Adam Sundberg – Teaching Statement

Teaching is grounded in effective communication. This principle grounds my activities in the lab and classroom. Good communication minimizes confusion, it facilitates and promotes effective learning, and it encourages mutual respect amongst students and teachers. In my experience, this is also one of the most difficult to skills to master (in academia or otherwise) and I have spent significant time developing and honing my methods of presenting, receiving, and connecting ideas. My experience teaching (primarily) historical and environmental subjects in higher education, secondary education, and as a public volunteer reinforced this general conviction in the importance of communication. I also used these teaching experiences to develop a teaching philosophy grounded in four principal ideas.   

The first idea I work from is that teaching is an exchange; it is a form of communication that operates best in when it is mutual. Listening to students adds to their engagement by acknowledging that they have interesting, unique, or challenging contributions to offer the class. An important component of my teaching is fostering this ability to exchange those ideas and perspectives.  Naturally, this is easiest and most effective in smaller discussion sections outside of lectures. However, some of the most effective surveys I have been a part of were able to balance lecturing with active student engagement. During time spent teaching at the University of Kansas and Creighton University, I have led discussion groups as large as one hundred students and as small as six. Naturally, exchange is more difficult with larger class sizes, but reserving time (typically 1/3rd to ½ of the class time) for discussion is imperative because it challenges students to develop and express their own opinions.  Even large-format lecture courses can be accented with moments that address issues pertinent to students’ interests or experience. One can likewise pose questions leading the lecture along new, edifying, or useful directions. This is a challenging skill, but one that I have worked hard to develop during my time as an instructor.   

Secondly, teaching is also learning. This relates directly to my previous point because the exchange of knowledge with students is often edifying for the instructor. For instance, I often incorporate input from students into future lectures and discussion concepts. Students have suggested readings, or alternate interpretations of key readings that have guided my own thinking and subsequent teaching. Learning can also be developed out of the exchange of ideas with other teachers. This often means drawing on past syllabi or the pedagogical recommendations of colleagues, but also more integrative approaches. On several occasions, I lectured or led discussions in tandem with other teachers. For instance, I helped develop, teach, and refine a two-semester course entitled The Global Environment with professors and graduate students in history, geography, climatology, and anthropology at the University of Kansas. This course presented global environmental history from the breakup of Pangaea to global warming and incorporated the teaching and methods of human geography, anthropology, and climatology. Building this course from scratch was a valuable experience, but it was also challenging to develop a trans-disciplinary product grounded in multiple teaching styles and content. It required learning an incredible amount of unfamiliar information in multiple fields, which proved useful for my teaching and research. This difficult, exciting opportunity expanded my environmental literacy and improved my teaching. I was able to my see my own teaching style and choice of content reflected or contrasted in others, highlighting areas for improvement or development. Ideally, these sorts of experiences have also been complimentary where both teachers experience benefits.   

Thirdly, teaching does not always have to be done “by the book.” In a figurative sense, this means valuing creative ways of communicating subject matter. I have taught courses using GIS labs, computer simulations that map species evolution, and digitized early modern maps highlighting the spread of Dutch commercial interests. As an example, in lieu of an individual final project, the final assignment of the course Scientific Principles of Environmental Studies was a group debate. This highlighted course material (from which the topic of debate was drawn), public speaking and group learning (both emphasizing communication of environmental ideas), and research skills (which included primary source material as well as academic writings in a number of disciplines). The most compelling result of the debate format was that it highlighted the lack of true binaries in environmental issues. The students could rarely identify an issue with only two sides.
Teaching outside “the book” can also be interpreted literally. The world outside the classroom offers a wealth of information that engages students and prompts them to see their surroundings differently. One example is a lab that I helped develop as part of the course, The Global Environment. This particular lab combined past lessons on landscape history, ecological restoration, and the global energy balance as it related to the earth’s atmosphere. We encouraged the students to engage these ideas in their local environment: in this case, the center of campus. They measured the energy output of various built and natural surfaces to highlight micro-climates, the inputs (like runoff) into a lake downhill from a campus road, and discussed historical changes to local landscape caused by human or non-human processes. Similarly, in my class on cartography (Mapping History) at Creighton, students explored the concept of scale by mobile mapping Creighton’s campus and then exporting that information to google earth. This exercise was conducted largely outside the lab and encouraged students to place themselves in global context. These labs repackaged macro-concepts into a local context familiar to every student in the class.        

Finally, teaching is personal. Much of my teaching is guided by personal or scholarly interests. Of course I don’t always use eighteenth-century Dutch examples to frame my lessons, but the historical interests that guide my research are also effective ways to generate interest in other fields as well. I find that the most effective way to convey my enthusiasm for history is by using the broad themes and methods that guides my own scholarship. For this reason, I include discussions of resource scarcity and water management (both general thematic interests) in courses as varied as Modern European History, Global Environmental History, and the Scientific Principles of Environmental Studies. During a guest lecture in the Netherlands, I employed extensive use of GIS and photographic evidence (both methodological interests) in my discussion of the Dust Bowl and led a workshop on “digital deep mapping” for graduate students interested in spatial research. Integrating a personal dimension into my pedagogy encourages me to continually refine my style, content, and teaching philosophy.