Thursday, July 31, 2008

Teachers Teaching Teachers

Paul Harvey, no not that Paul Harvey, teaches history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and recently won a Teacher of the Year Award. Kelly Baker over at the Religion and American History blog--which she and Paul co-edit--posted about it.

Since I'm always eager to learn something new and hear what good teachers have to say, I'd like to highlight some important parts of Paul' interview (read the full interview here) with the Colorado Springs Record. Call it teachers teaching teachers. (Full disclosure: it was Paul's class blog in the spring of 2007 that, in part, inspired me to start blogging in my own classroom.)

CSR+: Congratulations on being awarded Teacher of the Year at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs 2007-08. It is a great honor that recognizes you an academic leader at UCCS and in the community. What has contributed to the quality of your teaching excellence?

Paul Harvey: I have compared teaching history classes to my favorite musical form: jazz. Teaching is taking a theme, making sure that theme is explored, but allowing plenty of room for improvisation, and most especially for those moments when a student conversation or insight “takes flight”, and something totally unexpected emerges. Being rigorously trained in the discipline, being clear and firm on the standards expected in the classroom, but also being open “to the moment”—all of these combined are required, I believe, for the best teaching. It requires a careful blend of discipline, structure, and spontaneity which never stays the same from one class to another. One also has to have a lot of patience and forgiveness, both for students, but also for one’s own self; every day is not going to be a shining moment of teaching brilliance, and sometimes your most valued and ostensibly impressive teaching experiments will just flat-out fail. That’s fine, as long as one always learns from the experience.
I've not quite heard teaching described that way--like jazz. I like the image that brings up and while I attempt to maintain a structured environment in the classroom, staying tuned for improvisation can make for some riveting moments of teaching and learning. And I like Paul's humility about it--everyday is an experiment in one sense, so get to work and see what happens!

CSR+: You are an international scholar. You are a great teacher as well. How do you balance your teaching and research? Would you be willing to share your secrets of success with our readers?

Paul Harvey: Work your butt off, don’t sleep . . . wait, that’s not very helpful. The key, I think, is always integrating teaching with research, so that when I’m preparing for class I’m also preparing my research, and when I think about my research I’m also in effect preparing for class. For example, the idea for my book “Religion, Race, and American Ideas of Freedom” came from my teaching – I saw again and again how the expansive ideas of religious freedom in American arose at precisely the same time as the huge explosion of slavery, racism, and genocide practiced against Native Americans, and I began to question why that was. Likewise, when I began writing my part of the book Jesus in Red, White, and Black, I constructed a course in part to help me think through ideas for the book, and also to present those ideas to students. The result was one of the most successful classes I’ve ever taught. So, I never teach classes the same way twice; I always try to bring in new ideas from my research, and that makes me more excited about research and keeps my classes fresher and more engaging, or at least I hope so.
Ed Blum said something like this in last summer's interview at baldblogger, and ever since I've thought how my own research and teaching has evolved. There can be extraordinarily rich interplay between research and teaching if one is open to it--in my case partly a result of teaching full time and working on a Ph.D. "part time."

I recently commented to this effect regarding researching/teaching Du Bois, and as I look back on the last 4 or 5 years, much of my teaching has pushed my research in new directions (e.g., religion in world history and Sudan) and the expansion of my research agenda throughout graduate school has filtered into the classroom. I hope to retain this dynamic in the future; it keeps one fresh, it prompts revising and reframing of approaches and strategies, and it makes both teaching and research more delightful, enlightening experiences.

Thanks for the inspiring thoughts, Paul, and for inspiring the foregoing thoughts--and congrats again on the teaching award!


Anonymous said...

That is great news. What a well deserved honor; I am still waiting to win one.

Phil said...

Your nominations are coming soon.