Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox

Western Connecticut State University


            Through my time as a history teacher, I have learned that most college freshmen think of history as the rote memorization of names and dates.   Those who dislike history are forced to slog through required undergraduate survey courses in European, U.S., and World History.  They memorize what the Professor tells them are the causes of World War I, or who William the Conqueror was, but they rarely develop any idea of why such information should be relevant to them.

            The key to teaching history effectively is to make students understand that what has happened in the past really is relevant to who they are and what they do in the present.    I approach the teaching of history with two questions in mind.  First, why did people in the past make the choices that they did?  Second, when and why do historians consider certain actions and choices relevant, and others not?   These two questions, in my opinion, are crucial in getting students to consider how history influences their lives.  Examining the choices people in the past made will allow students to consider the extent and the limit of choices that they can make about their own lives, and examining why historians choose to emphasize certain events and not others can highlight the way that the concerns of the present are reflected in writing about the past.  This will allow students to consider how the political issues of the present, such as immigration reform, racial conflict, and gender bias, are reflected in current writing about the past.

            I firmly believe that student participation, even in lecture courses, is essential to maintaining interest.  I use role-playing as an essential teaching tool.  This also allows students to consider the positions of historical figures by asking questions such as: If you were a Chinese youth at the advent of the May Fourth Movement, why would you participate?  If you were a student at an American University in the 1960s, would you choose to protest the Vietnam War?  Why or why not?  What would Lao Tzu say to Nietzsche?   Additionally, I make frequent use of in-class debates about historical issues.  This practice forces students to take a side in debates and encourages creative, analytical, and independent thought.

            I have incorporated these approaches into my teaching.   At WestConn, I teach Chinese Culture and many other coursees by appearing, in costume, as four fictional characters loosely based on the memoirs of real characters in the Vietnam War: a North Vietnamese general, a Southern Vietnamese intellectual, an American soldier, and an American antiwar protestor.  Students have praised this approach as an “innovative one” that “makes history come alive.”  My passion for undergraduate teaching goes back to when I was an undergraduate myself.  At that time, and through my graduate career, I volunteered my own time to be a student instructor of courses on argumentation and debate and a debate coach.  I design my courses around activities that will truly engage students in learning at a deeper level, such as in-class debates, interviews, and role-playing exercises.   For example, one of the discussion sections I organized for a Modern Chinese history course featured a structured debate on the merits of the first five-year plan.  A Western Civilization assignment asked students to volunteer for the parts of Socrates, St. Augustine, and Beowulf, among others, in a roundtable discussion on the proper relationship between religion and the state.  Students have consistently praised these approaches as engaging and fun.

            Finally, I believe that academic elitism is the largest obstacle to a productive learning environment.  We work for our students; they do not work for us.   Effective teachers respect the intelligence, backgrounds, and ideas of students, and treat them as partners in a learning process.  We have as much to learn from our students as they do from us.