Celebrating an Award

Today I had the honor of receiving a Presidential Teaching Award from the De La Salle Institute for Teaching and Learning (DLSI). This recognition is given annually to one part-time and one full-time faculty member at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

Part-time faculty members are eligible to receive the award after teaching at the university for at least five semesters. Other criteria include a record of “enthusiastic engagement with students,” “incorporation of key elements of Lasallian pedagogy,” or innovation in “pedagogical methods that are intellectually rigorous, creative, engaging, and accessible.” The final decision of whom to honor is made by the university president, guided by the recommendation of a faculty advisory panel from across the university.


I was invited to offer brief remarks at the faculty awards event. So I delivered some thoughts that I hope went something like this:

Jonathan W. Wilson, speaking from a lectern at an event at La Salle University. Photograph courtesy of La Salle University Office of Marketing and Communication.
Photograph by Dan Nguyen, La Salle University

In 2022, a lot of us—educators at all levels—have the sense that we’re working in a time of general professional crisis. It’s a time of anxiety for us, and it’s certainly a time of anxiety for our students. The pandemic is only one part of it. Many of us now wonder whether our work is sustainable at all.

Three hundred forty years ago, it was in another time of general upheaval that Jean-Baptiste de La Salle established the Brothers of the Christian Schools. During that crisis, poor and working-class children in France needed better access to basic education, but teaching them was a badly regarded—and poorly compensated—line of work. La Salle’s solution, ironically, was to embrace poverty and humility.

That’s what the Lasallian watchwords “together and by association” meant in the seventeenth century. The teachers of La Salle’s order were supposed to live in solidary with each other and with their students. La Salle himself gave up both a personal fortune and excellent prospects of advancement through the ranks of the Catholic clergy. The trade was for a sense of meaning: deprivation now, but the confidence, shared with others, that your work had a higher, long-term value.

Today, one of the things that sustains me as a teacher, despite the insecurity of our time, is getting to participate in the long Lasallian tradition. I draw strength from its unusually vehement insistence that, in spite of everything, we don’t work alone, and our work has a long-term purpose. That’s why this particular form of recognition means so much to me.

How Footnotes Work: A Scavenger Hunt

The first page of Steven Watts's article "Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century."

Following up the small group activity I described last week (“Reverse-Engineering a Scholarly Article”), I developed a similar classroom exercise this week. The new activity was a “scavenger hunt” designed to help the same students become more comfortable using footnotes.

(I’m asking this class to use footnotes to cite the sources in their final projects, and I was aware that some students had very limited exposure to this form of scholarly architecture.)

I based the activity on Steven Watts’s article “Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century,” which was published in 1995 in the Journal of American History.

I printed enough copies of Watts’s article for each student to have one—but with a catch. Each student would have only part of the article. They would have to pair up to compare their versions. Some students got “Version A,” which included the first half of the main body of the article. Others got “Version B,” which included the second half. Both versions included the introduction and conclusion.

This was my way to make sure the activity would involve plenty of interaction.

Continue reading “How Footnotes Work: A Scavenger Hunt”

Reverse-Engineering an Article: A Small Group Activity

A couple of weeks ago, I tried a simple new activity. The students in this course, all first-year undergraduates, are working on original research projects. One student had asked me for practical advice about how to outline their history paper—an essay that will be longer than anything they’ve ever written before. I came up with this activity for a subsequent class meeting. As I expected, the activity took an entire 75-minute period.

The first page of the article "Forgotten Habits, Lost Vocations: Black Nuns, Contested Memories, and the 19th Century Struggle to Desegregate U.S. Catholic Religious Life"

First, I located a scholarly article that seemed appropriate in various ways. I was looking for something with a reasonably accessible subject matter and writing style, clear organization, and some identifiable relevance to our course. I also wanted the article to be of moderate length: not overwhelmingly long, but not too short, either.

I settled on Shannen Dee Williams’s “Forgotten Habits, Lost Vocations,” an important article published in 2016 in the Journal of African American History. Among its many other virtues, this text would be relevant to our university’s ongoing mission-and-heritage-month celebration. (This college isn’t affiliated with the IHM sisters, who are the focus of Williams’s article, but it is affiliated with a different Catholic teaching order.) I was also pretty sure some of my students would find it very interesting on its own terms. And it would let me talk a little about how scholarship develops over time; Williams has a book coming out soon, and that book will incorporate material from this article into a larger story and argument.

I printed and stapled a copy of this article (double-sided, two pages per side) for each student. Then I prepared a set of directions.

Continue reading “Reverse-Engineering an Article: A Small Group Activity”

“Remember the Roots of Our Discipline”

William Cronon’s presidential address, delivered on Jan. 4, 2013, in New Orleans.

In a distracted world …, and at a moment when there seems to be widespread public doubt about whether to continue supporting the study of the past as this organization has traditionally understood that activity, what is the future of history? There are many answers to this question, of course, and it is the job of the American Historical Association—and all of us—to offer those answers as effectively as we can to defend in public the continuing importance of history both in the United States and in the wider world. But for me, there is one answer that is arguably the most basic of all, and that is, simply: storytelling. We need to remember the roots of our discipline and be sure to keep telling stories that matter as much to our students and to the public as they do to us. Although the shape and form of our stories will surely change to meet the expectations of this digital age, the human need for storytelling is not likely ever to go away. It is far too basic to the way people make sense of their lives—and among the most important stories they tell are those that seek to understand the past. …

[T]he undergraduate classroom, far more than the graduate seminar, is where we take the results of our monographic research and place them in a much larger interpretive frame where we can show our students—and, by extension, our non-professional readers and ourselves—the larger meanings of our work. Original research is of course indispensable and lies at the cutting edge of disciplinary growth and transformation. But no one else will ever know this if we fail to come back from the cutting edge to integrate what we have learned into the older and more familiar stories that non-historians already think they know and care about. This is where we join other historical storytellers—journalists, novelists, dramatists, and filmmakers, as well as our academic colleagues in all the other historical disciplines—to keep asking what the past means and why ordinary people should care about it.

—William Cronon, “Storytelling” (presidential address to the American Historical Association), New Orleans, 2013