Professors for the 21st Century: Team-Teaching Toward the PhD at Stanford

Stanford University's History Department has developed a collaborative teaching model for its faculty and graduate students that many other history departments across America may want to watch. We sat down with Professor Sheffer and her two advisees to talk about Stanford's new model.
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Stanford University's History Department has developed a collaborative teaching model for its faculty and graduate students that many other history departments across America may want to watch.

In 2011 the New York City based Teagle Foundation, an organization that seeks to develop new methods for higher education in the US, awarded the Humanities at Stanford a two-year grant to promote a new form of faculty-graduate collaboration in the classroom that moves beyond the conventional professor and teaching assistant model.

Assistant Professor Edith Sheffer and her early-stage PhD advisees, Ian Beacock and Benjamin Hein, are maximizing this mission: they are officially team-teaching two classes this quarter, with the graduate students taking the lead in course creation. The endeavor is proving to be a fruitful, if unusual, merging of graduate pedagogy with undergraduate education, as Sheffer guides the development of topics of Hein and Beacock's choosing -- financial crises and the politics of emotion.

In April, we sat down with Professor Sheffer and her two advisees to talk about Stanford's new model for graduate training in history.

Q: What was your main goal when organizing these collaborative courses?

Professor Sheffer: I think great graduate training is essential to the future of liberal arts education. Within just a few years, dissertations become books and students become teachers.

I saw in this project an opportunity to reconfigure my graduate students' training -- flipping the usual sequence of dissertation-writing and self-directed teaching in a way that can broaden both. In many PhD programs, students teach their own classes as they are writing their dissertations, receiving limited faculty support. This can lead to narrower courses and leave students feeling at sea. By contrast, Ben and Ian are at the pre-dissertation stage; I have been involved in each phase of their course design and am teaching alongside them.

This collaborative format, I think, brings both intellectual and pedagogical advantages. Ian and Ben will develop knowledge of their fields as they hone in on specific dissertation topics. They can see the larger significance of their projects early in the dissertation process, test ideas and learn from undergraduates' questions and comments. I will support this exploratory process -- as well as, of course, teach teaching. This project is, in fact, counted as a graduate class in pedagogy.

I also believe this team effort can result in better courses for undergraduates. Students will certainly benefit from Ben and Ian's extraordinary effort and thoughtfulness in designing these classes, while I offer broader perspectives and experience. I think undergraduates may relate differently to Ian and Ben, bridging a gap that can come between students and faculty members to create a new and lively learning dynamic in the classroom. Their sheer energy and enthusiasm will certainly go a long way to inspire undergraduates, as it already has me.

Beacock: I wonder if this model might also help solve a classic pedagogical problem. We know that teaching isn't supposed to be a one-way transfer of information from teacher to student, that students should be collaborators in their own learning. Ben and I have thought a great deal about our topics, but since we haven't yet written our dissertations our answers remain in many cases provisional and our horizons wide-open. I hope that will lead to as genuine a spirit of classroom collaboration as possible. In other words, we're going to keep the prechewing of content to a minimum!

Q: These courses are mostly Ian Beacock's and Benjamin Hein's own creations. How did you go about finding a viable topic to design your course around?

Hein: My course Economic Miracles? Crisis and Recovery in Modern Europe has its origins in the recent global economic crisis, as well as the ongoing Euro-Zone crisis in Europe. This was intentional. When I first began thinking about potential themes for the Teagle project during the past summer, I was determined to address questions, problems, and issues that directly affect students. History, it turns out, offers an abundance of economic crises and recoveries that one can study and learn from.

Still, the more crucial reason for choosing the theme of "economic miracles" was my dissertation. In my research, I am interested in the history of economic thought and the history of capitalism, and so I began by organizing the course around interesting and controversial thinkers of the modern period, including Max Weber, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. The Teagle program provides an amazing opportunity for me to test out my interpretations of these texts, and to work with other students through themes and questions that potentially lie at the core of my dissertation.

Beacock: I think there's something really haunting and compelling about the idea of emotions in history. Humans are emotional beings: we feel deeply about one another and the world around us. Those feelings ought to be central to any stories we tell about our past, but that's easier said than done! The methodological hurdles are legion for any historian who wants to write about emotion. I'm interested in wrestling with these problems in my dissertation, and this is a great chance for me to start doing that. I also thought that it would be pedagogically useful to invite students to the cutting-edge of historical research, to ask them to grapple with issues that haven't yet been settled.

