My approach to teaching foregrounds the necessity of sympathetic and careful reading as the necessary premise of meaningful engagement and critique. Whether in relation to a primary source or a scholarly text, this involves, first and foremost, careful reconstruction of claims, arguments, assumptions, and implications. This process of reconstruction must begin at the level of the clarification of basic concepts and propositions, so that the students, regardless of the diverse experiences and education histories that they bring to the classroom, will be able to engage with the material. History, I try to show, is a field of inquiry in which questions emerge out of an ongoing conversation. To make a historical argument is always, whether implicitly or explicitly, to build on and intervene in that conversation, and thereby to stake a claim about how the past should be understood.
An argument worth criticizing, I try to convey, is one capable of sustaining rigorous attention and respectful engagement. As my former adviser, Moishe Postone, used to insist: If you reduce someone’s argument to trash in order to demonstrate the superiority of your own position, you have only demonstrated that your argument is one better than trash. My aim in every class is to push students, whether undergraduate or graduate, to try to inhabit thoughts and arguments that are not theirs, to reconstruct the carefully considered and rigorously formulated thoughts and arguments of someone else, and to grapple with paradigms of thinking that they perhaps never imagined before. The aim is not, of course, to persuade them of the correctness of these positions. It is rather to persuade students that the coherent clarification and extension of their own thoughts, arguments and commitments rests on the capacity to give plausible articulation to positions of which they are critical and that they would disavow.
I also press students to recognize that the core of historical inquiry is much more fundamentally concerned with the ability to frame questions than it is with the ability to know answers. History, like all disciplines, operates on the basis of the formalization of curiosity. I emphasize that the questions we ask as historians are themselves the products of careful argumentation built upon a sustained engagement with scholarly literatures. In research, students are confronted with the challenge of framing questions that are at once worth asking and answerable on the basis of available sources. At the same time, I try to show students how existing literatures are shaped by, and struggle against, the limitations of the archives that are available to us – archives with their own histories and their own implicit agendas. This is why I particularly enjoy teaching research- oriented classes such as capstone seminars and the history department’s Honors seminar. It is in this same spirit that I have mentored individual students through the development of research papers and Honors theses.
I love the performative quality of lecturing, and I learn from the protean, unpredictable complexity of seminar-style discussion. Teaching is the core of intellectual practice, and I consider it a central part of my work as an academic. The discipline required to convey complex ideas without resorting to the shorthand of academic technical language has been the foundation of my own intellectual development.