[Those Who Can, Teach]
A Conversation with Jane Dailey, associate professor of history
Jane Dailey is well regarded for her research on the American South—she received a 2004 Guggenheim Award, one of just 185 fellows chosen from 3,289 applicants. The $40,000 award (matched by the university) allowed her to spend last academic year writing her second book, an examination of sex, race, and the civil rights movement.
This year she’s back in the classroom, to the delight of students, who flock to her courses. Her spring undergraduate seminar on the Civil Rights Movement was capped at 20, leaving twice that many students on the waiting list. “The civil rights movement is obviously a topic that students are interested in—in part, I think, because so much was accomplished by people their age,” Dailey says.
Arts and Sciences consulting editor Sue De Pasquale talked recently with Dailey about her work inside and outside the classroom, and how these two worlds overlap.
How do your research and teaching intersect?
One of the great things about Johns Hopkins is that faculty have the liberty to fashion new courses that can be in direct dialogue with our research. This isn’t necessarily true at other universities, where trying to get new courses approved can be very cumbersome. Offering courses that grow out of one’s own research interests keeps instructors engaged and courses fresh.
History courses are notorious for their heavy reading loads. How do you motivate your students to keep up with their reading assignments?
If you assign interesting texts, the students will read them. Last fall I taught a new course, Not Just the Facts Ma’am: Approaches to the American Past. For that course we read novels (including William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!), autobiographies, philosophy, and historical works committed to storytelling. They were engaging texts, and the students read them.
As a teacher, your goal is not to alienate the students through the reading assignments you give them. The goal is to draw them into the world you’re trying to open up for them. When most people get excited about reading history it’s because they are drawn into a narrative by a fascinating story or a compelling character.
Did you have any particularly exemplary teachers in your past who have served as role models?
Yes, I had wonderful, legendary professors of history at Yale. They were fantastic. Jonathan Spence would lecture to 800 students on Modern China. And there were John Morton Blum and Edmund Morgan on American history. They were wonderful performers as well as great scholars.
Is there an element of performance in your repertoire?
There’s an element of performance in every teacher’s repertoire.
I use a lot of humor in my teaching. Students are often surprised by that, almost afraid to laugh. They can be very earnest, so I try to lighten the atmosphere sometimes. It’s illuminating to see the ridiculous in the past, as well as the profound.
Do you enjoy meeting and talking with students outside of class?
Yes, but not enough come to my office hours. I’m always practically begging them to come to office hours. They are shy, and busy. And it’s easier to e-mail me questions than visit my office. E-mail, in some ways, is a good thing for answering quick questions. But I do find that when a student comes to my office with a specific question, we usually end up having a long conversation. What begins as, “How should I have written this paper better?” turns into a broader discussion about writing, how to make an effective argument.
It’s usually at that point in the conversation that I try to convince them to become history majors.
How do you find the quality of student writing?
In need of practice. (Laughs). Good writing doesn’t just come naturally. One of the things I always stress in my teaching is that writing is really hard. Students have to become stylists; they don’t come to college as stylists.
A good chunk of my time as an instructor is spent focusing on writing and communication—helping students to rewrite and restructure, to make and sustain arguments, to be persuasive. Although incredibly labor-intensive, this one-on-one work is also the most rewarding aspect of my teaching. It’s just great to see that perfect sentence in draft three of some student’s paper.