An Education They Won't Forget

Pushing students to intellectually test themselves has lasting payoffs.
July 28, 2015

My philosophy of teaching draws on long-standing humanistic traditions. I strive not just to broaden intellectual horizons and facilitate more skillful analytical inquiry, but also to create a variety of reflective echoes once the details of a course have long faded. The capacity to pose tough questions, to place human behavior in larger societal contexts, to apply a variety of disciplinary perspectives to vexing societal problems— these are the hallmarks of education that truly last. But how can one achieve such goals in a world of information saturation and divided attention?

One central impulse of mine is to challenge the extraordinarily talented students at Duke, to ask them to find intellectual gears they have not yet fully tested. The undergraduates who take my courses “American Business History” or “The Modern Regulatory State” have to grapple with the complexities of modern capitalism. Through a series of case studies, these students explore contentious issues about the role of law, institutions, and policy in shaping markets. As we move through the semester, a key goal is to connect these historical snapshots to broader social, economic, and political transformations. Students confront the messiness of historical evidence, whether contained in online databases or musty archival boxes; in memoirs, editorial cartoons, or legal cases; through economic statistics, official government inquiries, or corporate annual reports.

Rather than lecture, I mostly orchestrate collective engagement, whether the topic at hand is the multiple meanings of Anglo-American “common law” or the early-twentieth- century invention of the multidivisional corporation. Even in a class of sixty, students engage in small-group exercises and extensive discussion. Through this process students learn the building blocks of compelling research— how to craft a good historical question, link it to a research agenda, and carry out that agenda, even in the face of limited (or dauntingly profuse) sources.

From the first class, I try to persuade students that reading closely and tackling tough issues along with their peers will yield both deeper understanding and a waxing sense of accomplishment. During a given session, white boards quickly fill up with student observations and ideas linked through a variety of schematics: mind maps, causal flow charts, complex chronologies, diagrams of bureaucratic authority and interaction.

By the end of a term, I expect undergraduates to have a much better grasp of how the industrial corporation has so profoundly reshaped American life, or the advantages of thinking about legal systems in terms of dispute pyramids, or what effective policy entrepreneurship entails. Students should have the capacity to represent a business model through a clearly delineated graphic, or draw up a social balance sheet of how a regulatory policy affects demographic groups. And they should be able to generate compelling analytical narratives, based on their own hard-won research, that contextualize decision-making and wrestle with the ethical dilemmas associated with policy choices.

This sort of teaching works best through collaboration. I depend on Duke’s wonderful librarians and archivists to develop detailed research guides and to host class sessions in the archives. In larger courses, graduate teaching assistants lead discussion sections and mentor research projects. Students have to be willing partners in the enterprise. If they do not see the value of preparing for class or don’t have the confidence to join debates and contest received wisdom, the day’s pedagogical architecture can come crashing down.

Effective teaching and mentoring, of course, leads to some immediate payoffs—the once disinterested student who becomes captivated by the interpretive conundrums of reading telegraphic nineteenth-century commercial correspondence; the reticent undergraduate who gradually becomes a vocal class contributor; the research-team member whose experience leads to a compelling thesis topic or redirects career goals.

But I have now been at this game long enough to understand that the most significant educational ripples only come into view over a much longer timespan. Here I have benefited greatly from the considered reflections of former students: a one-time doctoral advisee describing how he schematically maps out class discussions on white boards of his own collegiate classrooms; a strategist at a multinational car company relating how he brings his grasp of business history to bear on internal debates over technological bets; an Episcopal priest ascribing his practice of honing sermons in part to the rigorous revising process that produced a prize-winning history honors thesis.

Such conversations remind me of the innumerable ghosts that lurk in any educational setting. My own teaching abounds with echoes from past mentors, colleagues, doctoral candidates, and undergraduates. Their insights have profoundly shaped my own ways of thinking. Their practices have offered a rich array of strategiesto emulate or adapt. Their suggestions have generated myriad ideas to try out and identified some approaches to drop. Such reverberations suggest that even in an online age, the most far-reaching pedagogical impacts still emerge out of sustained personal interactions that ripen into bonds of fellowship.

Balleisen, a professor of history and the former director of the Duke History Honors Seminar, is the newest recipient of the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. He has taught about 1,000 Duke undergraduates and mentored three-dozen doctoral students. In July, he became vice provost for interdisciplinary studies.