After 33 years

I just finished grading the last batch of Final Essays for the last class I will be teaching as a full-time tenured history instructor at a community college.

There are so many reasons I’m leaving early, but one is that it had become untenable (and untenure-able) to continue as an academic who believes in civil discourse and rational analysis as more important than group identity and ease of academic achievement.

But I do love my students, and this last group turned in a batch of essays about how horrible American history has been to certain groups of people. Within these essays, I can see neither myself nor the history of my family, who love this country but have always striven to make it better.

So in my last teaching to this group, Modern American history, in an Announcement likely many will not read, I wrote:

I will say this is one of the most depressing batches of Final Essays I’ve ever read. Many were proven well, written well, with a good thesis, and got high marks, but I can sense some despair. So just a few points after going through the ups and downs of history myself, both academically and personally:

First, people can make change, even when there are deeply embedded inequities. Most progress in history is achieved by people doing exactly that. One way to do it is to live what you believe.

Second, celebrating the achievements of the past is not an exercise in futility. If we do not recognize and celebrate the steps forward, the people who did make good change, then they are forgotten. It’s not all about being angry and forceful; some of the most interesting change has been through the use of satire and comedy, and emphasizing our common humanity.

Last, we need nuance. Categorizing events as good or bad, people as whites or minorities, politics as left or right, causes more trouble than just divisiveness. It makes true understanding impossible, demonizing those who want to engage in rational thought and civil conversation. If you wrote an essay like that, try taking out the nouns that pigeon-hole Americans and qualify them by talking about what groups of people stand for, what’s important to them, rather than just their race, class, age, etc. It’s a good exercise.

It will make no difference, but after 33 of teaching the basic principles of historical research, rational analysis, and emphasis on the commonalities of humankind, I just wanted to say something.

4 thoughts to “After 33 years”

  1. I especially appreciate the last point regarding nuance (or ambiguity, or gray areas). It often strikes me that many of our social problems are caused by our unwillingness or inability (or both) to see complex issues as, in fact, complex. To roughly quote HL Mencken: Every complex problem has a solution that is simple, straightforward, and wrong.

    1. Jim Sullivan once said my thesis for everything historical is “it’s more complicated than you think”!

  2. I also have “retired” from teaching … but I hope that you continue to share your wisdom through this blog. I have learned so much from you over the years!

    And best of luck in your new endeavors!


    1. Thanks, Britt! As you know, I’m doing some fiction writing now (currently editing the second Victorian mystery), so what I’ll be sharing may be more historical than teaching-oriented, but of course, I’m always teaching and learning. I’ve learned so much from you too!

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