What pulled you into teaching history, and eventually, becoming a history textbook author?
I grew up with maternal grandparents who spoke German as a first language; my grandmother was born in the US but into a large German-speaking farming family and my grandfather emigrated from Ukraine (at the time we called it the USSR or Russia). This made me curious about European history and languages so I first studied German, then French, and finally ended up in French history because of my interest in the French Revolution. I loved studying history and also teaching it, both in large undergraduate classes and small seminars. It seemed to me then and still seems to me now that studying history gives you a new perspective on yourself, your family, your community and your nation and a sense of belonging to a wider world. Textbooks are essential because they provide an introduction to all the fascinating questions that could be studied in greater depth and they also, when they work well, give a sense of how things fit together, whether it’s different kinds of experience (war, economic change, cultural variations) or developments over time (how much we have inherited from the past).
Can you tell us a little bit about the courses you teach/have taught and where you've taught?
I began my career at the University of California, Berkeley teaching Western Civ, general European history and French history in particular. I have taught very large lecture classes (many hundreds of students) and small seminars, both undergraduate and graduate, and everything in between. Berkeley was somewhat unusual (aside from the fact that it was Berkeley, the home of radicalism) in that the history department required every major to write a thesis, not just the honors students. This got students involved in original research and writing and was often very rewarding both to students and their professors. After Berkeley I went to the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, but I still taught the same variety of courses. Then I went to UCLA where I continued to teach a variety of courses. I still teach an online summer version of Western Civ. I loved all the places where I taught and found the students always very engaged (not every single one, of course!), though I also learned that students respond to their professors – if they sense enthusiasm and passion for the subject, they tend to feel the same way themselves.
With The Making of the West going into best-selling 7th edition, and a new Achieve platform, what are you most excited about showing your fellow history professors this fall?
The online component of teaching is only going to grow, and the most important thing is that that component reflect the same research and analysis that go into textbook writing and the research and writing of history more generally. What I like about the Macmillan platform for the 7th edition is that it had great input from my co-authors and myself. It reflects our interests and priorities, not some generic template. At the same time, Achieve offers so many choices. No one has to do the same thing as everyone else; the customization possibilities are endless, as I discovered for myself teaching this course with Launchpad over the last few years.
What are the biggest themes that you try to convey? What are the organizing principles of The Making of the West?
Interconnection above all else: we have tried to bring all the different kinds of history (from military to women’s and gender history) together into a seamless (in so far as that is possible) narrative without privileging any one aspect or region. Interconnection in the sense, too, that Europe is part of a wider world and we would like to think that we were very much in the forefront of emphasizing that aspect of Western Civ.
What has been the best "teachable moment" to emerge from teaching in the era of the pandemic?
I am not sure that enough has been made of how the online format can actually increase professor-student interactions. If you teach a bricks and mortar version of Western Civ as I have, it is very hard to get to know individual students if you have a class of 150-500 students (except those in your own section if you have one). And it’s very hard to get students to come to office hours because they have busy schedules and are often convinced that no one will be very interested in their problems when there are so many other students. With the move online during the pandemic, students have been more willing to email their professors because it’s the only way to contact them. Yes, in synchronous classes, you can stay and ask a question after the lecture but in asynchronous ones, you cannot. But you can email the professor or attend his or her zoom office hours. Without this, I’m afraid that the pandemic would have been even more disastrous for learning.