I taught my first undergraduate class on causation & explanation in history last week, having never done so before in my life. It wasn’t as harrowing as I was dreading, and though I noticed a marked difference between my first-years and third-years — namely a sort of hardened shell of disinterest in the latter and a wide-eyed eagerness in the former — I found both really quite satisfying. I like eliciting those epiphany moments in the students, when something I’ve said made sense or clicked somehow. I especially like when they elicit them out of each other.
Things I should think about, though, for future teaching experiences: how to ask the right sorts of questions that make it easy for a student to elaborate a thought they’re in the process of having (and relatedly, I suppose, how to lipton); how to encourage students to speak to one another; how to gently guide a wayward conversation back on track; how to tie threads of discussion into each other. How to speak in a way that helps students take notes; how to lace my opening comments with well-delineated points that can act as handles for the rest of the discussion that our thoughts can keep coming back to. How to give good ‘take-home’ messages: to think specifically about what I want the student to take away from the class. How not to talk too much.
I’ve never really thought of myself as a teacher, still less a particularly good one — and I still don’t. But still, it seems to be a skill that’s inextricably part of the historian’s arsenal and craft. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, speaking on the institution of the university today, said something about teaching that I like and which I think is almost rudimentarily true: that the best teachers are learners who are never quite ‘done’ with their subject, learning even and also from their own students; that the act of conveying information is complementary to the process of acquiring it; that we teach what we know & love, and in doing so, come to know it, and perhaps love it, more.