the students have in our give and take of learning about the past.  I love seeing what students can do if you push them out of their comfort zone while also providing them with support and opportunities to approach, both creatively and rigorously, the study of history.  I love my job.

My approach to teaching is grounded in the importance of historical inquiry, the multidisciplinary nature of the liberal arts, and five key related beliefs.  First, I believe that students are at the center of teaching.  I work to involve students in classes as participants, leaders, and fellow learners.  In exchange, I expect students to take responsibility for their education in and out of my classes.

Second, I believe that technology can play a key role in enhancing traditional pedagogical practices.  I integrate WordPress, Omeka, Facebook, Twitter, wikis, and web-based discussions, online research, multimedia content, digital history projects, electronic editing of papers, and image and video creation into my classes.  All of these aspects of technology are used to vary and improve communication, offer alternative forms of discussion or presentation, or broaden the academic experience in and out of the classroom, while holding on to scholarly and intellectual rigor.

Third, I believe in the importance of teaching students to be critical consumers of knowledge.  I have a responsibility to teach students to approach all primary and secondary content with a skeptical eye, not just historical sources or scholarly books and articles, though grappling with these remain essential to the discipline.  For example, in my courses on US History in Film, American Technology and Culture, Civil War and Memory, History of the Information Age, and Digital History, I work with students to analyze critically what have become the key popular sources of information about the past, namely movies and the Internet.  In all my classes I work with students to explore what it means to be skeptical about all sources of knowledge.

Fourth, I believe in the need to teach students to be rigorous yet creative and adaptable producers of knowledge.  This skill links closely with the previous notion.  Understanding how knowledge is produced makes one a better consumer, but being skeptical about one’s sources also makes one a better writer and speaker.  In my classes students are encouraged to express themselves in various ways: formal and informal, written and oral, online and in person. I teach a number of different skill sets related to exchanging and expressing information in my classes, from basic writing to oral presentations to working with groups to digital project design to the creation of infographics, images & documentaries, yet all stem from one’s ability to convey content, concepts and ideas in the best possible way.

Fifth, I believe in students being “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” in their learning. A student walked into my office several years ago and said to me, “Dr. McClurken, I’m really struggling with all this online stuff,” referring to the projects I had assigned to the students in my American Technology and Culture course. She explained that digital projects were unfamiliar to her and that she was uncomfortable with her ability to do the assignment. She was surprised when my response to her discomfort was, “Good.” I went on to explain that I wanted her and her classmates to push the boundaries of what they understood about the conceptualization and presentation of historical information beyond papers and tests. Though she struggled a bit learning the tools we were using that semester, she later sent an email thanking me for introducing her to new methods of approaching history with the subject heading, “From Antipathy to Appreciation.” Note the last part of my initial phrase—“not paralyzed”—because it’s equally important.  I want students to move out of their comfort zones because that is where deep learning occurs, but I don’t want them to be so uncomfortable they can’t get anything done.  To keep them from paralysis we discuss potential resources to which they can turn (including their fellow students), we talk extensively about what constitutes successful work (even to the point in some classes of collectively constructing the rubrics with which I assess their papers and projects), and I tell them that they can always come to me if truly stumped.  The results of a semester’s worth of student discomfort is worth it to me, and more importantly to them, as I see their pride in the work that they’ve created and shared not only with me or with their class, but with the wider world.

This post is part of a Connected Courses assignment, and is a revised version of a piece I’ve written in various forms for various submissions.

Dedicating the Information and Technology Convergence Center

I was honored to be asked to speak at the ribbon-cutting and dedication of UMW’s amazing new ITCC (aka the Convergence Center).  [For a great time-lapse of the building being built…]

Picture by Anand Rao

My brief remarks are posted below.


Let me offer my own welcome to all of you and my thanks for coming this afternoon.

