I’m a History Teacher
Posted by Gerald on July 5, 2007
Once upon a time, I had pretensions of being a real historian.
I was going to spend my life doing major research, writing journal articles and books, engaging in big debates, and teaching my students. I saw myself with a career where I would be making an impact on the profession. Hell, you should have seen my dissertation thesis. Peter Novick once congratulated me on having picked something that was “so likely to piss off so many people.” I was going to be paradigm-shifting with the best of them. I was going to be a historian.
That is not how things turned out.
Some of it was life intervening, but that isn’t really why I didn’t go where I had planned. Two realities re-shaped my goals. First, I’m not that smart. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bad, but I’ve met class-A historical minds and I am not one of them. Second, I’m not a researcher. I can do research. I can write. I gave some papers and I even got one published. I never enjoyed a minute of it. As I got deeper into research for my dissertation, it felt like I was pulling my own teeth. The idea of a lifetime of that was simply unsustainable.
So I didn’t become a historian. I became a history teacher.
I teach at a community college. Let’s face it, community colleges are a national punchline. There were two episodes of “My Name is Earl” devoted to the pretensions of community college students, the thrust of which was that they hadn’t gone to a real school. We are the subject of Rob Schneider jokes. Certainly, from the viewpoint of most real historians, what I do is the academic equivalent of being a fry cook. I teach nothing but basic survey courses and the occasional sophomore-level history course. Everything I do is a case-study in creative editing because I have 16 weeks to cover dawn-of-time to 1700 and then 16 more weeks to cover 1700 to the present. No depth, no nuances, no local case-studies, we gotta move.
I love it.
Most students who pass through the state universities here are going to take two history courses – either Western Civ or World Civ. Those going into teaching will also take American survey. Most real historians hate teaching survey courses. I love them. This, to borrow a phrase, is where the rubber hits the road. This is where the real dialog between the historical profession and the world takes place. The average American college grad will never even see a copy of the AHR, but they are going to hear what their survey course instructor says. Some of those people are then going to go on to teach social studies to elementary school kids. Freshman survey is where America learns its history. We had better get it right. If we don’t, the rest of the entire profession is culturally meaningless.
Years of experience at this level has taught me one important lesson. The one thing my graduate education did nothing to prepare me for was actual teaching. The conceit is that the best researchers are the best teachers. I’m sorry, but that is like saying being a really good farmer is going to make you into a master chef. There is some connection there, but they are two separate skill sets. You can have them both, some of my former colleagues from grad school surely do, but it isn’t automatic. I learned more about being an effective teacher from being a TA to a guy that the U of Iowa didn’t grant tenure to than I ever did in my seminars. I learned a lot from being involved in the Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry, but that was a sideline in my program. I learned to teach like most college instructors do – on the job. Since coming to the community college I have found a group of professionals who see themselves as educators first and who take pedagogy seriously.
We lower-class community college types get 41% of the nation’s undergraduates and about 13% of Federal funding. Our students are more likely to have developmental needs, more likely to have jobs and kids, have less money, and are less likely to come from families that are already boasting a lot of college graduates. These were not the college-bound kids (for the most part – we always have a few of the students who were right at the top.) Our kids are on a really tough road and most of them do not make it.
But some do – and nobody else was around to help them. Just me and my colleagues at our silly little, not REALLY intellectual, community college.
I’m damned proud to be here, teaching my silly survey courses. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
But then, as I said earlier, I’m not that smart.