Publication Date

December 1, 1988

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


Teaching Methods

The commitment to effective teaching continues. The numerous and innovative suggestions I have received from concerned colleagues during my years as co-editor of the “Teaching Innovations” column have convinced me of this. I applaud those who have contributed to this column over the years. I have found many of their recommendations useful in my own teaching. But even more I have been inspired by their continuing search for new ways of instruction.

New techniques and fresh approaches are important. But more and more, I am persuaded that effective teaching is rooted in three basic ingredients: preparation, engagement, and caring. No one would disagree that preparation is essential. Yet, given the heavy and varied teaching loads at many smaller institutions, it is not an easy matter. The temptation, when faced with such a schedule, is to teach the same materials whatever the title of the course. Or when one finally has prepared a course, to do no more, and present it in the same way semester after semester. Gilbert Highet has aptly called “monotony in teaching…a fault.” History is a process. The world is changing and, along with it, our interpretation of the past also changes. Both should be reflected in our teaching. Each of us must find his/her own solution to the quandary of too many demands on our teaching, but find it we must.

Engagement is a second, and perhaps the most important, ingredient in effective teaching. The teacher who is an engaged scholar is the one who can make the most significant contributions to the intellectual development of students. How can students be expected to question, scrutinize, and challenge if their instructors are not involved in the same process? Alfred North Whitehead wisely observed that it should be the chief aim of the college teacher “to exhibit himself in his own true character—that is, as an ignorant man thinking, actively utilizing his small share of knowledge.” That’s effective teaching.

The engaged instructor also enjoys and is enthusiastic about teaching. Some teachers become bored, disinterested, and even cynical about the task after the novelty fades. Students are ill-prepared, school boards and administrations are unappreciative, and the community seems to have little regard for our efforts. No wonder some are tempted to sit back and do no more. But if we succumb, if our enthusiasm gives way to boredom, the effect will be devastating. Boredom robs teaching of its vitality. And students are quick to pick up on our cue: history is dead in this classroom. Realistically, how can we expect students to get involved if their teachers are bored? How can we expect them to be enthusiastic if we are cynical? How can we expect to see our students improve if we have stopped growing ourselves?

Finally, the caring instructor is needed for effective instruction at the university as well as at other levels. Some think that this is beyond the scope of our job description, that we have a responsibility to impart the substance of the course and that is all. Some feel that our advanced degrees have elevated us above such things. We differ as to how we manifest our care and concern for students; this is a matter of individual personality and style. But, without exception, arrogance, insensitivity, or rudeness—actions which humiliate, dehumanize, or alienate students—should not be found in our classrooms. This is a limited list, to be sure; time and space do not permit more. It is also a very personal list. Yet it contains factors that often are overlooked in our search for new and improved teaching techniques. Effective teaching is difficult to measure, but that does not excuse us from ongoing attempts to improve instruction.

Additional professional commitments necessitate that I leave this column in other hands of new editors. But before doing so, I want to express my thanks to my co-editor, Millie Alpern. Millie and I have worked together for the past seven years. Her thoroughness, enthusiasm, and care have exemplified the very best in teaching.

Jeanette C. Lauer teaches history at the United States International University, San Diego.

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