To teach us children well

by A. Grad (b. 1983)

I am a graduate student at a major research University. I'm in my fourth year of study toward a Ph.D. in history and, to earn my living stipend, the University requires I teach or TA two classes per year. I just finished grading 15 undergraduate papers, and I am not encouraged.
Many grad students see teaching as a burden. Me? I love it. It's why I got into this gig. I love history, but when I teach, I get to share with people my love for what I do.

Of course, I am supposed to do more than that. And that's why I am a bit defeated today. Sometimes my students expect me to teach names and dates (the 'answers'), but they will soon forget those things. I forget those things. I use wikipedia more than I would like to admit. But my job isn't about names and dates. And my job isn't about giving students the answers. My job isn't even about teaching them how to find answers. It's actually not about answers at all. It's about the questions.

My job is to help my students to think more critically about the world around them; to get them to step outside the mental models they use to assess their everyday existence and to see the world as a more complex, complicated, and vexed place. My job is to get them to ask questions and then use those questions look for solutions, not just answers.
To be honest, I have no idea how to teach this. There's no manual. I just do my best and hope that, week-by-week, I will learn what works and what doesn't. I hope that slowly my students will begin to respond to what I do.

James Livingston , a historian at Princeton University, recently wrote an article entitled "Their Great Depression and Ours" where he compares the Great Depression to current economic meltdown. His primary point is that policy-makers aren't asking the right questions right now. His larger point about the meltdown makes abundantly clear that, if you aren't asking the right questions in the right way, you won't get the best answers (IE: what REALLY caused these meltdowns?)

I want my students to learn to be better; to understand how to get to the root of a complex problem like this crisis. The only way we will get solid, well-constructed solutions to the problems we face in the world today is if our generation knows how to ask the right questions.

After reading my students papers tonight, I am again struck by the headiness of the task in front of me. I am in the unique position of being teacher of my own generation, and I am terrified of failing us. We absolutely must learn to ask the right questions. Our future, and yours, depend on it.

A. Grad was a dancer for 18 years of her young life. Now, at 25, she dances when she works with undergrads. She especially likes when this happens after a few hours stuck in the archives, with just the old books to see her pirouette.

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