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From The Profession column of the September 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

Strangelove for the Classroom: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Retirement

Robert Brent Toplin, September 2012

Retirement: many of us in the academic profession look forward to the opportunities it offers. No more committee meetings! No more exams to grade! We eagerly anticipate a future of scholarship, travel, and leisurely pursuits. What's not to like?

There is certainly much to appreciate about retirement, but I discovered that stepping away from professional duties can also create a sense of loss. As a historian with years of teaching activity, I felt a longing for the classroom experience after packing my books and turning in the office keys. Lacking a better term, I'll call this phenomenon the Empty Classroom Syndrome (ECS). I missed engaging with students. Since other instructors may have related feelings after closing out their teaching careers, here are some thoughts about the nature of this "affliction" and ideas about dealing with it.

When I retired from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, a few years ago, I was as joyful as any historian could be. I told friends that I was about to begin a permanent sabbatical. Abundant time would be available to craft books and articles without interruption. I aimed, as well, to begin a project that had long been on the back burner. My new web site, www.politicsoftheusa.com, integrated ideas from history in op-eds about current political issues. At the time all seemed well.

Eventually, though, ECS set in. Other retirees will recognize the symptoms. One misses lecturing and participating in classroom discussions. A retiree also misses lively exchanges with thoughtful colleagues in an academic setting. The lonely task of writing at home is satisfying, but not completely so. University instructors are social animals. We thoroughly enjoy talking about history with others. After years of classroom teaching, many of us remain hungry for direct engagement with people who want to study the past.

What to do? At first I tried various forms of public service to satisfy the interest in social involvement. These activities were gratifying, but I could not offer much expertise in those endeavors. Feeding the homeless at a soup kitchen, I realized that my cooking talents were limited. So were my skills in carpentry, it became clear, when building homes with Habitat for Humanity. Eventually I concluded that the best way to deal with the situation was to seek forms of public service that related to my professional experience.

When I began investigating such opportunities, the popularity of the historian's intellectual pursuits became evident. Many adult Americans, especially senior citizens, are fascinated with history. They consume history books, watch many history-oriented programs on television, and frequently talk about history with friends. Lots of them envy our careers. They think we hold the dream job—to study the past and make a living at it. During their working years, these individuals do not have much time to pursue their interest in the subject, but after their own retirement they are eager to investigate history.

One of the easiest opportunities to match interests of (retired) historians with those of senior citizens is available through courses provided by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). That organization has 117 programs in cities around the United States. OLLI's courses are coordinated through universities, four-year colleges, and community colleges. Lots of retired college and university professors and high school teachers as well as instructors who are currently employed volunteer to teach through OLLI. Courses vary from a few weekly sessions to meetings stretching over 10 or 15 weeks. Some programs offer instructors a small stipend. The one in which I participated did not provide compensation as instruction constituted a form of community service. Additional information is available at http://usm.maine.edu/olli/national/map.jsp.

There are other lifelong learning programs that are not funded by OLLI. In all, there are more than 400 related programs around the United States. Details about many of them can be found at www.roadscholar.org/Ein/map_usca.asp.

The courses I taught through OLLI were enjoyable. All of my "students" attended class because they wanted to examine history. They brought their life experiences into classroom conversations. Almost all of them raised their hands when we opened the floor for discussion. The exchanges of information and viewpoints were consistently lively. An instructor can learn a great deal from their input.

The life-long institutes, OLLI or otherwise, typically give instructors wide latitude in selecting topics for teaching. Some instructors focus sharply on a narrow subject that excites their interest. I tend to present courses with broad themes, so that the classes appeal to a wide range of participants. By making the subjects general, I also have greater freedom to concentrate on aspects of history that relate to current events. Since I need to list course titles several months in advance, announcing a broad theme allows fine-tuning of subject matter shortly before classes begin.

When creating my first class, I selected a topic designed for such broad appeal. "Making Sense of the News" offered historical perspectives on major controversies of the day. In the first of four class meetings, for instance, we looked at the causes and consequences of the Great Recession. Our class looked for insights in the history of the Great Depression when pondering why financial crashes occur and why economists and politicians disagree strongly about the role government ought to play in responding to economic meltdowns. The next year I offered a course entitled "America at War: The Great Debates". We focused on six intriguing cases, such as disputes about Woodrow Wilson's handling of peace negotiations after World War I, President Truman's decision to use atomic bombs against Japan, debates about John F. Kennedy's intentions for U.S. forces in Vietnam, and disputes about President Reagan's role in bringing the Cold War to a close. A course on "Four Great Presidents of the Twentieth Century" promises to identify qualities associated with successful leadership while also offering critical judgments. That class, scheduled for October 2012, has obvious relevance to the 2012 elections.

No doubt, some instructors will think that these topics are too general and might prefer to focus on more specific aspects of history. OLLI welcomes those approaches as well.

How are reading assignments handled? Some instructors in the OLLI program assign specific book or articles. I prefer, instead, to send out e-mail messages with links to essays and references to important books (usually in the form of annotated bibliographies). Classroom discussions are quite spirited when the participants are exposed to a wide range of information and interpretations.

Teaching with OLLI was so invigorating that I soon volunteered to talk about history with several other groups. I arranged presentations and discussions with political organizations, history clubs, public service clubs (such as Rotary and Kiwanis), religious institutions, and other groups.

My enthusiasm for engagement created an extremely busy calendar. The days are now filled with plenty of lectures as well as ongoing commitments to research and writing. I am not devoting as much time to the gym and the golf course as I had originally planned. But, at least, I am cured of ECS.

If other colleagues in the history profession encounter a related sense of loss when bidding farewell to a teaching career, it is worthwhile to consider OLLI or the many other teaching opportunities that are available in communities across the country. These instructional programs will not satisfy every need, but many retirees will find them attractive.

An enthusiastic population awaits us. Those adults, including many senior citizens, are intensely curious about the past. They will leap at a chance to join us in the study of history.

Robert Toplin is professor of history emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He has published several books about history, politics, and film. A member of the editorial advisory board of Perspectives on History, he also edits the Masters at the Movies series for the newsmagazine.