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A Classroom for Collaborative Learning: Gabriel Paquette ’95

Becoming an educator was a natural career path for Gabriel Paquette: his mother was a teacher, and he always loved being a student. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Gabe earned a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and has taught at Cambridge (where he was a fellow of Trinity College), Harvard University, and Wesleyan. Now a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, he specializes in the history of European empires and also directs JHU’s program in Latin American studies. His second book, Imperial Portugal in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions: The Luso-Brazilian World, c. 1770-1850, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

I can’t stress enough how formative my Packer years were in my development as a teacher. History teachers Erland Zygmuntowicz, George Snook, and Kathy Emery, English teachers Barbara Seddon, Elizabeth Marshall, and the late Linda Gold, and former Head of School Dr. Geoff Pierson were all master teachers. What was common to their pedagogy was the combination of academic rigor and intellectual playfulness. My imagination, curiosity, and individuality were nurtured in their classrooms, but at the same time these teachers never hesitated to use a red pen on my essays, require multiple revisions of written work, or challenge the underlying (often faulty) assumptions of my arguments. They communicated that what we were doing in the classroom was important: literature, history, and philosophy mattered. Our ability to engage with ideas — as well as to express our own — was an indispensable part of preparing for adulthood. And it was fun! If I manage to combine such intellectual seriousness with a sense of adventure and purpose in my own teaching, I count that as a success.

My interest in history was piqued before I arrived at Packer, but it was more of a vague if sincere enthusiasm for the past than anything else. It was at Packer that I actually learned how to study history: how to interpret primary source documents, how to detect bias and assumptions, how to use very different types of sources to shed light on the same event, how to recover the voices of those left out of (and sometimes intentionally silenced in) traditional histories, whether slaves or workers or children. It was a great thrill to learn how to think in this way. 

In my junior year, Mr. Zygmuntowicz and Ms. Gold advised my independent study project on the history of social welfare in America, from the New Deal to the Great Society. It was a lot of fun to research and write a project of that scope, especially under the guidance of such caring and incisive teachers. I began to wonder whether a future as a researcher and teacher might suit me. 

I’m grateful to Packer for setting me on the path I ultimately took to become a history professor. My research has permitted me to travel widely, learn languages, study at foreign universities, write books, and talk with people from all over the world. My teaching has enabled me to share what I have learned. 

Teaching is never a unilateral, one-way transmission of knowledge: I probably learn as much from my students through class discussion as they learn from me. Some classes are more successful than others, of course, but when the classroom becomes a vehicle for collaborative learning, it’s an exhilarating experience. On those days, it’s hard to believe that I actually get paid to do this job! 

This profile appeared in a feature on alumni in education published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Packer Magazine.

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