Faculty Highlight

Ellen Boucher, History

When I think about how my teaching has developed over the years, two somewhat contradictory trends come to mind. On the one hand, the way that I’ve come to frame my courses has become more challenging. The kind of teaching I learned in grad school was very top-down and lecture based: tell the students what they need to know about the past, give them a narrative that starts with change over time and ends with a clear take-away. It didn’t take me long to realize how boring this model was – both for the students and for me. Worse, it left them without any sense of the stakes of the history I was describing.

Eventually I moved to a more problem-centered approach. I try to start each class with either a present-day issue or historiographical debate. I ask students to think through the implications of the question and to consider how a historical lens might shed new light on the issue at hand. In my course on the “Victorian Underworld,” for instance, I begin by illustrating that the ways in which nineteenth century Britons understood crime – as the product of either a person’s flawed character or of their social environment – still belabors how people debate criminality today. So what can we learn from studying the various approaches that the Victorians took to crime in the past, from strict policing to social welfare initiatives to urban renewal programs? My aim with this approach is to give students a new framework or set of ideas that they might apply to complexities of the world around them.

At the same time that my teaching has become more analytically rigorous, I’ve also learned to loosen up in the classroom. To my mind, one of the best aspects of Amherst’s open curriculum is that it fills my courses with students who have a tremendous array of scholarly interests. In any given course, I might find the Sociology major who’s practiced at the art of participant observation, next to the Math major who can unpack the implications of historical demography, next to the Classics major who is well versed in the principles of rhetoric. Over the years, I’ve tried to open up more space in my discussions and assignments for students to apply this interdisciplinary knowledge. Most of my paper prompts now include a “creative option,” which allows students to write their essays in the form of an op-ed, dialogue, historical manifesto, and so on. And in some of my courses, like my class on the First World War, I’ve shelved the traditional research paper for a team-based documentary project that asks student to present a historical argument through a combination of visuals, music, and voiceover narration. Not only are these assignments fun to grade, they also help students who might be new to History draw on their preexisting skills and strengths, making historical analysis seem less daunting and unfamiliar.