Teaching, Part 1

Posted on January 9, 2021



A few weeks ago, we briefly explored the world of research in universities. Today let’s explore another goal in the trilogy of words that describe best what a university is about: teaching, research, and service.

Like most faculty at the university level, I earned my Ph.D. from someplace else (Tulane in my case) and got in line for a job, and then was kind of catapulted into the world of teaching when I was hired as a full time, tenure track assistant professor at UA. There are other tracks into teaching. Mine was probably as close to “normal” as any other.

I was hired not for my admirable qualities as a teacher, nor for my distinguished record in service (two years as Gunnery Officer at sea in the Navy did not count), but because I had written a dissertation based on archival records in Peru, Ecuador, and Spain about colonial Latin America and UA was looking for an historian of Latin America. There were a few other ingredients in the equation but none worth mentioning. I was a good fit, had the right professional credentials and survived the cocktail parties and receptions in tack. I had good training in drinking from the Navy and six years of graduate school in New Orleans. Looking back on the whole experience, that may have been critical since the Department liked to drink.

They weren’t, however, a club of alcoholics. They were all scholars and teachers, some of them like Ronald Robel (Chinese history) and Robert Mitchell (Southern history) really extraordinarily good in the classroom.

Most, if not all, of us had never set foot in a class on educating professors to teach. Most, and again not all, had some experience, perhaps as a graduate teaching assistant where we wrote our dissertation. As in my case, my preparation for teaching was nothing more than a guy teaching a class in U. S. history at Tulane got busted for drugs and my dissertation director shoved me into the class to take over. I think I had the weekend to get two or three textbooks on the general area of what we were studying, and off to the races—or classroom—I went.

I know my colleagues in the College of Education would be shocked at our lack of proper training, but we thought of ourselves as researchers and teachers, the order being determined by the individual and her preferences. Most of us loved our discipline, whether history, or English, or a language, or astronomy, or mathematics, or scores of others, and that love and enthusiasm was translated into being decent enough teachers as well as historians. I’ll use my discipline for examples. We all knew great teachers from our prior experiences as students, and I think we emulated them to a certain extent.

As an undergraduate at Duke, I had one professor whose course on Russian history got me to thinking about the different interpretations of history as I had never thought before.

Warren Lerner was my professor as we approached the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that kicked off more than half a century of Communism in Russia, renamed the Soviet Union. As the Great War deepened causing widespread misery in Russia, a Bolshevik faction of Marxists led by Vladimir Lenin engineered the end of Tsarist Russia and the beginnings of Marxist Russia.

Lenin and his colleagues like Leon Trotsky pulled Russia out of the war with Germany and really opened the way for a German victory on the Western Front over the tottering English and French armies suffering under immense losses and war weariness. Then the Americans joined the allies in April 1917 and the rest, as they say, is history.

What intrigued me was that Professor Lerner convinced us all that the Bolsheviks had it right; end the war, provide bread, peace, and land to Russian, and strip the Czar and his ruling elites of their power and property. I came out of one of those lectures convinced that the Marxist coalition led by Lenin had it right. Get rid of the old corrupt Tsarist regime, withdraw from a war between nasty capitalist countries, strip the landholders of their immense holdings, and give all Russians a chance at land and liberty.

Alas, within a lecture or two after that one, Lerner described the totalitarian regime that was emerging. Red Russia, now the Soviet Union, had turned to Marxism where the State ruled and governed over all. The Czar, Nicolas II, and his family were all executed and the opposition to the Bolsheviks was crushed ruthlessly.

What was going on here? Who am I to believe? I think it was then that I went to the bookstore or the library for myself, probably to read some books cited or mentioned by Professor Lerner. He taught me a lesson that I later incorporated into my life as an historian: don’t teach your students what to think; teach them how to think.

Published as “Learning to teach requires on-the-job training” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Jan 3 2021.

Posted in: teaching