Johns Hopkins University
Spring/Summer 2007
Vol. 4, No. 2

TEACHING

> [THOSE WHO CAN, TEACH]
A Conversation with a Trio of Dean's Teaching Fellows

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Inaugural Fellowships in Africana Studies


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[THOSE WHO CAN, TEACH]

A Conversation with a Trio of Dean’s Teaching Fellows

Among undergraduates at the Krieger School, Dean’s Teaching Fellowship courses—conceived, designed, and taught by graduate students—have a reputation for being extremely engaging. For some young instructors, the courses are an extension of their dissertation research; for others, the course offers a welcome diversion to focus on a related area of interest.

For this issue, three Dean’s Teaching Fellows who are teaching humanities courses this spring sat down to compare notes about their motivations, challenges, and triumphs in the classroom.

Eric Nystrom, of the History of Science and Technology Department, is teaching Museums, Parks, and Monuments: The Problems of Remembering the Past. History’s Saeyoung Park is teaching War and Postwar Reminiscences in 17th century East Asia: The Imjin and Manchu Invasions of China and Korea. Jessica Roney, also in History, is leading a course on Gossip, Scandal, and Reputation: A Cultural History
of Early America.
PHOTOS BY WILL KIRK/HIPS

What classroom experiences did you have as an undergraduate that have shaped your approach to teaching?

Jessica Roney: The thing I valued the most was the small discussion classes—that close textual analysis that allowed for great back and forth. Because the course I’m teaching is relatively large [18 students], I’ve structured it to have a lecture once a week and a discussion once a week.

Saeyoung Park: I went here for my undergraduate studies as well as my graduate studies. One of the things I really loved about my experience as a student at Hopkins was the close and intimate attention you are able to receive from your instructor. I think that is not that common in other institutions.

I’m sure we all have learned a lot from our mentors. I learned a lot from David Nirenberg [the Charlotte Bloomberg Professor of the Humanities]. He is a brilliant lecturer—very animated—and able to engage the undergraduates on a really special level. I hope I can bring some of his energy to my class. I don’t think I can jump around as much, though [chuckles].

Eric Nystrom: I think in the humanities there’s a feeling that to call on people is somehow impolite. In one class I took, the professor was just merciless. If you were prepared, you got called on. If you weren’t prepared, you got called on. I never worked so hard. And I never got so much out of it as I did in that classroom. That’s something I really value as a teaching style. It also eliminates the deadly silences a little bit.

I had a different course as an undergraduate with a young professor who was so fired up. The spirit of history was moving within him. It really made me pay attention—half for theater and half for content; what’s he going to do next? The way he was so into it really cemented it for me as an undergraduate: Boy, I don’t want to let this guy down.

 

What challenges do you anticipate?

Park: I hear from a lot of undergrads that history is boring. All those dates. Everybody is dead—and not recently dead, but long dead. Making the dry events of history intellectually and emotionally relevant is a challenge for me, personally.

I might have it easier than some. My course deals with the interpretation of history and how our memories of certain events evolve over time and why certain events become part of our collective memories.

Roney: I think the challenge is that the texts you want your students to read require they know all the background information. It’s hard to find a balance between giving them that dry information—dates, names—they need to put the reading into context, while also drawing a larger historiographic context of how this fits with what people have said before.

Nystrom: I’ve wrestled with that history problem over and over. How much do I need to tell them about the Vietnam War to have them read about the Viet Nam Veterans’ War Memorial? How much do they need to read about Western expansion and European history to talk about the exclusion of American Indians from Yellowstone National Park?

These kids are really bright. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, here. I’m hoping they ask questions when they’re feeling out of their element.

Park: As historians, we’re all very lucky because history is story-based. There’s an emotional resonance when students approach history—we’re lucky we can tap into that.

 

What do you hope to gain from your students?

Roney: I talk to historians all day long. In my class I have students coming from all different majors. They bring all kinds of perspectives. That’s so refreshing.

Nystrom: It’s great. My students are evenly distributed across class lines (sophomores, juniors, etc.) and across gender lines—it’s close to even. I’ve got three or four engineers, a real wide range of disciplines, and that is really exciting.

 

Is it tricky, at all, to be so close in age to your students?

Park: Anybody above 20 is 9 million years old to them. It doesn’t matter. [Laughs]

Roney: I walked into the room today and they were all in rows. I just gestured to get into a circle and they all quickly moved into a circle. [She laughs] I felt very powerful.

Nystrom: I try to show that I’m learning from them, too—because I do! I learn a lot from these guys. Even in that context of blurring the authority a little bit—does it cause any problems? No….

Roney: One of the things I loved the best about small discussion groups in college was that we were actually discussing with the professor on the same level. They weren’t asking questions because they had the answers behind their back. They were asking questions because they wanted to know—what do you think? It was so exciting. And in history, there often is no right answer—it’s about interpretation.

How does your teaching impact your research? Nystrom: This is an opportunity for me to set my dissertation research aside a little bit. This is fun. This is a relief. I really enjoy prepping for the course and thinking about these things as a break from my dissertation research.

Roney: My course is also not based on my dissertation. At the moment, I’m not so concerned about the time the course requires because it’s fun. When I’m burned out from my other work, this is what I can turn to. I’m using my mind in a different way—there’s a different engagement with the material. Teaching makes my dissertation writing more effective and productive.

Nystrom: I would absolutely echo that. Having the two play off each other—it helps you make good decisions about your writing time and your reading.

Park: Teaching goes hand in hand with research. I believe we have a social duty to teach. As much as I would love to believe that my students will refer back to my lectures on war in East Asia, I have a feeling that a year from now this will all be lost to the ages. However, their essay writing skills, their ability to communicate clearly and in an organized fashion, that will carry over into any kind of professional activity.

 

Do you intend to pursue a career in academia? If so, how will teaching fit in?

Roney: Some of us will go on to research-heavy schools and some will go on to teaching schools. I prefer the latter. We’re all excited about it and want to prove ourselves.

Nystrom: I am on the market this year and I’ve had some success in interviews. The fact that you’ve taught in section form and that you are teaching this course is really, really attractive. When we’re on the market, people want teachers. Teaching is important and we don’t get a lot of that here at Hopkins. This opportunity is huge—very important to securing my future. In these classes, you can actually figure out new ways to engage students—really develop your own teaching philosophy.