Teaching Philosophy

“Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.”
—Gertrude Stein[1]

I had been reading historical monographs and articles for quite a few semesters before I became an historian. I understood words like “problematic” and “contextualize” very well and could even use “hegemony” with enough facility to fool the uninitiated. My particular road to Damascus did not lead through the library or the classroom however, but through the Hudson’s Bay Company archives in downtown Winnipeg. On my first nervous visit to that building, after what seemed years and years of talking about history, I finally confronted the thing itself. It was there, illuminated by the rather grubby light of a decrepit microfilm reader, that I found myself reading the expressive hand of one Robert Harding and learning that on June 1st 1842 it had been blowing snow in Churchill, the Cree had brought by some geese, and Macleod had planted three rows of turnips. The utter banality of Harding’s observations was surpassed only by my utter astonishment that they were still there waiting to be read. My first impulse was to look around for someone with whom to share my delight. Alas, all I could find in that place were other historians – each as obsessed with their own petty discoveries as I was with mine. And such has been my career since.

Now that the prospect of a captive audience beckons, I realize I will have to do somewhat better than turnips and geese. I suspect that I share with von Ranke – at some stubborn and unconscious level – the naïve conviction that reports like Harding’s are evidence of what actually happened in the past, but that kind of sentimental and irresponsible talk will not do in the modern classroom. Stein’s epigram provides a useful antidote to any such romanticism, and has the parsimonious intellectual rigor on which a respectable teaching philosophy can be built so I have taken it as my motto. History teaches and perhaps that it is all it does. It makes claims – or rather historians do – about the past, and such claims are freighted with all sorts of ideological weight. In an ideal world, in an ideal university, and in an ideal history department, the classroom would be a space in which young men and women feel safe enough to ask any question they wish about such arguments and how the evidence that supports them is produced and arranged. This ideal classroom would be a laboratory in which accounts of the past can be fearlessly weighed and evaluated and where the student can measure what he or she already knows against what he or she has just learned. That such a place does not exist does not prevent it from serving me as my model.

It is important to bear in mind, that like all teaching philosophies, this one is written for the teacher and not the student. While I stand by my imaginary laboratory as an ethically and politically justifiable pedagogical goal, I have constructed it primarily in order to rationalize my own professional choices and my own intellectual agenda. It protects me from niggling doubts and irritating questions of the “if you can’t ever really know then what’s the point of it” variety by making history an exercise in critical thought. But history is more than such an exercise – at least to me. I genuinely enjoy theoretical debate, I have an embarrassing passion for historiography, and any evidence of ideological critique in an undergraduate paper invariably brings me pleasure. Yet while good history should have a corrosive effect on prejudice and assumption, it would sadden me if the cultivated skepticism of the classroom were to dissolve my students’ delight in the past altogether – surely that can be postponed until graduate school.

My favorite moment as a teaching assistant at Duke occurred when Ed Balleisen pushed his students from out of the classroom in which he was teaching American legal history and into the Rare Books Room. It was a moment I hope to reproduce as best I can in my own teaching by always emphasizing the importance and the materiality of the primary text. For a good number of the Professor Balleisen’s students – and it was not so easy to predict which ones – the subject came alive in a way it never could in the lecture hall. They handled the yellowed old letters and legal documents with undue solemnity, muddled their way through unfamiliar script and in hushed tones asked the Professor and myself questions about Civil War veterans’ pensions, anti-trust suits in the 1930s, and debt collection on the frontier, as if they had just found the keys to unlock all the mysteries of the past. “Aaah,” I thought. “Turnips and geese. Turnips and geese.”

[1] Gertrude Stein, “If I told him: A completed portrait of Pablo Picasso.” A Stein Reader edited with an introduction by Ulla E. Dydo Evanston, Ill. : Northwestern University Press, 1993. p. 464