History becomes personal — and alive — in George Chauncey’s classroom

George Chauncey
George Chauncey

One of the ways that George Chauncey impresses upon his students the idea that history has meaning for them is to ask them to talk to family members from different generations about their attitudes toward homosexuality.

In doing the project, students discover that familial attitudes through the generations often reflect societal ones during those same times.

His conversations with his students, in turn, have taught Chauncey what their generation thinks and feels about that topic and others as well. Hence, history comes to life in personal ways in his classroom.

Honored with this year’s Sidonie Miskimin Clauss Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities (see “Six faculty members are honored with Yale College Teaching Prizes”), Chauncey recently spoke about his teaching experiences with YaleNews. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What do you most enjoy about teaching at Yale?

There are two things I especially enjoy about teaching at Yale. First of all, of course, the students: They are just great — inquisitive, creative, serious. I know when I have a seminar they will have done the reading and have really interesting things to say about it, and they are willing to be pushed to think about issues more deeply.

I also love the fact that at Yale I am part of such a strong and large group of U.S. historians, and that most of us are able to teach in the fields we write about. So I feel there is a constant dialogue between my scholarship and my teaching. I test out a lot of ideas in the context of teaching. I get student responses and questions. I think it keeps the teaching fresh for me and lively for them, and it’s really helpful in both ways.

Is there a teacher who particularly inspired you?

A couple of teachers I had really inspired me. I think particularly about my graduate teachers here at Yale. One was Nancy Cott, who used to teach women’s history here and was my graduate adviser. The other was John Boswell, a great medievalist here who tragically died from AIDS in 1994. Both of them supported me when I decided to do something pretty risky, which was to write a dissertation in gay history. They cautioned me that it might cost me a career —which it nearly did — but then they strongly supported me in doing it.

They really showed me what it means to have a commitment to open inquiry and to following your ideas and interests wherever they take you. They also modeled for me what it means to mentor students and to really be there for them. I often think about John Boswell when I’m meeting with students today. Of course, we mostly talk about academic matters, but sometimes you do have a student who brings a personal issue to you, or who needs advice on managing their life or studies at Yale or thinking through their future, and it’s just so important to be able to be there for them at that point, as those faculty members were for me.

What have your students taught you?

I feel like I am in a constant dialogue with the students in my class, both the lecture and the seminar, in which we’re trying to understand the changing position of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people in American society. I give them the context of the last 300 years and how this history has shaped their own moment. But of course I don’t know what this moment is like for them, and so I am constantly hearing from them — from both the gay and straight students in my class  — about their perceptions of how these issues are playing out today, and we try to put that in historical context.  I feel it’s a real dialogue and I have learned a lot about their generation and about student life at Yale today.

If there is one thing that you want your students to learn, what would that be?

I think the most important thing I want my students to develop is a habit of thinking historically and of putting their own lives and their own society in historical perspective. It’s one of the great things about teaching a course in lesbian and gay history. One of the reasons students take it is because these issues are so much in the news today: gay marriage, gays in the military, and so forth. And part of what I try to show them in the classes is that they can understand those issues much more deeply if they understand how they developed historically, and they can understand their own lives differently if they understand them as taking shape in a moment of historical change.

The last assignment in my lecture course on lesbian and gay history is for students to interview their parents and their grandparents about their memories of the gay people they knew when they were young and their attitudes towards homosexuality. Students are often a little nervous over this assignment at first, and, of course, we find alternatives for people who can't interview their own relatives. But in the end, many students have told me that they find this one of the most amazing assignments they’ve had in college because it leads them to talk to their parents and grandparents about things that they never talked to them about. It’s part of that transition from being a young child to being an adult child.

But it also helps them see how their parents’ attitudes aren’t just idiosyncratic, but are shaped by their historical moment and that they can actually chart the changes in attitudes from their grandparents generation to their parents to their own in relation to the history that we’ve talked about. So it brings home what I’ve tried to teach them throughout the whole course — that history matters.

Is there a particular memorable classroom moment that you’d like to share?

One of the most surprising and remarkable moments for me happens in a large lecture course when for some reason there’s just an incredibly immediate connection between me and all the students there, even if there are 150 of them in room — the sort of proverbial moment when you can hear a pin drop in the classroom.

That happens a few times in my lecture course, but it is the most powerful the day that I give my lecture about AIDS. Although I don’t expect my students to know much about lesbian and gay history at all, it first startled me to realize how an experience that was so searing to my generation was ancient history to theirs. Most students today don’t know people who have HIV or AIDS. It’s a pretty alien experience for them, so for the first third of that class I just try to give them a sense of the devastation that AIDS wrought in the gay male community in the 1980s and early 1990s. I show them pictures of individuals who died, most of whom are activists and writers they’ve already heard about in the class.

Then I talk about Yale students who were just like them, who got infected in the 1980s and died, 7 or 10 years after graduation. It’s so startling and moving to them, and it’s so moving to me that they are so moved by this. There’s a powerful moment of intimacy, even though there are 150 people there, as we talk about this. I want them to grasp what this experience was like as a social tragedy but also as an individual tragedy. And, of course, I’m trying to remind the people in the room that AIDS is still a deadly disease and even though they don’t have friends who have been affected by it, they need to be careful themselves.

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