Modeling Intellectual Curiosity: Research and the Preparatory School Teacher
Ron Briley, September 2007
It is sometimes difficult to explain to students and colleagues why I continue to engage in academic research and writing 29 years into my teaching career at Sandia Preparatory School. To me, reading, writing, researching, and teaching history are all part of the same process. And it is not just what I do for a living; it is really a reflection of who I am. It is certainly not quite as simple as breathing, but it is just as essential. To my students, who receive research paper projects in my history classes, I simply try to explain myself by stating that my hobby is writing term papers. They find that a little strange, but a bit of a reputation for being eccentric probably never hurts in teaching. My colleagues also think me a bit weird. But if they go fishing to unwind after a vigorous week of teaching, I go to the library to read some microfilm and relax.
I refuse to accept what I consider to be a false dichotomy between teaching and writing. Doing research on a topic enhances my understanding and, thus, teaching of a subject, while teaching often forces one to place research within a broader perspective for classroom purposes. Rather than constituting conflicting approaches, teaching and research dovetail quite well in the secondary history classroom.
My path into teaching was certainly unanticipated. I was the first in my family to attend college, and on my father's side I am essentially first-generation literate. As a young man I worked in the cotton fields alongside my family, and education was certainly not a major priority. During the Vietnam War—era, however, my father suggested that I might try college as he heard that "if you went to one of them colleges you didn't have to go to Vietnam." I fell in love with the academic life, pursing a doctorate at the University of New Mexico after completing my undergraduate work at West Texas State University. In the fall of 1978, I accepted what I assumed to be a one-year teaching job at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The plan was to complete my dissertation before moving on to "real" teaching and researching at the university level. Twenty-nine years later, I am still at Sandia Prep, anticipating another exciting semester and hoping to teach for at least another 15 to 20 years.
I hope that my research and writing will serve as a role model for the students because I also assign a great deal of writing in the history classes. The focal point for student writing is the traditional term or research paper. One of the first issues that arises with a research paper is what the students should write about in American history. To this perennial question I have a simple response: write about what interests you. It is somewhat of a cliché, but I try to point out to students that everyone and everything has a history. Having some ownership in the topic makes it easier for students to commit the time and effort that such a project entails. I also base this approach on personal experience. My dissertation topic on the Senate Farm Bloc was somewhat of an assigned subject, and certainly my research uncovered a number of sources and stories which I found interesting. However, after a few years of teaching, when I was ready to renew my commitment to scholarship, I found it difficult to return to the Senate Farm Bloc. Instead, with a job that I cherished and which did not require a doctorate, I began to carve out a scholarly niche in the areas of sport and film history. These subjects were given scant attention during my graduate school days, but now I was free to pursue my interests. My scholarly engagement attained an intensity that was missing for me during graduate school. And I am delighted to say that most of my students do engage with the writing process, and their work is published in The Concord Review and El Estudiante, the journal of the New Mexico Council for the Social Studies.
For the last quarter century I have tried to share my passion for film with my students by teaching an elective course for seniors, Contemporary U.S. History through Film. The approach used in this course essentially examines classic Hollywood cinema as a reflection of the milieu in which the art work was produced. Accordingly, a classic Western such as High Noon is not screened for the little information the film may convey about the historical American West. Instead, High Noon is employed as a vehicle to address such political and social issues of the 1950s as McCarthyism, the Hollywood Ten, the Korean War, "organization man," and the conformity of suburbia.
After all these years of teaching at the secondary level, I have no complaints that I did not complete my dissertation and find a position at the university level (with the exception of some adjunct work at the University of New Mexico—Valencia Campus). The time committed to developing teaching strategies and grading papers makes it difficult to contribute to the frontiers of scholarship with the monographs I had once envisioned. Nevertheless, pursuing my intellectual interests in film and sport history, I have presented papers at scholarly conferences, and my work has appeared in such publications as Perspectives, OAH Magazine of History, Literature/Film Quarterly, Nine, Social Education, Film & History, and The History Teacher. Not only has my research kept me intellectually engaged with the historical profession, but the writing has also improved my teaching by keeping me aware of what my students are experiencing with their papers. In addition, my research allows me to consistently explore new ideas and concepts that I can then incorporate into the classroom. Teaching in the schools has also provided me with an opportunity to travel and explore numerous summer educational programs such as Fulbright Summer seminars in The Netherlands and Yugoslavia, National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminars and Institutes, Gilder-Lehrmann Institutes, and the Stratford Hall Plantation Seminar on Slavery.
In conclusion, I have tried to combine teaching, writing, and research in my engagement with a life studying history. I certainly do not believe that it is necessary for all history teachers to pursue research and writing to the same extent as my model. For example, I realize that many teachers in the public schools have larger class loads and must respond to the pressures of state standards and testing. Nevertheless, I do believe that all history teachers should avail themselves of the opportunity to foster the study of history through sharing their interests and passions with students. Modeling intellectual curiosity for our students will contribute to the quality of national history education in the schools.
—Ron Briley, who teaches at the Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, received the Beveridge Family Teaching Prize awarded by the AHA.