Emotions are mysterious and cutting-edge, and so this is partly about sex appeal. But this is also a topic that raises moral questions of great significance. What does it mean to be a good person and lead a moral life? How do we build a better society? Do emotions help or hinder those projects? Too often, discussions about the latest crisis of the humanities neglect the ethical dimensions of liberal arts education, but I think we have a responsibility and a capacity to speak to the whole person, to ask and encourage our students to be better individuals and wiser citizens. In this course, I want students to feel that the intellectual and moral stakes couldn't be higher.

Q: In the classroom, one would expect an obvious power differential between the professor and the graduate student. How have you approached this challenge? What are the lessons you expect to take away from teaching alongside Professor Sheffer?

Hein: Our course meets once a week for two hours. Edith and I have split up the time into shorter discussions on themes specifically related to our respective areas of expertise. Each of us will be leading students independently while the other supports and provokes with comments and questions as necessary. From a pedagogical standpoint, after all, the goal is to model a critical dialogue for students. Yet by doing so we are simultaneously bridging the "power gap" between professor and graduate student instructor in a natural way.

Beacock: As with Ben's course, we've also divided responsibilities in such a way that students should really think of us as co-instructors. In addition, my course meets twice a week, once for lecture and once for discussion. I'll be delivering the lectures on my own for all ten weeks, which is completely thrilling and a terrific challenge!

We're taking the idea of collaboration very seriously, and I think in the classroom that's going to mean two things that will really pay dividends for undergraduates. First, although Edith and I are both interested in modern German history and the study of emotions, we are drawn to different topics and approaches. I think this will help us cover the material in a more satisfying way, but it should also offer students some surprising and stimulating intellectual juxtapositions. Second, collaboration doesn't mean agreeing one-hundred-percent of the time! It means checking and challenging one another's assumptions, shedding new light on old problems, and having a vigorous discussion. I think it's important to show students that there is something dynamic about writing history and to remind them that it's OK and even essential to be wrong sometimes, to rethink and revise one's ideas.

Professor Sheffer: No question, spirited and extemporaneous debate with a faculty member is built into this form of graduate training -- to come full circle to the original mission of the project. Ben and Ian will gain a lot of experience in the academic hot seat, developing skills critical to oral exams, giving talks and interacting with colleagues. I also think freewheeling exchange with me, their advisor, shifts and strengthens the mentoring relationship. PhD advisors can seem remote, leaving graduate students reticent to engage. Clearly, Ian and Ben speak their mind! The freedom and confidence to explore ideas, I believe, are at the heart of anyone's intellectual development.

I see many ways in which faculty teaming with early-stage graduate students in the classroom can enhance graduate training -- both academically and pedagogically -- which ultimately benefits the books we write and the students we teach.


Assistant Professor Edith Sheffer
is a specialist in modern European and German history. Her first book Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain (Oxford UP 2011) challenged the conventional history of the Iron Curtain. Her current project, "Inventing Autism under Nazism: The Surveillance of Emotion and Child Euthanasia in the Third Reich," sheds new light on Hans Asperger's creation of the autism diagnosis in Nazi Vienna. In experimenting with different perspectives in teaching, Sheffer has developed a method in which students create their own fictional historical characters over an entire quarter, elaborating their unique life paths in weekly diary-type entries on a course website; Creating Lives has been adapted in a number of colleges and even high schools ("Creating Lives in the Classroom," The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 22, 2009).

Ian Beacock is a third-year Ph.D. student working on the intellectual and cultural history of modern Europe, with a focus on Weimar Germany. His course, provocatively entitled Emotion, Power and the Making of Modern Europe, incorporates great novels, political treatises, philosophical works and scientific texts to explore how emotional life in Europe changed from the French Revolution to the present. Of key import, this history course raises moral questions about emotions: whether they make or break the ethical life but also whether they help or hinder the pursuit of a just society.

Benjamin Hein is a second-year Ph.D. student interested in the history of economic thought and capitalism in modern Europe. His course Economic Miracles? Crisis and Recovery in Modern Europe examines the recent global economic downturn, as well as the ongoing Eurozone Debt Crisis, against the backdrop of more than 150 years of major economic crises on the European continent. Addressing questions that weigh heavy on the minds of undergraduates preparing to enter an uncertain economy, the course investigates how specific social, political, and cultural environments have played a key role in shaping contemporaries' perceptions and understanding of economic crises and subsequent recoveries.

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