My teaching has several key objectives: for students to be captivated by the subject matter; to engage critically with their preconceptions and the world around them; to exceed their own expectations of themselves; and to relate material from the classroom to the world outside.
Learning should fascinate. The most memorable classes and teachers are those who can bring interest to mundane subjects and engage students with material in ways that stimulate them. I therefore seek to construct my courses and lesson plans with two goals in mind: for students to find the material interesting, and to enjoy the ways in which they learn it. The former involves the selection of engaging and relevant material, but is highly contingent on the latter. I use teaching methods that seek to involve students in the learning process as much as possible. I keep lectures, quizzes, and “busy work” to a minimum and opt instead for Socratic-style class discussion in which I engage back and forth with students on a subject, active learning techniques such as group work and simulations, and assignments that connect students’ interests and learning styles to the course material and objectives. One particularly popular classroom tool has been simulations, which I conduct in my International Law and International Organization classes. In International Law, we dedicate two weeks at the end of the semester to a court simulation where teams of students represent an actor in a fictitious case and must build a legal case using laws and subjects covered in the course. Another tool I have employed (inspired by distance learning) is student-created podcast episodes in which they discuss one or several themes, interview guests, and provide informed analysis for listeners. This is part of a broader attempt to connect students with assignment types that draw on their learning styles and talents rather than assuming conventional assignments are the best and only way to evaluate students.
Learning should also challenge and change mindsets. While information learned in the classroom may not be retained long after the semester, being taught how to think and engage with the surrounding world are lessons that can endure for a lifetime. As such, I seek to structure course material in ways that force students to challenge their mental models and preconceived notions. At a time when our society is teeming with lack of accurate information, open dialogue, and critical reflection, I hope to make my students ask the question, “why do I believe that?” This is no more evident than in my American Foreign Policy course, where we address the behavior of the U.S. in the world: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Students come to understand the political and cultural pathologies that have so often worked against the better interests of the U.S.. One student’s comment after class last semester reflects a sentiment expressed not infrequently by my students: “I didn’t like that class, but I needed to hear it.” All of my courses include readings that critically engage diverse arguments on a topic, and I often build in “reflection days” at the end of the semester to allow students to review and articulate the challenges and tensions in the material and ways in which it has changed their thinking.
Learning should empower. I reject the notion that grades should follow a “bell curve” distribution, that all students are incapable of getting an A, or that every student cannot in some way be inspired to succeed. This belief drives me to push my students to stretch their conceptions about their own intellectual capabilities. I fundamentally believe that most, if not all, students are capable of much more than they think. Growing up, it was the teachers that believed and acted upon this that best contributed to my own education. Pursuing this without epic failure is a challenge. It requires not only setting a high bar for student performance, but also walking through the process with them. My courses are challenging by design, and so I ensure that I am approachable, available, and willing to help students as much as they require. In International Law, students read complex judicial decisions and are required to trace the logic of the argument. This is often highly confusing at first, but after several iterations students become much more capable at comprehending these documents. In the Capstone course, students must produce a significant research project. I design it to reflect something required of graduate students, believing that senior undergraduates are every bit as capable of delivering such a product. While this has certainly frustrated students, I think many generally believe they have delivered something worth the effort and frustration and are encouraged to have accomplished something they might not have otherwise thought they were capable of doing.
Finally, learning should be applicable. This is particularly relevant at a place like VMI and is one of the reasons I love teaching International Studies to VMI cadets. Since more than half of my students will commission into the military, I take very seriously my responsibility to educate them about matters relating to foreign policy, war, and global relations. I tell them every semester that I hope one day they will be the ones making the important decisions for this country and implementing what they learn in their classes. In American Foreign Policy, we read pieces both supportive and critical of U.S. military activities and often have spontaneous discussions about how those pledging to serve in the military perceive such matters personally. The lessons go beyond military activity, though. I hope (and make clear) that my students will learn important lessons about matters such as democracy and citizenship and global responsibility.
2017-18 Graduate Part-Time Instructor Teaching Excellence Award, University of Colorado Boulder
Teaching at VMI
American Foreign Policy
Other Courses Taught
US Security and Foreign Policy
International Political Economy
Current International Affairs
Model United Nations
Understanding Contemporary Politics