In the history classroom, I strive to help students balance education as a building block for action with the reflective practices that give scholarship its integrity. I help students pose insightful questions through the practice of critical history and find their own answers and worldviews. This helps them build the tools to practice history while engaging in active reflection on the world and their place in it.
Students prepare for a typical week in my classroom by completing readings and preparing discussion questions for presentation in the week’s first meeting. This challenges them to articulate their own contexts and interests for readings and enables me to plan lectures that can clarify their misunderstandings and gratify their areas of curiosity. In many respects, this is atypical, as it reverses the lecture and recitation oriented approach to leading student discussion and challenges students to take risks in interpreting their material.
I take this approach so as to draw out the ubiquity of historical interpretation and impress upon students the importance of finding answers to their questions and understanding their assumptions when engaging with history. Teaching an introductory course on global environmental history, I opened the semester by having students collaborate to build a timeline outlining the history of human interactions with the environment. In later weeks, I designed discussions where students reviewed images depicting history from popular culture. These exercises encouraged students to take initiative in interpreting environmental change. It helped them see the significance of environmental history beyond unique events remote from our daily lives such as the Love Canal disaster or the Dust Bowl. This helped to illustrate how history forms an ongoing and open ended project rather than a body of knowledge awaiting mastery
As students came to understand their tacit knowledge of history, I encouraged them to recognize the limits of their understanding and to practice empathy in analyzing other people’s perspectives. Teaching the environmental history of antiquity, I opened a class on Roman aqueducts with a reflective exercise imagining historical water supply systems. In this process, I encouraged them to think beyond the orderly and often invisible infrastructure of water-supplies in the cities of the United States by looking at Mumbai’s water supply as described in Nikhil Anand’s essay “Pressure: the Politechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai”, which documents the unofficial means by which people accessed water in that city. This allowed them to recognize how different people gain access to resources within a city by working both inside and outside of official channels. With this perspective they could and ask newly sophisticated questions about water theft and water rights .
I use a hands on approach to help my students situate themselves in history and actively interpret its course. These skills provide a means of organizing and interpreting the complex challenge of building sustainable solutions to environmental problems. I encourage students to situate themselves within the problems that define environmental studies, recognizing that environmental issues are not black and white. Understanding contemporary society depends on self awareness, empathy, and compromise all subject to critical thinking. Teaching history builds these skills.