We’re back. Or almost back.
When we started Centre Trail, we deliberately kept our ideas for the platform fairly open: Tara is an Americanist, I am an East Asianist, and our program’s geographical scope is fairly broad for our modest size. We agreed from the beginning of our planning that we would include our experiences as teachers in our writing on this site. That will mean plenty of pedagogy, sure, but pedagogy is more about Just-in-time teaching methods and flipped classrooms, discussions on the emergence of the Digital Native and conversations debunking the idea Digital Natives exist. They don’t, by the way.
That would make this site a certain kind of site for a certain kind of person, and though I very much do hope our work will appeal to people who are thinking seriously about their teaching, I would also like it to have a broader appeal. That will mean plenty of work sharing our perspectives as historians, and it will also mean talking about pedagogy in a fuller way, a way that allows us to be rather personal in talking about our experiences teaching.
I say that because teaching is personal, not just in its tougher moments but in its successes too. I write that we’re back, because the students have begun to trickle in. Many of our students are, in fact back. In only a few days we will all be collectively “back” and sixty young people in my classrooms are about to find out what a gobbet is. I have found myself getting excited as we build towards the big day. This is my seventh year teaching my own classes with a full doctorate behind me, my nineteenth term (including quarters and winter terms) of saying hello to new people. It’s fun. I have a lot of first-year students this coming Monday. What will I say to them? I’m not sure yet. On my first day in college, I remember two things: sitting beside Jenny Horgan, and a Philosophy instructor telling us all that we were intellectuals now, having made it all the way to university. I was dismissive of the latter event in the way that 18 year olds often can be, the former event having a far more significant impact, it seemed, on the immediate concerns of my life.
As the years have gone on, of course, I’ve thought more about what that instructor was trying to say. Of course, memory is unreliable, and I now cycle through my head an interpretation which is mostly my own invention: that all college students must participate in intellectual discovery, and must take on the responsibility of learning more and becoming educated members of society. We talk a lot about critical thinking in academia (A LOT), and that’s the key element here, but I suspect I will characterize it as I often do: I want you (the students, I’m talking to now) to be discerning. I want you to understand there are many viewpoints in the world. I want you to acknowledge you might not be right. You can do this and still know in your water you are on the right side of history, or on the side of right-thinking or right-minded people or whomever; you can do this without changing your mind. The trick is to being open to it.
I’m not going to magically teach people to do this in one semester, and of course some of them will already be able to do it. It is just as important to hone and improve skills in college as it is to learn new ones. I do feel this is a major part of the enterprise.
That’s just the beginning. Given my field, it will not be long before we’re discussing Confucius and the modern state and Chairman Mao and the Industrial Revolution. The campus is coming alive after weeks of relative peace and quiet. It’s a nice change every June, I won’t lie, but it’s not what this place was built to do. So, they’re back, we’re back, it’s time to get to work. Let’s enjoy the romance of learning for the sake of making our society a better place for a week or so until that first assignment’s due.