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 I love walking in to a classroom with historical documents and scholarly readings and images and strategies for how I’m going to talk with students about the past (and often the present and the future).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.

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  1. I love the way your ideas flowed here, and this point of “I believe in the importance of teaching students to be critical consumers of knowledge” is so important, in this day and age, and one would hope that all of us (whatever level we teach) has this as our ethos for teaching students.

  2. I believe that Jeff has modeled and taught me more about teaching than any book, paper, TED Talk, or class. That spirit of challenge, to have students be “uncomfortable but not paralyzed” is something I reach for all the time.

    Yes, I have learned from someone who’s never been my teacher. A lot of people will use the student centered language you wrote, but your achievements with students really speak to how true this is.

    Thanks Jeff, I miss ya!

  3. Well put! I think I would love taking one of your classes; history is so fascinating. I can relate to many of your points related to my own teaching, and agree with other commenters that challenging students to the point of “uncomfortable but not paralyzed” is a perfect base for learning.

    I am interested in how you approach allowing students to construct the rubric. It’s something I think I want to incorporate in my classes. My class is entirely on line, so I’m trying to sort out how best to facilitate that. Do you ever give students the responsibility of scoring each others’ work against the rubric, even if just as an exercise?

  4. Thanks for expressing the 5 points so explicitly, Jeff. I’m interested in your idea of making students ‘uncomfortable’ but not ‘paralysed’. I try to talk to students about acknowledging and expressing how they feel when they are challenged by learning, so that they don’t internalise their feelings and end up thinking that there is something wrong with them. We need to talk about working through challenges so that students realise learning can be difficult, and that’s good, and they should ask questions, so that they don’t end up paralyzed by their inability to work their way out of a challenging learning situation.

  5. Great post – so eloquently written and i especially like the way you take care to make the distinction between ‘discomfort’ and ‘paralysis’. Lots to explore here, regarding different learners’ boundaries (of comfort) and how that plays out in the class (f2f or online)…

  6. Pingback: In Search of my “Why?”

  7. Jeff:

    You had me from the moment you wrote “…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.” It’s at the heart of what we’re currently exploring in the connectivist MOOCs Connected Courses (#ccourses) and Open and Connected Learning (#oclmooc) and, more importantly, at the heart of what we’re absorbing so we can apply it to the benefit of those we serve through our roles as learning facilitators.

    Your concluding paragraph about a learner’s struggles with “online stuff”/digital projects made me even more appreciative than I already was for the richly rewarding learner-centric experiences offered by connectivist MOOCs (starting with the Educational Technology & Media MOOC–#etmooc–and others I’ve taken); they move us past those struggles by immersing in those struggles within the context of supportive and inspiring communities of learning.

    Really happy to be learning with you, and glad that a tweet from Helen Keegan brought your article and your site to my attention.

  8. I am currently a grad student and Chico State in Chico California and I am just beginning this journey and your blog is really interesting. I like the way your develop your ideas and the perspective you have on how to teach, not only do you focus on the content of what needs to be “taught” but by challenging your students you are encouraging them to think critically and to continue to pursue their own ideas.

  9. Professor McClurken,

    As someone teaching in a different school, in a different discipline, and in a different country, I have to say your article (can I say “article”?) is so well-written and so well thought out, that I’m thinking it should become a kind of Hippocratic Oath for teachers.

    Especially since you begin with students. My 35 year trajectory finds me talking less and less in each lecture, and thinking furiously (and sometimes creatively) about how to involve students more, especially in the classroom.

    Do you have somewhere a list of “Five easy uses of classroom technology” or “What every teacher should know about technology” or something for relative beginners? Remember that “A” students are important, but don’t neglect us “C” students….

  10. Thanks for all the kinds words everyone.

    Catherine L., when I create rubrics with the students, it’s generally in the context of a discussion of what makes for a good project, of what criteria they use (explicitly or implicitly) when they look at other people’s, and of what some model projects might look like. It’s a chance for us to review what the goals of the assignment are, what skills they need to deploy, and where they need to focus their time and energy. I’ve not had students explicitly use that rubric to evaluate each other, but I have used them as guidelines for students to do peer reviews.

    Bill, I don’t have an easy step by step set of instructions, but I have created a set of links to tools (and ideas for using them) that might serve as a useful introduction to the key areas of digitally enabled teaching at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JlSHMjW5kQpq7Jhn3FYiWTbBYCsxrnZxn-bsLwJZS1c/edit#

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