Great History Teachers: Part 2

My previous post on this theme honored the career of Mr. Hand who taught history at Ridgemont High in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  I hope you enjoyed that little stroll down memory lane.  Today we move to the campus of Northwestern College Great Lakes University and the classroom of Professor Turgeson who teaches Contemporary American History.  I hope there are a few of you who remember Professor Turgeson who was played by the late Sam Kinison in the movie Back to School.  The movie starred the late Rodney Dangerfield who played Thornton Melon, a successful businessman who decides to go back to school to encourage his struggling son.   This scene is set on the first day of class in Turgeson’s classroom.

Professor Turgeson: Welcome to Contemporary American history. I know a lot of people think history is just facts… just information about the past, but not me. I hold history very sacred. Sacred. The way a farmer looks at the Earth and holds it sacred. The way a Christian takes the Bible… and he holds it sacred. The way a lot of people hold their marriage sacred. That’s how I feel about it. So why don’t we dive right in… by interpreting one of the easiest events… in the last twenty years of American history. Now, can someone tell me… why, in 1975 we pulled our troops out of Vietnam?

Student: The failure of Vietnamization to win popular support… caused an ongoing erosion of confidence… in the various American… but illegal… Saigon regimes.

Professor Turgeson: Is she right? ‘Cause I know that’s the popular version… of what went on there. I know a lot of people like to believe that. I wish I could, but I was there. I wasn’t here in a classroom… hoping I was right, thinking about it. I was up to my knees in rice paddies… with guns that didn’t work, going up against Charlie… slugging it out with him, while pussies like you… were back here partyin’, puttin’ headbands on… doin’ drugs, listening to the goddamn Beatle albums!

Thornton Melon
: Hey, Professor, take it easy, will ya? These kids were in grade school at the time. And me… I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover.

Professor Turgeson: Well, I didn’t know you wanted to get involved… with the discussion, Mr. Helper. But since you want to help, maybe you can help me, OK? You remember that thing we had about thirty years ago… called the Korean conflict? Yeah. Where we failed to achieve victory. How come we didn’t cross the   th parallel… and push those rice-eaters back to the Great Wall of China… and take it apart brick by brick… and nuke them back into the fuckin’ stone age forever? How come? Tell me? Why? Say it! Say it!

Thornton Melon: All right, I’ll say it. ‘Cause Truman was too much of a pussy wimp… to let MacArthur go in and blow out those commie bastards!

Professor Turgeson
: Good answer. Good answer. I like the way you think. I’m gonna be watching you.

Thornton Melon
: Good teacher. He really seems to care. About what, I have no idea.

I’m not sure this is the best way to start a class discussion on the first day of the new semester.  What do you think?


Rethinking Your Teaching Options

In the latest issue of Perspectives, which is published by the American Historical Association, there is a very disturbing letter from a woman who is close to finishing her PhD, but is concerned about locating a teaching position.  Here is a short excerpt from her letter:

I have come to the conclusion, now that I am almost ready to defend my dissertation and enter the academic job market, that this may be a very poor career-path choice. The overall impression I have derived from the various articles is that unless I am a white male graduate of a top-ten school, working in a currently "hot" field, and under the age of 35, my chances of finding secure and long-term employment in a teaching position are slim to none. And should I actually be lucky enough to make it through a job-search experience that is almost universally panned, even by those who completed it successfully, I can anticipate a quite low starting salary in comparison to professions with similar or lesser credentialing requirements. I am forced to ask myself: Why bother?

Now I don’t want to debate the merits of any gender or age bias in the academy because I don’t operate in that environment.  What I do know is that I’ve read and listened to a great deal of commentary about the state of the job market and other concerns that go into landing that first job that would make all of the hard work worthwhile.  I’ve heard way too many stories of disappointment in connection with those massive job fairs that take place at the annual meeting of the AHA or the statistics that have 150 candidates applying for one job.  I can certainly sympathize with the anxieties that go into a job search. 

Given all of this, what I don’t understand is why graduate programs in history have not done more to highlight the possibilities of teaching in a private school.  Of course part of the answer is obvious: One does not struggle through a PhD program to end up anywhere but in a college setting where there is time to pontificate and publish.  There is a stigma attached with settling for anything other than a 4-year institution or a sense that one has ultimately failed.  But is this narrow view justified given the state of the job market and other relevant factors?  In other words, perhaps it can be argued that this condescending attitude is keeping young PhD’s from pursuing a career that could prove to be incredibly rewarding. 

Let me use myself as an example of someone who has learned to balance the demands of the classroom with a fairly successful record of scholarship and service.  Please keep in mind that I do not have a PhD, but much of my activity has come to mirror the life of a professor. 

I should start out with the challenges that all private school teachers deal with in various degrees.  The teaching loads are heavy.  I teach five sections (not all on the same day) and have three preps.  This amounts to around 70 students, which means meetings, conferences, parents, etc.  In short, its not easy.  Many private schools also place an emphasis on coaching one of the three sports seasons.  The responsibilities vary across the board. 

