With ‘infectious passion,’ Glenda Gilmore opens panoramic views for historians-in-the-making
To give students a feel for the time, places, and people they are studying about, Glenda Gilmore incorporates film, poetry, music, and personal anecdotes in her courses on American history. One student described Gilmore, the recipient of the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss ’75 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities, as a “one-woman Broadway show.” Her students also undertake a more solitary journey — doing original research on a topic of their choice using primary and secondary sources. In the process, they become historians themselves — and gain more personal power — as they ask questions, explore answers, and write critically about what they’ve learned.
Courses: “History of the American South, 1870 to the Present,” and “U.S. Political and Social History, 1900-1945”
What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?
So much excites me about teaching Yale undergraduates, but I want to start with a story. In one of my freshman seminars, I had a young man from New York who had gone to a public high school. He came to my office hours one day and said, “You know, when I was in high school, I was the only one excited, but here at Yale everybody’s excited!” That excitement is contagious. It makes me want to teach. It makes me want to meet students where they are, and to show them that there are many ways to explore their career here at Yale. I teach history, so students do original research in archives and in primary sources. You need some excitement among your students in order to carry out that lonely task. Our students at Yale come bristling with topics (you don’t have to nudge them toward a paper topic that they are going to write about!) and they are amazingly able, through a year-long senior essay, for example, to grow more and more excited as they go along. I love to teach people who love history and love to learn history and write history. By the end of my time with them, they become historians.
Why is it important for students to study what you teach?
Learning about history at large helps people ask the questions that they need to ask to understand the world around them. It gives them a way into topics that might seem baffling: Why do governments do what they do? Why does this group have power but not another group? How do I understand this political race? Why does my neighborhood look like this — who lives here and who lives there? Everything has a history, and so it’s pretty easy for students to realize that when they learn the historical craft, they can then deconstruct the world around them in a way they couldn’t before. The world becomes a much richer place.
If somebody writes a paper about Yale using original sources, when they walk around the campus they see different things than they saw before they knew what the past was and what its effect was on the present. I think that studying history gives people a way to be skeptical about the information they receive without becoming cynical. They know that there are certain things that are of the moment, but they know that everything has a history, that everybody’s life was history. They are able to ask questions about what they are not hearing in the press, or what they’re not reading, or what they’re not seeing in a film. Studying history expands your world and makes it panoramic. Fortunately, most people like this. Most students like to have their vision expanded, so it’s generally pretty fun!
If there is one thing you want your students to learn from you, what would that be?
It would be to ask questions, and to keep asking questions. There’s always a question behind the question. The world is a much more complicated place than it seems. Everything that we know today has a past and is contingent upon that past. When students learn to ask the right kinds of historical questions — Who is using power here? Who is trying to change things? What has been represented here that may not be representative of all the experiences that came together here? When they start asking these kinds of questions, they learn, of course, to think critically, but they also learn how to actually have power themselves in guiding their own lives to make good decisions. I think my students do learn that. I think they become critical thinkers who examine their past and who examine their present in the light of knowing how to unpack assertions, how to question truths that are handed down by people around them, whether it’s the president or it’s their manager. It’s a skill that no one can take away from you.
What do your students teach you?
When I first called my dissertation director to tell her I got this job teaching at Yale, the first words she said were: “You’ll learn so much from your students.” It’s really true.
I’ve taught in the same subject area for about 20 years here. Every five years or so — even though the students are reading some of the same books that the previous set or the set previous to that read — they ask really new questions of those books, of that same material. So teaching here has shown me personally how questions about the past change, how there’s room to think about the present in relation to your own experience and still be able to reach back into the past, even in the material that students have interpreted in a different way before, and come up with new answers.
Students write papers in most of my classes. In my seminar, they write 30-page papers, and, in addition, I usually direct five or six senior essays, which are 45-page papers based on original research. I can’t be the expert in every one of the topics that they choose. I can teach them whether it’s a sound area for historical inquiry; I can show them how to go about that inquiry. We can talk as they gather research about what that evidence is showing them and how they might frame it to come to some kind of conclusion. But at a certain point, in every one of those papers, every time in that process, they become more expert than I am and they’re able to show me a whole new historical area, answering questions that I never even knew to formulate in some cases or may have always held in my heart in other topics. I learn as they write, and they’ve made me a much better historian of the United States after the Civil War. I’ve had probably 70 senior essays and countless papers on various topics and remember most of them. I can tell you what my students said and remember that journey we took together. It’s incredibly rewarding.
What advice would you give a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?
I do often give undergraduates lots of advice about their time here, and generally it centers on two things. One is get into courses that involve original research and thinking, not just test taking, early on in their Yale career. There are lots of courses (they don’t all have to be history) that encourage students to do that. Doing research on your own, and beginning by not knowing very much at all, or even knowing all the wrong things, and learning how to sift through evidence in the archival record to come up with facts and frameworks that change your mind — that’s a really important skill in life. It leaves you open to accepting new information. It makes you creative at whatever you choose to do.
The second thing that I urge them to do, which goes along with the first, is to take a lot of writing-intensive courses. Writing is not a gift from God. Writing is a craft, and even someone who has profound doubts about his or her writing skills can become an excellent writer with practice and with guidance, particularly the kind of practice and guidance that you get here. It is something that you learn to do and the sooner you learn to do it, the better off you are. It’s always hard, and students shouldn’t expect it to be easy. It’s not something that you master. But writing is your friend, and it keeps you company throughout your life. And once you learn to do it in a way that satisfies you and attracts readers, you’ve greatly enriched your life and your experience.