Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Two years of theatre training at the collegial level have influenced my teaching style and philosophy. I bring the energy of the performing arts into the lecture hall and the seminar room and students share in my infectious passion for the distant past with all its unfamiliar complexities. I emphasise the surprising and unexpected in my lectures both to make them more memorable and to challenge students’ preconceptions about society and the past.

Both my comprehensive exams, completed in spring 2010 in the fields of medieval historiography, the Italian Renaissance, early modern Britain and early modern France, and a master’s degree in medieval social history from the University of Toronto have prepared me to teach courses in premodern European history. My past teaching experience at Johns Hopkins included not only grading but also leading seminar-style sections for two semesters of the lower-level Occidental Civilization course “Medieval World” under Dr. Spiegel and Dr. Gardner as well two semesters of an upper-level course, “Society and Culture in the High Middle Ages” taught my Dr. Spiegel. I have also designed my own courses. I taught an intersession course in 2012 entitled “Food in Premodern Europe” that had a focus on long-distance trade, economics and technology, and I was awarded a Dean’s Teaching Fellowship for Spring 2015 in order to offer a freshman seminar on my field of specialisation – the Renaissance.

I focus my pedagogical efforts on helping students develop critical reading skills. I integrate different types of readings into my assignments in order to expose students to different kinds of authorities with varying degrees of trustworthiness. The ability to evaluate knowledge claims is a skill much in need in the information age. My typical lesson plan begins with a reading quiz that permits students to evaluate their different note-taking strategies and retention of information. The best 80% of reading quizzes are counted towards a student’s final grade. This is one example of the ways in which I integrate flexible evaluative processes into my courses. I believe that establishing a welcoming though demanding environment in the classroom is essential for students are most engaged when approaching challenging material, however, I allow students to choose different assignments to best-suit time constraints and interest in the material. Through the use of reading quizzes, I am able to closely monitor students’ progress and I am available to my students for extended office hours, by appointment and via email. No amount of interactive technology can replace direct student-teacher interaction and mentoring undergraduates throughout their university experience should be a priority for all professors along with innovative research.

I not only present material in schematic, memorizable ways, such as timelines and diagrams, but also narrate vivid anecdotes that stir the emotions of students and emphasise the lived experience of individual actors from other eras. To this end, I include a lecture on foodstuffs and production in any course I teach and bring in a dish for the students to sample. These activities open up a dialogue about the limits of both historical reproduction and inquiry. Prosciutto and melon tasting, a pairing only made popular by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Salerno in the High Middle Ages, has been an especial favourite and a memorable opportunity for discussing humoural theories of the body and the practice of medicine in the medieval era.

My research on historical writing and philosophy of history in the Renaissance informs my pedagogical approach. The humanist writers on whom my dissertation focuses were trained rhetors, politicians and diplomats who sought to use history for practical ends – both as a persuasive tool and as moral philosophy. They firmly believed that a well-crafted history could inspire readers to great deeds and set about this task with a seriousness and skill that I seek to emulate in my interactions with students.

Law school taught me about the contours of the law, but Heather Stein played an integral role in teaching me about the art of argument. Heather was my teaching assistant for two writing intensive medieval history courses while I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University. For every writing assignment I turned in, Heather took it down to the studs so she could show me where my structure was working and where it wasn’t. My papers were always drenched in red ink, and it was clear she cared about helping me become a better writer. Heather took the time to learn my style and to make suggestions that maintained the integrity of my squirks while strengthening the arguments. … Before taking my first class with Heather, I only read for information. With Heather, I learned to read both for information and for argument. This helped me see the ways in which a writer can manipulate facts and create multiple, opposing arguments. As a lawyer, this is invaluable.

Rian C. Dawson

Litigation Associate, Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP