The past matters because the future matters-- and history is as much about the future as it is about the past.
And so, in an ideal world, my final exams would always consist of one essay question, and would always be the same: On the basis of what you know about American history, how would you raise your children?
History, as a subject for study, isn't one vast game of trivial pursuit, or one gargantuan vacuum cleaner, sucking up and storing everything any human being ever did. Certainly it can be taught that way-- tediously, dreadfully. But what makes it important is not its call to memorize a torrent of facts and dates, but rather its challenge to us to understand ourselves, and to make the most of the understanding. We are part of a continuum, the latest in a procession of hundreds of generations. Those who came before us were no less alive than we are now; they now are no more dead than we will be. The Great Casting Director has placed us in different acts, but we are all in the same play. When we take our place among the actors of the past, we should hope to pass on to those of the future something of value. And to do that, we need to know what we consider valuable-- and why.
And so, in all my teaching about the United States, my hope is that students will first digest a substantial body of essential information, and then make serious use of it to better comprehend how this nation came to be the way it is. I want them to ponder how various groups of Americans-- and sometimes Americans as a whole-- came to have particular values, priorities, and assumptions. I want them to know something about why and how Americans have argued with one another (often fiercely, and occasionally bloodily) about how they should translate those things into private behavior and public policy. And I want them to be able to articulate and defend their own values, priorities and assumptions-- their own, not those of their parents, their teachers, or anyone else-- always grounding their positions firmly in knowledge, logic and humane values. If they can do that, they might be on their way to understanding what it is about the past's legacy they want to change, and what about it they will strive to keep-- in short, how they will raise their children.
My personal biography is of little consequence. I am passionate about politics and current affairs, but usually try hard to keep my political views out of the classroom. I am much more interested in urging students to have real thoughts and considered positions (as opposed to knee-jerk reactions and visceral attitudes) than in indoctrinating them or telling them what they should think. I am deeply interested in reform movements, past and present, and the extent to which reformers are ever able to produce or guide social change.
I make little distinction between "work" and "fun." Almost nothing is more fun to me than my work as a historian-- the mucking about in archives and libraries, assembling clues from the detritus of the past and then putting them together to solve a problem or illuminate a mystery. I am not a historian and a teacher because I can't do anything else that pays better. I am a teacher and a historian because I love it. That said, I suppose I have passions that people might regard as not necessarily associated with my "work": my wife; my friends; wide travel on six continents; baseball; film; theatre; animals and all issues concerning our relationships with them; Virginia and its history; and my favorite city on earth: London.
For Brad Geisert, a small, liberal arts college is the perfect place to share his love of Asian history and culture.
"Half of good teaching is loving the material," he said. "It's neat to be paid do something you like."
When confronted with the question of why students should study Asia, he responded, "A liberal arts education is supposed to teach one about what it is to be human in the broadest sense of the word. If a person doesn't know anything about a culture other than her own, it's hard for her to know what is universal and what is particular to her own civilization. East Asia's large population, its diversity, as well as the length of its history make it rich in human experience."
In addition to Japan and China, Geisert is adding more Korean exposure to his courses. He participated in the Institute on Korean Culture and Society in 2004, which provided coursework and travel and focused on Korean culture and history.
Geisert's interest in Korea centers not only on elements of Korean cultural autonomy, but also on the ways in which Korea influenced Japanese culture, and Japan and China influenced Korea.
A Bridgewater College graduate, Geisert received his master's degree and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Virginia. He taught at Sweet Briar College, the University of Virginia, Harvard University and Northwest Missouri State University before coming to Randolph College/ Randolph Macon Women's College in 1987.
Geisert is the author of a number of publications including "Radicalism and Its Demise: The Chinese Nationalist Party, Factionalism, and Local Elites in Jiangsu Province." This book was published by the Center for Chinese Studies of the University of Michigan in the series "Michigan Monographs in Chinese Studies."
He has also conducted research on the Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek. His interests outside of East Asian studies include works on the quest for the historical Jesus and other aspects of early Christianity.
When I applied for a teaching position here, I had never heard of the College. I knew I wanted to teach at a small school, but I had no idea how much I would fall in love with this campus, its students, and its emphasis on academics. This place is more than a job for me. There is something special here that makes you feel at home. We're able to do so much more in class because of the College's small size.
My classes give me the opportunity to help students understand their world and the importance of history. I teach courses on general 20th century European history, German history and Russian history as well as seminars such as Propaganda, Genocide, The Holocaust, and Women and the Two World Wars. I also teach a course entitled Paris and Berlin in the 1920s: A Cultural History. This class, inspired by my own scholarly research on the evolution of a consumer culture in Germany during the 1920s, explores the unprecedented explosion of artistic creativity that emerged from the cafes, cabarets, and studios of Paris and Berlin.
Like most of the professors here, I try to bring my classroom alive for students. You can't learn everything from just one textbook. Since I love movies, I integrate films into all of my classes. I also assign novels, memoirs, and biographies and utilize images to provide a visual context for many of the topics discussed in my courses.
