Perspectives' query concerning my most and least successful courses summoned a hodgepodge of embarrassing, exhilarating, and meaningful memories. It may seem facile, but my teaching zeniths and nadirs are inexorably linked to my pedagogical goals. In the last decade, I have come to identify five metrics: Do I get to know my audience? Do I challenge my students to take risks in order to achieve knowledge? Do I create a bridge between my classroom and the larger communities in which we live? Do I organize my courses around specific themes and questions? Do I promote discussion about the class material inside and outside of the classroom?
One course stands in stark relief. My first year at Ohio State, I taught a seminar entitled "Gender and Jewish History." Despite the fact that my teaching and research interests directly informed the course, the class was a disaster. Of the two women and twenty men enrolled in the class, few expressed excitement with the reading list or assignments. Almost no one was interested in questions of gender or in the Jewish experience. Students had taken the course because they needed a class on Tuesdays at 1:30. Others expressed their now-dashed hopes that they would meet a Jewish girl (they had, but I was their professor and married).
The class bombed. I did not make the materials relevant. I focused on maintaining high academic standards and teaching the material I wished to address. I bulldozed my way through the class and flopped.
That year, I realized that I needed to set clear pedagogical goals, one of which had to be taking the time to know and appreciate my audience. OSU students represent varying classes, generations, ethnicities, religions, and races. They come from inner-city Cleveland, Appalachia, the farms of Western Ohio, former industrial towns, and war-torn countries. My Jewish history courses enroll football players, Somali refugees, marching band musicians, state-chess champions, retired police officers, future lawyers, and soldiers who get called for active duty midway through the quarter. In the last ten years of teaching, I've found ways to take advantage of their differences, skills, and talents. While I may prefer some courses ("History of the Holocaust") to others ("Western Civilization"), I hope that my classes have become more successful as I have become committed to addressing and meeting specific metrics.