Teaching in Senior Living Communities, with J.T. Jamieson

January 14, 2020

Berkeley’s History graduate students are fortunate to have so much exposure in the undergraduate classroom and a culture that values pedagogy and encourages the cultivation of teaching personas. But our training as teachers is still, in some ways, constraining. While we’re given degrees of freedom to explore and understand ourselves as teachers in discussion sections, courses like R1Bs or 103s aren’t always easy to come by – a more unfettered freedom to craft lessons and experiment with pedagogy isn’t always readily available. We might also be left to frequently wonder how exactly to gauge our teaching effectiveness. Despite professor observation, GSI meetings, and student evaluations, there’s likely to be quite a bit of confused chatter among GSIs of any year: how do we know we’ve effectively communicated information? That we’ve taught in a way that bridges divides between students – gulfs in skillsets, educational backgrounds, personal interest in subject matter – so that everyone’s taken something with them out of the classroom?

If graduate students are interested in further pedagogical experimentation and self-realization-as-history-teacher, opportunities for teaching experience outside of the classroom abound in the Bay Area. One program, which I’ve had the pleasure of working for from 2016-2019, affords one such interesting space for teaching and performance. Engage As You Age, a company helmed by a former Yale history graduate student, dispatches graduate students to senior living facilities for monthly lectures on topics of their choosing. This offers a unique set of opportunities for teacher growth. Most obviously: understanding yourself as a lecturer. Hour-long discourses on topics you’ve chosen to explore aren’t something most graduate student teachers are familiar with. The freedom of interpretation coupled with a genre of teaching performance markedly different from discussion-facilitator invites a host of exciting pedagogical challenges.

Audiences often amplify many of the pedagogical challenges graduate students are used to encountering as GSIs. Not only do they come with varying degrees of background knowledge and personal interest, but they, too, often come with outspoken notions and beliefs about the past. Given that the power dynamics of presenter and audience differ considerably from teacher and student, you often find yourself being questioned directly about your skills as an efficient communicator. This experience lends itself nicely to a kind of self-evaluation and self-reflection frequently unavailable in the undergraduate classroom (your students might not tell you you’ve bombed, but other sorts of audiences certainly will). These lessons in crafting lectures, sustaining an engaged performance as presenter, and hypercritical self-evaluation as a communicator of complex information can indeed be challenging, in a thrilling kind of way, to graduate student teachers. That these challenges arise at all, however, showcases the urgency of practicing history pedagogy outside of the undergraduate classroom.

In such a context it can be tempting to turn teaching history into a kind of parlor trick: you might get good at turning out some funky anecdotes and pander to a few oohs, ahhs, and hehs, a gasp or a laugh to ensure you’ve kept their attention. In 1869, America’s preeminent spirit photographer was tried in court, accused of fraudulently concocting ghost visages, and P.T. Barnum testified against him. Those have their place, of course, but it can be exceptionally difficult to communicate a larger historical lesson to an audience that may not be particularly invested in what you have to say about the arc of history, and whom you can’t evaluate, assign papers and readings, or hold captive in a weekly rhythm to ensure they’ve digested whatever you’ve fed them. That’s a unique challenge not all history teachers face, but one from which all can benefit.