Teaching Philosophy

My approach to university teaching is predicated on my long experience coaching sports. There is, in my experience, very little difference in both the energy and strategies needed to cultivate top academic performance as athletic. Success in both endeavours relies on the hard work and the intense cooperation of all parties involved.


For me the primary value of a college education is the intellectual growth that comes from serious conversations between earnest students and a fully committed instructor. Students are meant to be challenged. In my courses, I make high demands of everyone enrolled. Course readings are substantial, lecture material is covered at a brisk pace, and papers are expected to be accompanied with the most sedulous care. Students must strain themselves to earn top marks in my classes. Intellect is a muscle just like any other: it must be exercised if it is to grow stronger. In return, of course, students demand instruction of the highest caliber, and it is my obligation to fulfill this end of the bargain. Challenges go unheeded if students have little faith in the person behind the lectern.


It is not enough, however, simply to push and stretch a student’s intellect with course assignments and other such burdens; they must also be inspired. Students must be encouraged to get excited about the topics they are studying. Without it a student’s commitment to learning will surely lag. Such excitement is accomplished in primarily two ways. The first is through the enthusiasm of the instructor. If the professor’s passion for the topic matter is neither real nor palpable, the class will quickly lose interest. The second strategy is to consistently connect even the most abstract of theoretical concepts to the very real and very immediate problems facing a student’s day-to-day life. Students will eagerly embrace the wisdom of seemingly arcane and long-dead scholars if it is of demonstrable use. Students need reasons to care about the material they are studying. Learning is thus made appealing when accumulated knowledge is applied to modern problems.


The task of illumination is central to my pedagogic philosophy as well. In my courses I aim to impart not only specific knowledge, but also broad, underlining concepts. Students should take home not only a survey of the topic under study, but also a methodological toolkit which enables rigorous analysis. The core aim, then, is to foster critical thinking skills. I want students to leave the course with a sophisticated understanding of the problems and the approaches necessary to solve them. It is crucial for students to understand that all choices invariably involve tradeoffs, and that the tools of social science can help make the costs and benefits of these more appreciable. Even more, students should be similarly encouraged to debate these problems in an active way, rather than just meekly accepting the status quo. Thus not only can intellectual discourse be fostered, but young minds can be spurred to engage in the political process. Finally, I seek to promote an appreciation of the difficulties involved with decisions regarding who gets what and where, as well as the hard work necessary to hone an effective argument.


Pedagogic Methods

All the lectures I deliver are information-based. By this I mean the first and fundamental aim over every lecture is to clearly impart students both a core understanding of the concepts involved in whatever that day’s topic is, as well as historical details to make these seem less abstract. In this I take the advice of Margaret Macmillan very much to heart. Macmillan found that her students are keenest to learn history when names and dates are accompanied with interesting tidbits and anecdotes. The material simply becomes more interesting when subjects are personalized, their foibles and follies made clear. In that manner it becomes apparent that even the greatest of figures are no different than you or I. Never do I underestimate the power of interesting detail to sharpen the attention of even the most disinterested student.


Class interaction is fostered in several ways. In some courses I hold specific discussion periods (or ‘breakout sessions’), where questions regarding the material’s relevance to modern issues and problems are put up on the powerpoint screen. Students are first tasked with conversing with their seatmates. These discussions are then later directed towards the classroom at large. The idea here is to encourage a plurality of ideas, as well as get those involved who may find speaking in front of an entire class somewhat uncomfortable. The second interactive technique is the use of regularized group (at the lower level) and individual (at the upper level) presentations. The idea is for students to get together and extend course material in new and interesting ways. Rather than a simple regurgitation of lecture material, students are encouraged to pursue their own (relevant) interests in whatever subject or case study they have signed up for. Now it is true that this is sometimes a risky proposition (some presentations are invariably better than others), it is nonetheless an excellent way to both enhance student interaction as well as their comfort with the material. Even more, this assignment helps develop a valuable public communication skill. Students have in fact commented on how this exercise has proven valuable in real-world applications.


Audiovisual devices also feature prominently in my classrooms. The combination of internet, DVD, and overhead projector can be incredibly powerful, particularly if old battle footage or great political speeches are shown to the class. I make sure to add this material wherever possible, then post the relevant YouTube links for student access beyond the classroom. As for powerpoint, all my classes are accompanied by two sets of slides. The first of these are what I call ‘graphical’ slides. The idea here is to take advantage of charts, graphs, and pictures that can help further concretize a student’s understanding of the day’s material. They are accompanied by a minimum of text, and are the slides that are displayed in the classroom (they are not, however, posted on the BLS or WebCT, as copyright ‘fair use’ provisions would no longer apply).


1. Graphical Powerpoints (samples)


Each course is also accompanied by a further set of slides, which I call ‘review’ powerpoints. The idea here is to make sure every lecture is accompanied by a few (4-5) slides of the day’s material boiled down to its simplest essence. Students can access these slides on the BLS or WebCT, and are encouraged to print them off and bring them to class. It has been my experience that this method permits students to keep a much better pace in classroom. It also permits students to devote greater concentration to the lecture I am giving, as rather than exhaustive note-taking, the well-prepared are able to fill in and elaborate on the core notes with the far greater level of detail (see above) discussed in class. Even more, the review slides make for handy exam keys when it comes to grading time. Students are of course not required to memorize every detail, but they do lay a clear foundation of what is required of them—a fact appreciated, in my experience, by both student and marker.   Examples include:


2. Review Powerpoints (samples)

Next there is the matter of course management software. I have found that services such as BLS and WebCT make for both excellent mediums of communication, as well as repositories of course documents. Syllabi, assignments, marks, course announcements, and web links can all be posted with considerable ease, greatly simplifying intra-class communication. Every class I teach therefore embraces these tools.


My adoption of these techniques has been encouraged by students through the anonymous course evaluation process. Although Henry Ford’s wry observation that if he listened to the customer he would have built a better horse and buggy contains an element of truth, I nevertheless read these reviews very carefully. The reasons are two-fold. Firstly, post-secondary education is much like any other business transaction. As paying consumers (albeit heavily state-subsidized) of an extremely specialized product, students have every right to communicate their degree of satisfaction with the class. Secondly, valuable suggestions on how to improve the course are frequently offered. I therefore solicit comments upon the conclusion of each course in regards to: a) course structure (that is, concept flow and assignments), b) content (material covered, text, reader), and c) lecture (format and delivery).


Of final note is my approach to the grading of student work. In this I offer three main types of assignments, each with a slightly different ambition and goal. The first are exams. In my experience it is, at least at the lower undergraduate level, imperative that a student be subjected to a sit-down, in-class test at least once every semester. In an age rife with plagiarism and online essay writing services, a traditional examination is at the very least an educator’s best comparative control. It is difficult to cheat one’s way through a 3-hour written exam, thus those relying on iniquitous means to pass the course are in for a rude awakening. In my exams, then, a student must demonstrate they have absorbed the key knowledge imparted in class.


The second type of assignment are the writing exercises which accompany each course. Here the purpose is different. Rather than the cold regurgitation of facts, writing assignments are much more about a demonstration of mental dexterity. Students are encouraged to look for existing holes in the literature and attempt to fill them with novel insight. Just as critical, however, is that this arguments are conscientiously refined. My papers are therefore graded not just on the merits of the ideas they offer, but also on how carefully the student delivers the argument. In short, editing and grammar matter.


Last is the type of assignment I rely most heavily on at the upper level: case study and readings presentations. One of the main concerns here is to provide opportunity for students to hone their public speaking skills. These talents come naturally to few, yet occasions for practice and development are generally few and far between. Presentation assignments are thus meant to be encouraging and supportive. Graded more onerously, however, is the task of the presenter to distill the topic to its fundamental essence. To help with this students are required to provide a written synopsis of their presentation to fellow classmates and the instructor a day before the actual presentation is given. A series of assignment-specific questions are also contained in each syllabus, to provide a clear sense of what material is to be covered.   



Course Formats

There are two basic types of courses I teach: introductory surveys and upper-year seminars. The former are normally set at the 1000 or 2000-level, and the latter at 3000, 4000, and above. The basic distinction between them is the extent and formality involved with class participation. For introductions, I rely primarily on my own lecture material, leaving classroom discussion to particular questions—outlined in the syllabus—posed in light of the day’s subject matter. These reflective conversations are a ‘free-for-all’ and no penalties are levied on those who do not wish to participate. For seminar classes, however, the expectation is a much higher degree of participation. Here I begin each three-hour lecture period with a 35-40 minute account of how the theories and cases under study fit in the broad sweep of history and scholarly evolution. The purpose of this ‘bird’s-eye view’ is to rectify the common seminar problem of students progressing through a series of distinct, micro-level readings, yet all the while remaining highly uncertain of how all the various components fit together. I find the addition of this brief introduction allows many more students to keep pace with the material than is otherwise the case, and provides seminar participants with a measure of ‘valued-added’ for my being there.


What follows is a much more stringent effort to go beyond mere familiarity with the theories and evidence contained within the class readings. The aim is to compel students to build competence with presentation and debate. Public speaking is a unique type of skill, and one rarely practiced. Building this set of scholarly ‘muscles’ takes patience and concerted effort. In my seminars I start by opening each discussion period with an ‘around-the-table’ gathering of responses to open-ended questions posed in the syllabus. Students are informed at the beginning of the semester that there are no right or wrong answers to these general discussions, but that they also must be prepared to come to class with something to contribute. I normally ask a follow-up question to each student, something that usually advances both their comfort with public interaction and faith that their insight was worth listening to. In the name of fairness, I begin on the left side one seminar and on the right the next. This strategy of enforced participation ensures all students can claim a degree of participation in class discussion. Providing such a level playing field does much to force participation from those normally unwilling, and teaches those who unduly dominate the discussion a measure of patience and willingness to listen to their peers.


Once all voices have been heard, the seminar shifts to students’ case study (3000-level) or readings (4000-level) presentations.[1] Here the point is for students to practice drawing out the key points, evaluating how well the author defends his or her argument, and then communicating these findings to fellow classmates in a presentation that runs roughly 10-15 minutes. Each presentation is completed with an opportunity for specific questions and answers, directed toward the presenter. Lastly, the remainder of the three-hour seminar block is devoted to a free-for-all discussion of a series of readings- or case study-related questions I have prepared beforehand. These questions are meant to elicit further responses to the material, particularly students’ evaluation of its efficacy and importance. Ideally, if the bird’s-eye introduction, round-the-table questioning, and student presentations have done their job, the free-for-all discussion takes place with very little of my own involvement. When the concluding 30 or 40 minutes are run with very little of my own words spoken, I can be confident that the seminar format has properly prepared and energized the student body.  


The following provides a useful typology of how my classes vary slightly by level: 


[1] The chief difference between my 3000- and 4000-level courses is that the former are predominately built around case studies, while the latter deal with the literature much more directly. These take a much more intimate look at the core readings that make up the discipline.