Thoughts on Teaching at the Graduate Institute


Carolyn N. BILTOFT


"I joined the Graduate Institute after leaving my first academic position at Georgia State, a public university in the heart of downtown Atlanta. In Atlanta, I frequently taught large undergraduate survey courses in world history. Most of my effort as a teacher went into figuring out how to get a diverse range of students – many of who were first generation college students – to remain invested and alert while we traversed the “history of the world” from the sixteenth to the twentieth century in thirteen short weeks. While I occasionally taught graduate seminars in world history, most of my maiden voyage as an educator was spent helping undergraduates that had been incubated in public schools and nursed on multiple-choice tests learn to read, think and write critically. When they questioned the relevance of history, I endeavoured to show them how the past offers us a rich resource for understanding the complex connections between people, events and layered contexts, from the personal to the geopolitical.

History is not just a compendium of facts, places and dates. Quite to the contrary, history is a way of thinking. It is a discipline that seeks to make space for the complexity, ambiguity and indeterminacy of the human experience within and across time. That was my primary message and I tried to carry it through by showing patterns within the unique particularities of historical episodes, from the Black Death to the AIDS epidemic, from the choices of Phillip II to those of Pol Pot. This is still my basic message as a teacher and thesis advisor at the Graduate Institute; however, my own “historical” contexts have changed significantly from the grid pattern streets of Atlanta to the alpine intersections of Genève internationale. With this change have come new variables, new challenges and new lessons.

The students at the Graduate Institute on the whole have been better trained in what we might call the “basic” scholarly skills than those I encountered previously. Because I spend less time transmitting these skills, I have more time to dedicate to pushing students further and deeper beyond the surface displays of mastery. This has been an extremely rewarding experience.

History is the only discipline inside the Institute that sits at the intersection of the humanities and the social sciences. In an age of social media and supposedly declining attention spans, I still believe the art and craft of humanistic inquiry provides invaluable intellectual modalities. Thus here at the Graduate Institute, in addition to helping students become versed in specific fields of historical expertise, I teach them to read both primary and secondary texts patiently for nuances, to think laterally about variables that don’t fit neatly into models, and to have the courage to ask questions that don’t have easy or clear answers. For the historians, I try to introduce these budding scholars to the ins and outs of what French historian (and antifascist) Marc Bloch called “the historian’s craft”. For those students who don’t come here to study history, I try to show them that history is an invaluable companion to any mode of scientific inquiry, simply because not all human dynamics can be easily measured but all can be pondered. Thus, even and perhaps especially at an institute dedicated to achieving a practical understanding of international dynamics, I find that there is still a place and need for the Aristotelian contemplative life. Such slow, painstaking contemplation is still the best bulwark against the binary-logic and false-news-driven political gridlock that has been boiling beneath the surface of our democratic societies. In my experience, the students at the Graduate Institute take seriously this challenge to use historical inquiry to defy and resist the hyper-simplification of the world.

In Geneva, the students come for many reasons and from many continents, and in each class, I have been pleased to see how they are ready and willing to dedicate the sweat and endless hours it takes to read, think and write historically. So far I have been learning as much or more from my students as they have from me. I remain confident that most will leave the Graduate Institute and go on to make a difference by bringing both the art and the science of historical inquiry to their chosen fields and professions."

This article originally appeared in Globe No. 19, Spring 2017.