Statement of teaching philosophy

November 13, 2016


I'm copying here a "statement of teaching philosophy" I wrote recently for job applications, in case it has any general ideas that others might find interesting or useful.


In the age of Donald Trump, knowledge of history is more important than ever. Such knowledge has always been empowering, for several reasons: it gives one a foundation for more effective and informed civic and political action; it permits thoughtful and insightful interpretation of contemporary developments in all spheres of social life; it can sharpen one’s moral and humanistic sensibilities, by heightening awareness both of the human species’ incredible potential and of its incredible capacities for self-deception and destruction. To learn of the magnificent saga of the human experience can inspire, can stimulate one to carry on the best traditions of our forebears and try to end the worst traditions. In an age of triumphant ignorance, though, knowledge of history is especially necessary, for it counteracts tendencies toward an apathetic or ignorant citizenry. Thus, my teaching is motivated not only by a passion for history for its own sake; even more importantly, I am very conscious of teaching as a moral calling.


Two questions should always occupy the teacher: what is the most important content for the students to grasp?, and how can I engage them and interest them in the material most effectively? The answer to the first is provided by familiarity with the best scholarship on the subject, and by reflection on what are the dominant tendencies, features, or causes and effects of the era or topic under consideration. The second question has several answers. On the most basic level, I have found that simply communicating with enthusiasm and energy is effective in holding students’ interest. Almost unconsciously I tend to pace the room and gesticulate, and I talk rather quickly and energetically; these behavioral quirks seem to be an asset, if only in that they grab attention and express the belief that what is being discussed is of interest and importance. One must not be a “boring” or listless lecturer.


More substantively, it is necessary to use various media in the classroom. I have played recordings of IWW songs and civil rights anthems, used maps of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, shown slides of artworks from the Renaissance and Dadaism, and used PowerPoint to highlight particular points I wanted to convey. Even something as simple as showing pictures of political leaders or labor leaders, or showing an image of, e.g., the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, can make the material more compelling and facilitate its absorption.


On the whole, the methods of good teaching strike me as commonsensical. I try to discourage students from focusing primarily on getting a good grade, instead encouraging them to take pleasure in the process of discovering and interpreting texts. In class they sometimes split into groups to discuss primary sources on the basis of questions I have posed, after which they report back to the whole class on the content and significance of the source. In discussion sections I have given them the option of making short presentations on primary sources for extra credit, or on a topic that was not covered in depth in the lectures. It is also important to give several writing assignments throughout the semester, both short reading responses and one or two longer papers, to give them the opportunity to improve their writing skills. Undergraduates have not always had an adequate education in the mechanics of writing, so I devote some time to a discussion of how to construct a persuasive and well-organized argument, in addition to reviewing rules of grammar. I take writing very seriously, for clear, logical writing manifests and facilitates clear, logical thinking.


I try to use as inspiration in my teaching William Faulkner’s dictum, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” History lives on in our present social structures and cultural tendencies. The more alive one can make history seem, the more will students be drawn in—that is, the more will they participate in class, be engaged in the readings and assignments, find the subject-matter of gripping interest and importance. One method is to relate history to students’ own experiences, for instance by emphasizing that it is young people approximately their own age who have so often been in the forefront of change, as in the Civil Rights Movement, the protests against the Vietnam war, the unemployed struggles of the 1930s, and the labor movement as a whole. Various pedagogical exercises can enliven history, such as class debates in which students inhabit particular historical characters and discuss principles and events. I expect to spend my entire teaching career searching for new ways to bring history alive to young people.


In short, teaching is an unusually immersive vocation, practically an existential one. At least, so it ought to be. This is how I conceive of my own teaching.

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