I currently teach in the interdisciplinary Social Studies Program at Harvard University, and in the Freshman Seminar Program. Previously I was a College Fellow in the History Department at Harvard, where I taught lecture courses on modern Central Europe and on fascism in interwar Europe, as well as a seminar on ethnic cleansing and nation-state formation in the 20th century. Prior to my graduate training, I was a public school teacher for two years through the Teach for America program.
Teaching is my first passion. From tutoring as a teenager, to working full-time in a public elementary school classroom, to four years instructing Harvard undergraduates, I have worked with students at all levels for nearly 20 years. As a historian, my teaching is driven by two basic challenges. First, how do I make the turbulent times and topics at the center of my research – modern Central Europe, fascism, socialism, and mass violence – comprehensible and relatable to students today? Second, how do I awaken a passion for history in students and teach them to use historical reasoning to make themselves better thinkers and citizens? My formula relies on multi-sensory and interactive instruction, and on extensive primary source readings to push students to make their own historical interpretations. Above all, I aim to create a vibrant, interactive community of learners in which I am but a guide on a journey of self-discovery.
Lectures can play a vital role in learning, but I believe the most effective ones must be interactive and visually engaging, and must teach students how to think like historians. Each of my lectures has an explicit argumentative structure, and begins with a set of interpretive questions. I then answer these questions over the course of the lecture not simply by conveying facts, but by modeling how historians move from fact to interpretation. I encourage all types of questions, often ask them myself, and make extensive use of visual, video, and aural sources. In my course on fascism, I began nearly every lecture with a relevant primary source video, such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia or a historical newsreel, and held a mini-discussion before segueing into the lecture’s themes.
In discussion and seminar settings, my goal is to give students the proper guidance and leeway to reach their own conclusions. I strive to build an environment where students talk to, and learn from, each other, leaving me as a navigator. Extensive use of role-playing, presentations, group work, debates, and field trips helps me achieve these goals. Technology can also facilitate peer-based learning. Most of my courses use a blog, intended as a safe forum for students to experiment with ideas and learn from each other. Technology also opens up long-distance dialogue. In a freshman seminar, after discussing a conservative journalist’s take on modern-day American “liberal fascism,” I set up a class debate with the author over videoconference. The debate challenged students to apply theories of fascism to current political rhetoric, and to compare rigorous historical inquiry to journalistic standards.
When it comes to assessment and mentoring, I aim to treat each student as if they are on an individual journey, and work to their needs. In addition to papers and exams, my courses also use ungraded writing assignments early in the semester, along with map quizzes, student presentations, and group projects. These provide students many chances to shine, and let me know where they need to improve. In grading papers I use a rubric, which is pre-distributed to students to set clear guidelines (see attached sample). My standards for grading and feedback are best summed up by a student evaluation from 2008: “Never have I received so many thorough comments on a final paper. Brendan paid great attention to detail, and expected the same from his students.” I have mentored several theses, and with each student I am to give him or her the personal structure and guidance so they can best chart their own intellectual course.
High-quality teaching also means continually improving. I make use of anonymous mid-semester evaluations to tweak my teaching methods. I also revise syllabi substantially from year to year based on student feedback. Before I was a historian, I was an educator, and I will always treat teaching as a vocation demanding continual professional development and self-improvement. I hope to evolve in 20 years time into an even better teacher – and thus realize my goals of not only making the past relevant to students, but also using history to awaken their interest in the rights and obligations that bind them to larger communities.
Students have been generous in rating my teaching and advising. In my first year as a lecturer, I exceeded the average scores for Harvard social science courses in nearly every category of evaluation. As a lecturer and graduate student I have earned three awards for distinguished teaching from Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Below are instructor evaluations for the three courses I designed and taught during the 2010-2011 academic year. For more information, including student comments, please see the PDF version of my teaching portfolio.
The following syllabi, taught between 2010-12 History and in Social Studies at Harvard, are available for download as PDFs:
Fascist Europe, 1918-1945 (History lecture course)
Order and Conquest: Modern Central Europe, 1848-present (History lecture course)
Nation, Race, and Migration in Modern Europe (Social studies seminar)
Ethnic Cleansing and the Making of Nation-Sates (History reading seminar)