KCC Faculty on Teaching
KCC Faculty on Teaching
How did you get into teaching?
In 1987, I was an economics major, secretary of Brooklyn College's Corporate Careers Club, and planned to be Alex P. Keaton and go into finance. And then, in my junior year of college, I saw the movie Wall Street, which literally changed my life. I discovered that I did not believe that "Greed Is Good," I did not have it in me to be a corporate shark, and it turned out I wasn't all that motivated by money. Then, outside the campus library, I saw a table with a paper flyer for an interdisciplinary co-major called American Studies, and looked into whether I could complete it in the time I had left. I started taking American history and music courses, and applied for a program called the Ford Colloquium for future college teachers (where I met classmate Eileen Ferretti, who is today the chairperson of KCC's English department). The die was cast. (Also, at the age of five, I played a Munchkin in a summer camp staging of the Wizard of Oz, with a speaking part. I have never been shy in front of a group.)
What career did you imagine for yourself when you were in college?
Beginning with my epiphany 18 months before graduation, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was especially inspired to become a professor by some extraordinarily gifted instructors who taught me everything about motivating students, including professors of English, French, opera (!), and history. My first college class ever was an 8:00 AM section of History of the Modern World, taught by then-Brooklyn-College-president Robert L. Hess. He had quite an effect on my subconscious, because the idea of emulating his Socratic teaching style and erudition began percolating even then.
What do you love about teaching?
The students, the students, the students. After two pandemic years in my basement instead of a classroom, I am desperate to get back where I belong! I love the dynamic of a group-learning environment, full of lively back-and-forth, awakening to new ideas and insights, challenging questions – even that one student in the back row surreptitiously checking a cell phone or the ones sneaking a peek at a cheat sheet. I miss them all terribly. I have now missed two full years of being in my classroom, which is the equivalent of one entire Kingsborough student's academic career from start to finish. I am thrilled that we’re back on-campus!
What’s your favorite teaching experience?
I was hired as an adjunct in fall 1992 to teach two sections of African-American history, which was the subject of my master's thesis and later my dissertation. I was 24 years old with zero solo teaching experience, and was a young white instructor teaching sections comprised almost entirely of students of color. I started off the semester by playing in class a KRS-One hip-hop song called "Why Is That," which asserts that most of the early Bible figures were black. ("Moses had to be of the black race/ Because he spent 40 years in Pharaoh's place.") I asked the students what they thought of the song and its premise, which segued into a discussion about whether they felt I was qualified to teach the subject at hand. In the end, they decided to accept me on a trial basis – and only one student dropped the class. I had an amazing semester learning how to teach, how to be sensitive to student needs, how to overcome barriers in communicating with students, and how to be free in a classroom by trying anything and everything that helped us learn together. We had no podiums or screens, so we ended up rolling a big TV/VCR cart into the room almost every day to watch film and TV clips to go along with my cheap boom box for audio snippets. A semester or two later, my startled and amused department chair asked me to substitute for a section of “Women in U.S. History,” which I am still teaching 28 years later. You could say I specialize in "teaching what I'm not."
In what ways do you bring your professional experience into the classroom?
Like many of my favorite historians, at heart, I am a storyteller who loves to delve deeper into the lives and attitudes of my subjects and present their unique points of view. My master's and Ph.D. theses told the story of a 19th-century Black sailor who left diaries from over 25 years at sea. Those research and writing experiences taught me a lot about race, class, gender and sexuality, and how to construct and tell stories of individual people and the lives they led. I try to encourage my students not to judge people of the past through an exclusively modern lens, but instead to understand them on their own terms and in their lived historical contexts.
What advice do you have for current students?
Especially now, don't give up and fade away. In the distance learning environment, it is very easy to stop checking Blackboard and class emails and then simply forget that you are registered for actual classes. Students themselves have identified this to me as one of their biggest personal challenges since we went virtual on March 12, 2020. Find subjects and professors that engage you, learn how to make classwork part of your daily routines, and spend some real effort on just staying connected and up-to-date. This is a tremendous life skill to have, but nobody else can develop it for you.