Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

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.

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7 Responses to “I’m a History Teacher”

  1. Steve said

    Bravo, man, bravo.

    Oh, and the whole “smart” thing? Have you met you? I have. And this ain’t no empty praise: You may be a “big guy” but yer brain is much bigger… Or something like that.

  2. […] kind of historian am I? Filed under: Uncategorized — bridgett @ 2:21 pm Gerald knows what kind of historian he was meant to be, but don’t let him fool you. He’s found what makes him happy and that is always a smart […]

  3. John C said

    You are a hero, not these tenured sloths who complain about their TA’s grading…

  4. Melissa said

    As a community college student and a person who’s heard the joke “going to community college is like going to the 13th grade” time and time again, I commend you on this short essay. I have learned A LOT both academically and personally while trying to obtain my associate’s degree and I am thankful for the lessons my community college professors have taught me. I’m sure your students are also thankful to have a professor like you that cares so much about them and their success.

  5. I know this is an old thread, Gerald, but I have to jump in.

    I was in grad school with Gerald. He was one of the smartest there. He may not have the publication resume, but he’s got the class 1-A mind.

    And I’m glad he went the teaching route. Real glad. That mind is too good to waste on PhDs and other aficionados of publish-or-perish.

    Oh, I have no doubt we differ in more than one particular on how history ought to be taught, perhaps even on the curricular value of a “survey” approach to introductory courses. But in my not so humble opinion, those who are being taught in those introductory courses, those who *don’t* go on to become professional historians, are the people we most need to get quality exposure to historical ways of thinking.

    And I have absolutely no doubt that Gerald’s students get just that.

    The world can prosper without PhDs in history. It can’t prosper without good teachers of history.

    Excelsior, Gerald, excelsior!

  6. Paul Swendson said

    Amen, brother. I am a truly second class citizen: an adjunct community college professor of history. I am currently teaching seven classes at four schools, and like you, I teach exclusively survey courses, mostly American History. There are times where I dream of being some renowned scholar at a major university, but when I come back to reality, I realize that what I am doing now is much more productive. Teaching upper division and graduate courses would possibly be more fun and interesting at times. If nothing else, it would provide more variety. But teaching those courses would be like preaching to the choir. I would rather promote basic historical literacy among the general population and possibly inspire an occasional student who never liked history before to pursue our field in more depth. Publishing stuff in historical journals may impress your colleagues, but I doubt that it has much impact on the world.

  7. Sara R. said

    Hellooo,
    I don’t really know how to start this, but oh well.
    Your blog makes me laugh so I’d figured I’d ask you.
    For my English 3 class, I have to write a research paper about a career I’d like to follow. I chose that I wanted to be a high school History teacher; as part of the paper, I have to interview someone who is in the field. So, if you have time or don’t mind, I would like to ask you a few questions about it.

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