The students called it “The Buried Giant Book Group.” In the spring of 2015, while teaching a Core Curriculum course on ethnic mixing in the British Isles since 10,000 BCE, the Japanese-British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro published his long-awaited novel exploring the aftermath of ethnic cleansing in Anglo-Saxon England. Ishiguro is my favorite writer, and the overlap with our course was uncanny, so I announced that I would buy a copy of the book (and lunch) for anyone who wanted to talk about it one Saturday. I figured two or three students might accept my offer, certainly no more than five, so was astonished and delighted when so many signed up – 15% of a class of 90 – that we needed to divide into groups and meet on consecutive Saturdays.
I learned more than the students did. The Buried Giant Book Group taught me that NYU students are hungry for faculty interaction and intellectual stimulation (and lunch). On the advice of another student, I read Daniel Chambers and Christopher Takacs, How College Works (2014). This student centered look at undergraduate life argues that a key driver of student motivation stems from particular encounters, early during their college years, with members of the faculty. How, I asked myself, might I reach these first- and second-year students, during this brief window when the humanities might touch them? I shifted my teaching to emphasize introductory lecture surveys: “Cultures and Contexts: Multinational Britain,” “Britain and the British Empire,” “Modern Europe," and the much-despised (because required) introduction to the history major, “Historical Interpretation.”
Through these large courses, each reaching 40 to 120 students, I will eventually introduce thousands of NYU students to the possibilities and the tragedies contained within the human past. Survey courses also enable me to mentor graduate student teachers – a multiplier effect that, over time, will surpass the reach of all my courses put together. My late dissertation advisor referred to graduate training as “the teaching of teachers,” and – despite his nearly forty years of scholarship – he never doubted that this investment comprised his most important work. When graduate students teach with me, I give them each a copy of Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (2004); and in weekly meetings throughout the term, we discuss student-centered learning no less than British history.
These commitments also informed my tenure as Director of Undergraduate Studies. I moved our most enthusiastic teachers into the college's Freshman Seminars, mindful that this formative contact with our best professors promises to change not simply majors, but lives. Indeed, I do none of this – the book group, the survey teaching, the graduate training, the departmental and college service – to boost enrollments, save the humanities, or teach “critical thinking.” I do it because, a quarter century ago, I was a callow undergraduate at a middling southern university, when a single inspiring encounter with a member of the faculty alerted me to possibilities – to a life – I hadn’t known existed. And I am grateful.