Why should these folks have bothered to get up this morning and come to this place? Often students have just eighty minutes with me--just eighty minutes--and I consider that time precious.
My goal is to provide students with a suite of skills they need to become engaged citizens committed to solving pressing issues of our time. I want them to see that history is alive--that every professional in every field draws on history to achieve objectives everyday. I often look out at the class and see a future politician who may need to invoke the past to get a climate bill through Congress, the lawyer who has to understand the details of civil rights legislation in order to help a client, the entrepreneur who needs to understand economic history in order to address a financial crisis, and the aspiring doctor who must know how to digest historical data in order to figure out how best to stamp out a global pandemic. No one should leave my class wondering, “What do I do with a history major?” Instead, they should be asking themselves how it is that anyone can consider themselves prepared to go out into the world without a solid understanding of the past.
What’s so magical to me about the classroom experience is that by inviting students to discuss the pressing issues of our time in a historical context, they lead me down paths I never intended to go down. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I am not always the expert in the room--that my students often have answers to questions I never thought of before, which is why I always consider them co-captains of my course. They have made me a better scholar, a better person, and, frankly, a better parent and spouse. I feel so fortunate that I get to be a teacher and a student at the same time.
I’m also thankful for the mentors who dedicated so much time to showing me how to do this gig the right way. My graduate advisers at Virginia--Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, Grace Hale, and Ed Russell--pushed me to care about the details, from the dynamics of managing hard conversations to the simple mechanics of manipulating the physical space of a classroom. Virtually every semester, I “work” my room, conducting a thorough walkthrough to figure out how the light switches function, how to adjust the sound coming out of speakers, making slight tweaks to seating, tables, etc. to make the space my own. I also prepare myself for the challenging discussions we are about to have, sometimes simply by taking the time to meditate before heading to lecture.
The lesson that I keep in the center of my mind is that in all the hustle and bustle of producing books, in all the chaos of trying to publish scholarly articles, students come first (it’s one of the reasons I still wear a tie to class, a small symbol of respect to the people that have enrolled in my course). As Ed Ayers once told me, “You can never steal enough time from your students to be a good scholar.” I live by that motto everyday.
Though most of my students don’t know it, before I walk into a big lecture hall at Ohio State, I often stop behind the door, close my eyes, and ask myself: What do I want my students to take away from today’s class?