But most importantly, we talk. One of my favorite aspects about the College is its diversity. There are so many international students here and in my classes. When I am teaching about various events, it is amazing to have students from places like Ethiopia, Bulgaria, Nepal, Germany, Argentina, Jamaica, Mongolia, and Romania sharing their and their families' stories. These different perspectives add so much to class discussions.
I, along with faculty colleagues, have also taken students to Prague and Berlin as part of a course entitled Coming to Terms with the Past. While on this trip, we visited many important historical sites and museums that deal with the imperial, Nazi and communist pasts and met many eyewitnesses to history including a Holocaust survivor, a Czech pilot who fought against Nazi Germany in World War II, and a former East German prisoner. Randolph College Associate Professor of French Jamie Rohrer and I have also taken students to Paris and Berlin for a course entitled Capitals of Culture. Since this course concentrated on art, architecture, literature and cinema of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we visited museums such as the Musée d’Orsay, Musée Picasso and the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Film Museum, Jewish Museum, and Bauhaus Museum in Berlin.
I have also participated in Randolph College’s American Culture Program. Dealing with issues such as the impact of Disney on America and the theme of movement in American culture, I, along with colleagues with expertise in fields such as gender studies, geography, American literature, and folklore have taken students to Jamestown, Williamsburg, Savannah, Orlando, Washington, Philadelphia and New York City.
I also frequently lead field trips to Washington, D.C. to visit museums such as the National Gallery and the Holocaust Museum. My goal is to take students on a summer trip to Germany for a course on the impact of World War II in the next few years.
Given my expertise in twentieth century German history, I joined the board of the Holocaust Education Foundation of Central Virginia soon after I arrived in Lynchburg. As a member of the board, I’ve been able to help bring several guest speakers to Lynchburg to discuss issues surrounding the impact of the Holocaust. I’ve brought two Holocaust survivors to speak at the Randolph College campus: Eva Kor, whose life story is featured in the documentary Forgiving Dr. Mengele, and Gerda Weissmann Klein. Klein’s story is presented in the Academy Award winning documentary One Survivor Remembers and I use her memoir All But My Life in my introductory modern European history course.
Besides my interest in history I have a passion for historic preservation. Inspired by an architectural boat tour of Chicago over twenty years ago, I became involved in historic preservation efforts while a graduate student back in Indiana. In 2006 I joined the board of the Friends of Rivermont Historical Foundation (FORHS) and in 2007 I became the board president. Dedicated to preserving and improving the beauty, safety and community spirit of Historic Rivermont, the FORHS board conducts several community outreach programs including an annual ice cream social and a holiday lights tour. In addition, in 2010 and 2011 I participated in the College’s Summer Research Program to conduct research on the individual buildings within the Rivermont Avenue Historic District (including Randolph College). Working with four RC History majors, we gathered information and took photos of the buildings within the Rivermont Avenue Historic District for the FORHS website www.friendsofrivermont.org
When I'm not teaching, you are most likely to find me traveling. My wife, Carolyn, and I love to visit art museums, buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, presidential sites, movie palaces, and classic diners. We also like to check out weird attractions such as the World's Largest Bull or the World's Largest Badger or the two competing World’s Largest Balls of Twine. We've even seen the World's Largest Talking Cow, which rests beside the World's Largest Replica Cheese in Neillsville, Wisconsin. As always, we hope to hit a few more presidential sites and unique roadside attractions this year.
"I start by telling my students: 'You are historians. You have to think like historians,' " says Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay, associate professor of history. Understanding the motivations of people in the past is key, she believes. "There are ways you can relate to figures in history on a human level and, by extension, understand those you live with today."
Wheeler-Barclay teaches medieval and modern European history and encourages students to develop their own theories about why historical events occurred. Her goal is to instill "a real desire to go beyond the generalizations about the past that we all have. I especially want to get my students beyond the idea that history has been a linear progression from barbarism to civilization. It's much more complicated than that.
"History is ideal for anyone who likes to hear stories but who is also interested in people," she advises. "History tells stories about real people, what they did, and how and why they did it. That's fun to me."
Wheeler-Barclay has received the College's Gillie A. Larew Award for Distinguished Teaching, and she has been praised as a teacher and advisor whose students view her as a role model. In the words of one, she is adept at bringing students "from knowledge to understanding." She has a B.A. from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.
Keen students of history acquire a broader perspective on life, Wheeler-Barclay maintains. "History is an excellent preparation for understanding why the world is the way it is today, and students realize that if you know nothing about history, you're kind of naive and don't have the depth of an educated person."
Majoring in history is also underrated as a route to a career, she says. She has cheered on many of her students as they carved out careers in corporations, the law, or in government, particularly in foreign relations or the military. Others have gone into teaching and even historic preservation.
"I'm always telling students that history is good preparation for a job," she says. "As in the workplace, you have to gather information, analyze it, develop an account of how a situation occurred, and present your findings."