As challenging as the life of a private school teacher is there is much to recommend it, even for newly-minted PhD’s.  Most classes are small in size; my largest section is 16 students.  Private school students are a fairly obedient breed, which means they can be taught and they will actually do their work.  They tend to be motivated even if tends to be focused simply on getting into the right college.  Most importantly, as a group they tend to be fairly bright and curious.  All of this makes for productive classes with a surprising amount of original thought and dialogue.  For those of you out there who abhor the prospects of having to publish a certain amount for tenure and who actually enjoy the dynamics of the classroom the private school world may be for you.  If colleges and universities are serious about instilling good teaching habits in their graduate students it stands to reason that a career that concentrates on the classroom should be seen as a serious option following graduation. 

But even if you have publishing aspirations there may be a home for you in a private school.  Output will certainly be lower than what you will find in the college world, but I assume that many people would be happy being able to publish a few things within a life of teaching.  This is where I fall.  I’ve managed to publish a number of pieces in academic journals, popular magazines, and one edited collection.  There is even the possibility of working on larger projects if you are able to successfully budget the required time.  Beyond publishing I’ve been able to attend and present at numerous academic conferences and have served as a referee for three academic journals.  My school allows me to miss classes to attend conferences and has even financially supported some of these trips.  In fact, I’ve been encouraged to attend conferences since it involves positive publicity for the school. 

I am not simply trying to toot my own horn here.  The life of a private school teacher can in fact accommodate much of what goes into a university position even if aspects of it are curtailed.  Again, I imagine that many graduate students would be happy in a position where they were able to engage in a minimal amount of scholarship in exchange for the joys of the classroom.  They should at least be introduced to it as a serious option. 

I am not aware of any organized effort on the part of the AHA or OAH in this regard.  This is odd given the amount of attention on bridging the gap between professional scholarship and the introduction of that material in the high school classroom.  The OAH has made a list of professors available for visits to schools and both organizations have published numerous pamphlets and magazines written for the high school classroom.  Finally, high school teachers can attend summer conferences such as the Gilder-Lehrman Institute which are led by some of the brightest minds in the academy.  If the AHA and OAH are really interested in bridging the divide between these two worlds than it stands to reason that they would promote the life of a high school history teacher as a viable option.  If professional historians can write the curricula material than they should be able to teach it.

I have a feeling that the tendency to ignore the private school route is denying plenty of young scholars/teachers a fulfilling and meaningful career.     


The Weekly “Low” Standard

[Hat-Tip to Rebecca Goetz]

A couple of days ago I commented on some criticisms leveled at the textbook that I am currently using for my AP History course.  As I mentioned my problem was not in the questioning of the interpretation, but in our tendency to rely on labels as a means of commentary of someone’s scholarship.  Turns out the Weekly Standard has sunk to the same level in a short piece that critiques courses currently being taught in colleges and universities across the country.  Here is an example of their sharp analysis:

At the University of California, Berkeley, students are taking "Doing Feminist Studies" and "Alternative Sexualities in a Transnational World." Surely these courses kill at least as many brain cells as a night of drinking. Berkeley also offers "Public Speaking About Diversity"–but it would probably be more fruitful to sit on the quad, watch fellow students go by, and then adjourn to the nearest Starbucks or the campus free speech zone to practice actual public speaking.

Fascinating.  Is this really the best we can do?  Perhaps the author meant for this to read as a comedy piece, but I suspect that this is not the case.  Again, I am all for the critical analysis of courses and their epistemic validity, but it seems to me that the professors in question deserve the benefit of the doubt.  My guess is that this critique reflects the author’s own insecurities and fears.  My advice to the author is to grow up.

On a slightly different note my AP classes read and discussed a chapter from Howard Zinn’s Peoples History.  Some of the students came in and were armed with the standard labels of "liberal" or "Marxist" – most having no idea how to use such concepts.  I made it a point to keep the vague generalizations out and maintain their focus on the interpretation at hand.  We ended up coming to terms with both the broad categories of Zinn’s interpretation, including what he wants the reader to understand about Colonial America, the various pieces of evidence, and the interpretation’s shortcomings.  I am absolutely tired of our lack of patience and unwillingness to engage in serious dialogue. 


Education Is Wasted On The Young

How can a committed high school history teacher make such a claim?  Well, this post is really about my brother.  My brother is a few years younger and last year he decided to make a major change in his life.  He was trained as a chef and over the past 15 years had managed to rise in the profession to executive chef in one of the largest hotel companies.  For much of that time my brother was devoted to his profession and worked hard to stay on top of his craft.  I’ve always admired his ability to stay cool in a profession that allows for few mistakes and demands strong organizational skills.  More recently he began to grow tired of the job and worried that perhaps it was time for a change.  I find that most people are content with their professions even if the payoff provides little satisfaction.  That’s why I was so surprised and pleased to hear last year that my brother planned to leave his job and go back and finish his college degree.  And what is he interested in doing?  He wants to TEACH HIGH SCHOOL HISTORY! 