I want to start by offering some much-needed “thank yous” to people involved in this project.  Thank you to my fellow ITCC Building Committee members for all their efforts in dreaming up a new space in which people could work. Thank you to the architects and designers at HEWV for turning that dream into a vision.  Thank you to UMW’s Len Shelton and Joey Straughan and W.M. Jordan’s Frank Bliley for their efforts in making sure that the vision became a reality.  Thank you to Provost Jonathan Levin and Vice President Rick Pearce for stepping up with the resources necessary to operate the building.  Thank you to the new residents of the building for working with each other to ensure the space becomes all it can be.  Thank you most of all to John Morello, for shepherding this project from conception to creation.  It is not a stretch to say this building would not be here today were it not for his leadership. Let’s give him a well-deserved round of applause.

Edward Burger, the president of a small liberal arts institution in Texas recently said, “There are only two branches to this job: No. 1, make sure students are getting the most profound, life-changing, life-enhancing educational experience they can, and, No. 2, make sure that 100 years from now, whoever’s sitting in this chair will have the resources so he or she can do the exact same thing.” [“A Professor in the President’s Chair: Pushing for a ‘Friendly Revolution’ – People – The Chronicle of Higher Education — http://chronicle.com/article/A-Professor-in-the-Presidents/148527/]

Now I haven’t ever sat in President Hurley’s chair, but it seems clear to me that this Convergence Center addresses both of these goals.  The first is perhaps obvious to anyone who has walked around it. [And if you haven’t, please take advantage of the tours that will be offered after this ceremony.] Simply put, the opportunities for transformational experiences for students exist throughout the space.  Less obvious is how constructing a building contributes to (rather than subtracts from) an institution’s resources.

And the answer to that is that it is buildings like these that bring in new students, buildings like these that inspire faculty, buildings like these that engage staff, and buildings like these that attract donors.  The Convergence Center introduces the UMW community to a wide array of technologies and opportunities that simply haven’t existed before, and in a format that doesn’t exist at other schools.

Now, much has been made in the press in recent years of the potential for technology to alienate people from each other.  This technology-rich building contradicts that claim.  With its classrooms and collaboration spaces, with its communal furniture and its multiple centers of student support, with its formal and informal gathering spaces, this building is a physical manifestation of the institution’s emphasis on–no, the centrality of–the relationship between people: faculty and student and staff — the relationship between teachers and learners, mentors and mentees.  Yes, it is a technology-enabled building that supports our digital spaces, but it does so to further enable the personal connections that are at the center of knowledge creation and at the core of the deeply collaborative experience of learning.

It is also a manifestation of UMW’s leadership in the field of digitally enabled creativity.  It is an institutional commitment to the future of teaching and learning, a future in which we see even more than before the melding (a convergence) of the curricular and co-curricular in one space.  This building represents the future of UMW while maintaining the commitment to students, to individual and group exploration, and to a variety of learning techniques.  The building itself, with so much glass, surrounding Campus Walk itself, is also an acknowledgment of our responsibility as a state institution of higher learning to be outward facing, to be transparent in what we do and what we have to contribute to the region, the nation, and the world.

So, to students, faculty, and staff of the University of Mary Washington: welcome to your new home on campus.

Thank you.


Joining Connected Courses

Looking forward to joining the Connected Courses discussion over the next few weeks.

Quick intro: I’m a Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Recently I also took on a new role as the Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation.  [Among other wonderful things, it also means that Jim Groom reports to me.]

I’ve been engaged in digitally-enabled pedagogy for many years (see my courses at http://mcclurken.org/, but I’ve increasingly been exploring hybrid, blended, and some forms of distance mentoring.  For example, last spring, I co-taught (with Ellen Holmes Pearson at UNC-Asheville) a new, cross-institutional class whose goal was to work with 13 students from 9 COPLAC institutions to create a digital history site that recounted the experiences of the schools and their towns from 1914 to 1919.  The 4 UMW students served as tech support for the course, and built the overarching site at http://centuryamerica.org/ and the Fredericksburg site at http://umw.centuryamerica.org/   We described the course this way for the presentation we did with 7 of those students at the COPLAC annual conference in June (and the Council for Undergraduate Research in July):  “Century America is an experiment that combined traditional archival research methods with digital history and distance education. The project contributes to our understandings of the American homefront experience during World War I as well as the ways in which we can facilitate high-impact undergraduate research through distance learning technologies.”

In any case, I’m excited to join in on these discussions.