- Assistant Professor of Writing, The George Washington University, January 2014 to present
- Lecturing Fellow, Thompson Writing Program, Duke University, July 2009 to December 2013
- Associate Director and Editor of Deliberations, Thompson Writing Program, Duke, May 2012 to May 2013
- Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of History, Duke, July 2008 to June 2009
One of the unsung heroes of the African American freedom struggle is Ella Baker, longtime civil rights activist and guiding light of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. While the young men and women of SNCC debated how to destroy racial segregation, Baker often sat back and listened – refraining from monopolizing the discussion yet deftly guiding it toward the most fertile ground, with strategically placed queries and observations. One result was the students’ unique empowerment in not only the knowledge acquired but also the process that they took to arrive there. So often used in consensus-based grassroots community organizing, the rich, interactive process that this technique has prompted animates my own intellectual and research interests in the social and political justice movements of the twentieth century, including my philosophy on teaching.
In the classroom, I strive to connect students with the subject matter in as many ways possible, with the hopes of reaching all students by respecting diverse methods of learning. This often means a class discussion (sometimes preceded by in-class writing) that revolves around strategic, open-ended queries that engage the day’s work but perhaps in an indirect manner. Of course, the traditional lecture, particularly in large survey classes, remains an essential and expected tool to provide crucial historical context on a subject. Ideally, I strive to incorporate a continuum of methods that include both instructor- and student-driven learning –from lecture and instructor-led discussion to more student-led writing workshops, peer editing, fieldwork, presentations, conferences, and other sorts of group work, often facilitated by technology.
My class assignments attempt to reflect this diversity, particularly the value of student-driven instruction. For instance, periodic response papers and lower-stakes review essays of assigned texts not only allow students to develop critical reading and persuasive writing skills, but also to engage with each other’s ideas by posting their assignments on an electronic discussion board or blog the evening before class. In addition, this allows me as the instructor to incorporate students’ interests and needs into a lesson plan before I even step into the classroom. Such short assignments prepare students for longer, more-involved research and analysis papers later in the semester, which I break down into several components – each designed to work on a particular skill, such as bibliographical annotation, thesis and proposal writing, document analysis, full draft development, and substantive revision. I have found that treating writing and learning as processes greatly reduces the intimidation and trepidation some students feel about putting their thoughts on paper – including non-traditional students who often have been away from the classroom for some time. In those classes in which I give examinations, students have the opportunity to brainstorm and write some of the essay questions that will appear. This exercise has proven particularly beneficial for my own understanding of what students interpret as the themes of a particular course.
In addition to class structure and assignments, the materials used in the classroom often can dictate students’ levels of engagement. Therefore, in all of my courses, I use a wide variety of primary and secondary sources – from written and drawn materials to music, photography, film, and oral histories. In certain courses I even will ask students to produce, in a sense, their own sources, such as conducting oral histories with local historical actors. Engaging with so many texts broadens the chance that a student will connect or identify with a particular event, trend, or process, while it also facilitates instruction for those who simply learn in different ways, such as visually.
Every time I step into the classroom, I seek to accomplish two objectives: a genuine connection with my students over some aspect of the material; and at least one moment in which a student challenges me with a thought or question in which I learn, too. Candidly, this does not happen in every class period. Yet I continue to strive to teach history by empowering my students – to ask questions, recognize processes, leave their comfort zone, and ultimately learn to read, write, and think critically. Such empowerment occurs far more often than not.