This was not an easy decision for him to make.  He earned a great salary and the thought of having to give up such a lifestyle could not have been easy.  This past summer he completed his Associates Degree and is now enrolled in one of New Jersey’s state universities and is majoring in history with an emphasis on education.  My brother loves history, but there is much to adjust to, including a classroom full of younger students, and the challenge of having to study on a regular basis.  I’ve been reading a few of his papers just to help with citations and style.  Though his papers need to be polished you can tell that he is hooked and is enjoying the challenge.  I’m sure his professors will enjoy having him in the classroom.  I have no doubt that he will make an excellent teacher.

I’ve been known to tell my students that part of the trick to figuring out the problem of life is to find a job that reflects their passion.  Their tendency to concentrate on material wealth or a measure of success as dictated by their parents or society in general is the biggest roadblock to this process.  In many ways my job is an extension of my personality and broad interests.  It is sometimes difficult to know where my job and my passion for history come together.  My brother was brave enough in his mid-30′s to take a chance and try to make that happen, and I am going to help him in any way I can.  The likelihood that we will share the same profession at some point may bring us even closer together. 

Well Done Bro.


A Heart-Wrenching Decision?

One of the classic strands of Civil War Entertainment is the story of Lee’s difficult decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army in the wake of Fort Sumter and Virginia’s decision to secede.  We are supposed to revel in the tragedy as Lee realizes that the pull of his state is more influential than the oath to protect and defend the Constitution.  We celebrate his decision even as we ignore any questions of whether there were alternatives, and more importantly, we lose any opportunity to assess Lee’s decision within the context of how other Virginians judged their respective allegiances.  Although I’ve been critical of Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered, I do think that the chapter on Lee’s decision to resign and his subsequent decision to accept a commission from the state of Virginia is worth serious consideration. 

A new article by Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh titled "’I Owe Virginia Little, My Country Much’: Robert E. Lee, the United States Regular Army, and Unconditional Unionism" examines Lee’s decision along with the decisions of other Virginians who were in similar circumstances.  [He teaches history at the Naval Academy and maintains a blog on the L.A. Dodgers.]  The article appears in the recently-released edited volume, Crucible of the Civil War: Virginia from Secession to Commemoration and is edited by Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, and Andrew Torget.  The collections brings together essays from former University of Virginia graduates and current PhD candidates in the history department.  I’ve read through about half of the essay and it is clear that this is a strong collection.  Back to Lee.  Here are a few key passages from the article:

Although [Douglas] Freeman and [Charles Francis] Adams cited Lee’s Virginia loyalties as reason enough for his conduct, many other Virginians with regular army backgrounds stayed loyal to the government that they had all at one point or another sworn to serve.  These Unionist officers raise important questions about whether or not we can cite regional origin to explain and, at times, to justify and individual’s conduct during the secession crisis. After all, many of these men experienced the same personal and regional pressures to secede that Lee experienced, but they chose familial estrangement and regional ostracism for the sake of the uniform that Robert E. Lee repudiated. (p. 36)

The author examines the individual experiences of Southern Unionists such as George H. Thomas Rufus Terrill, Philip St. George Cooke, and Winfield Scott.  It’s Wei-Siang Hsieh’s statistical analysis that forces the reader to step back and re-examine what Lee’s decision to resign means. 

Of all Southern officers connected to a seceded state, 60 out of 300 stayed in the Union leaving 200 in Confederate service.  Of the 487 graduates of West Point who were affiliated with a seceded state, 173 stayed loyal to the Union and 251 aligned themselves with the Confederacy. If we consider Lee’s age, length of service and location in the Upper South, the author concludes that a decision to stay in the Union would have seemed more likely:

Twenty-seven of 90 slave-state West Point graduates (30 percent) of the Classes of 1830 and before joined the Confederacy (Lee was in the Class of 1829), while 224 of 397 graduates (56 percent) of the classes of 1831 to 1860 did the same.  Even when we look at Virginians, the statistics continue to point to Lee staying with the Union.  While 9 of 27 (33 percent) Virginian graduates of West Point classes up to  and including the class of 1830 went Confederate, a higher percentage of older graduates stayed with the Union: 13 of 27 (48 percent). Lee’s behavior better fit the profile of a younger West Pointer from Virginia.  Sixty-one of 99 (62 percent) Virginian graduates of the Classes of 1831 to 1860 went Confederate, while 31 of 99 (31 percent) stayed with the Union. (p. 47)

So, what are we to make of the data.  Well, whatever we do with it, it is going to be difficult to view Lee’s decision in a vacuum.  It seems silly to simply reduce the issue down to the level of honor, allegiance to state, etc as a sufficient reason.  A significant minority of Virginians in the military dealt with the very same issues and drew very different conclusions.  The drama behind Lee’s difficult decision (one that we are supposed to believe was the only decision he could make) fades away in the sense that its mere consideration raises his character above all others. Finally, the emphasis on Lee’s infallibility as reflected in this decision highlights the postwar mythologizing that created the "marble man" image and the sanctity that comes along with it. 

Note: My Civil War class has finished with Virginia’s secession (we read William Freehling’s North and South article on this) so we are ready to analyze the mobilization of the armies and the summer of ’61.  Perhaps I will show how Ken Burns treats Lee’s decision to resign and then introduce them to the above data.  This should make for an interesting lesson.