I am, by training and by affection, a historian of Europe. Though I did not come to study Europe because of Jacob Burckhardt, I found in him an exemplar when I first read his assertion that to study history “is not to make us smarter next time but to make us wiser forever.” I teach because I believe it is the fundamental way to invest in humanity. I look at the world as it is, and I believe the best way to improve upon it is by ensuring that inquiring minds receive a classical education in the arts and sciences.
I am, by vocation, an educator. Though the phrase has lost much of its currency, as I remind my students, “vocation” literally refers to a calling or a summons—a path in life we must pursue. Indeed, in the European tradition, to find a vocation was not primarily one’s own decision but a gradual unfolding of some providential will. For me, that path has led to the university—to seminar rooms, lecture halls, and libraries. For it is in those places where, as we study history, we cultivate our wisdom and discernment, and as we study Europe, we lay bare the extremes of human endeavor and folly.
I take my students seriously—in fact, sometimes more seriously than they take themselves. I maintain impeccably high standards but work deliberately with my students, equipping them with every tool necessary to succeed. I do so by throwing open the workshop doors. Often with my own research or writing as an example, I demonstrate how I as a historian approach a question, answer it, and write about it. We subject my research or an in-progress work to scrutiny, analyze sources, and consider possible explanations. As the term progresses and students develop their own interpretations and writing, we turn our attention toward one another’s projects. That is the fundamental work of the historian: to answer questions with care and precision and to offer our interpretations to the scrutiny of others. I wish for students to see themselves as historians and as partners in a scholarly enterprise.
My foremost goal is always to cultivate in my students rigorous textual sophistication. I expose my classes to as broad a range of writing as possible and dig deeply into the classical texts: Thomas More, Voltaire, Marx, Zola, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn. As we read, I want the students to encounter the texts in all of their complexity and to examine a masterpiece up close. My aim as we first discuss our readings is to make the classics seem simple—undaunted by confusion, to understand the broad principles at work in the text and the ideas they evoke. Once we have established our orientation, the text should reacquire its complexity and mystique; students should, as one commentator suggests, hear the complexities “not as noise, but as music.”
Likewise, I aspire to cultivate a sense of historical empathy. I wish for students to laze in the splendor of Versailles, storm the fields with Wellington’s cavalry, grow fearful in the heart of darkness, shelter from the Blitz, march with Gandhi to the sea, and take sickles and hammers to the Berlin Wall. The teaching and study of history remain far more important than reciting chronologies, for, as one historian reminds us, a date is but a punctuation mark. As historians, we should reserve our judgments and instead seek to understand the world as our historical subjects did. I aim to engage students in the lived experience of others and to find common humanity with the men and women we study.
Though my training is quite specialized, I aim to be a generalist. I have taught history and writing, strategic thought and international relations. Rather than to indulge my own personal interests or to pursue some esoteric ambition, I work to build courses that will allow my students to broaden their intellectual horizons and to create connections between the material we study and their own interests. Most importantly, I hope that they will integrate the skills of the historian—namely textual sophistication and empathy—into their own fields and disciplines.
With the support of the U.Va. McIntire School of Commerce and several teaching grants, in my international relations and strategic thought courses, each semester I organize and host a simulated international crisis. Students hold the roles of policymakers—often organized in a government cabinet, security council, or international summit delegation—and work to neutralize the situations they face using collaborative research and problem-solving. By placing students in the roles of senior decision-makers, they quickly confront the challenges of leadership by identifying problems, marshaling resources, articulating solutions, defending their ideas, and building consensus. They meet in person and via video- and teleconferencing to share information and devise their solutions. The program has been featured three times by our regional ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates.
I have never entered a classroom unprepared, whether to deliver a lecture to hundreds or to discuss an essay with a dozen. And, over the years, I have continued to assess and improve my skills as a teacher, mentor, and advisor to my students. Several years ago, I designed a blended course on “The Making of Modern Europe, c. 1300-1815,” which uses video lectures and lessons, music, and a suite of digitally annotated primary sources and art pieces. The class is buttressed by a comprehensive website I have built, featuring a suite of digitally annotated documents, audio recordings, and videos for students to access. Rich in original source material, both courses introduce students to the historian’s craft and allow them to cultivate the reading, writing, and analytical skills required in their studies of the arts and letters. Likewise, in an effort to remain pedagogically alive, each year, I lead workshops for the U.Va. Center for Teaching Excellence and for the Corcoran Department of History on assessing student writing in the humanities and social sciences and on designing effective writing assignments for history undergraduates.
I have never complained that teaching detracts from my research. Even marking papers, while sometimes time-consuming, can serve as an opportunity for me to show individual attention to my students and to help them learn. With each essay I return, I attach a page with my typewritten feedback. With that, students not only receive comments on their argument and ideas, they see specific means by which they can develop their skills as writers and their methods as scholars. I find that practice both challenging and gratifying, as it allows me to understand each student’s specific strengths, styles, and areas for improvement.
Having found my own vocation, I hope that my students will likewise find their own passions and paths of fulfillment. I hope that, having cultivated their skills as readers and empowered by historical empathy, they will better understand the world around them. And I hope that, fortified by their scholarly endeavors, having studied classics of European history, they will remain lifelong learners.
- Named by U.Va. President an “Extraordinary Contributor” among U.Va. faculty and staff members for “excellent teaching, inspiration, simple and extraordinary acts of kindness, and personal and academic support.” 2014.
- Ranked #1 as “Charlottesville’s Favorite Teacher” by Charlottesville Family Magazine. 2013.
- Cited by U.Va. Office of Institutional Assessment for teaching excellence. 2013.
- Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities. 2012.
- U.Va. History Teaching Award, highest departmental teaching honor. 2009.
- Seven Society Fellowship for Superb Teaching honoree, all-university highest teaching honor. 2008.