Philosophy of Teaching and Learning
Steven P. Miller, Ph.D.
For the passionate educator, teaching extends beyond technique or vocational choice and comprises a core identity. The intellectual and social components of my orientation as a teacher are not something I can neglect during summers and sabbaticals. Teaching encompasses not only classroom performance, but also how I process my own education and research. When considering how I might use new information and insights, I concomitantly consider how I might teach them. On a social level, my identity as teacher entails recognizing the relationships implicit in pedagogy, as I consider how I might relate to students in ways that help them learn. These intellectual and social components apply both to the skills I desire to foster in my chosen field, History, and to the mission of teaching in the Humanities.
As a teacher, I must remain conscious of the skills I desire to help students cultivate for themselves. As a teacher of History, I intend for these skills to translate across disciplinary lines and into the professional world, even while I hope my students will discover the profound educational opportunities available through my subject. History is an ideal discipline for cultivating such learning (and, in turn, life) skills as critical thinking, literary evaluation, argument construction, and thought organization. Likewise, the field allows manifold occasions for bringing cross-disciplinary interests and knowledge to the project of interpreting and ultimately writing History. Recognizing these possibilities, I encourage students to compose expressive, yet structured essays, responding to challenging, yet contextualized questions. Just as importantly, students have space to create and ask their own, equally demanding questions. Discussions of a class-wide or small-group nature facilitate this latter objective, although student input should be a component of every course activity. Engaging lectures serve to introduce essential material, to provide professorial clarification, and to establish a structure that students can recognize (and with which they can interact). History courses need a clearly communicated, although not elaborate or imposing, thematic outline and range of inquiries, introduced with an expectation that students will develop the skills and knowledge sets to evaluate these very frameworks. Such evaluations represent more than scholarly exercises; they teach civic skills, as well.
I also strive to emphasize those attributes of historical study that link the field to the broader Humanities. The study of History entails a dual awareness of the past’s evolving relevance to, and discontinuity with, the present. The question, “How did we get here?” functions alongside the query, “How have things changed?” Toward this end, I celebrate the study of “forgotten alternatives,” but even more so the study of how alternatives came to be forgotten. By considering the profound effects studying History can have on a student, I aspire to find a dynamic middle ground between pastness and informed presentism. Studying History entails both a leap beyond oneself and a deeper comprehension of how one came to be oneself. Learning History includes the important recognition of economic, cultural, political, and religious diversity, yet it also can spark the realization of a certain connectedness. Within this sense of connectedness—responsibly interpreting the past, while inevitably reading one’s self into it—resides the root of civic awareness. Classroom space becomes civic space, and discussions of History become “public,” when students engage a past greater than themselves, yet also a part of themselves.
As a teacher, I must continually remember that I will fail in my responsibilities and aspirations if I do not model integrity and enthusiasm, alongside the vulnerability and humanness inherent in their expression. When exhibited in the classroom, these qualities might provide a convincing initial case for the significance and relevance of History. They might also lead students to ask why I care so much. My hope is that my students, whatever their futures might hold, will one day answer this question about themselves.