Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Within five minutes tonight, I was asked for recommendations twice. First was a recommendation of the sort to be expected - a book recommendation for a student. My (as of tomorrow, former) boss emailed asking for recommendations of good books on the Spanish Civil War for a student who had read fictional accounts but wanted to get into the actual historical accounts of the war. Since I am one of only two modern Spanish historians at the university, this is a reasonable request.

I suggested four different works of varying degrees - Sheelagh Ellwood for a basic introduction and easy read; Esenwein and Shubert's collection of essays for a broad understanding of the background and meaning of the war without intense detail; and Jackson and Thomas' tomes if you really want a step-by-step accounting of the war in gruesome detail.

The second request I am much more excited about. A former student, a young woman who took a class I worked in this past spring, sent me an email tonight. I recognize her name, remember her work, but honestly cannot remember her face. [Side note: I do not know how professors who can remember every student for decades do it. I have been teaching for 5 years, have taught well over 600 students since the fall of 2004. I recognize my students, but their names, or their names with faces, flee my fragile memory quickly.] As soon as she mentioned the term paper that she wrote, I remembered it. It was by far the best paper I read all year. Perhaps the best paper I have read in 5 years of grading.

The class was on American foreign policy in the 20th century, dealing especially with cover operations, and her paper dealt with American involvement in Chile during the Allende period. She argued that the American involvement in this particular coup was in part due to their desire to change Chilean economics, which was achieved by placing into power Chilean economists whom had been trained at the University of Chicago and then brought back with aid from the CIA. It was an amazing paper, well-researched, and extremely sophisticated. My only comment was that if she had not considered continuing on into graduate school, she really should do it.

Well, tonight she emailed me saying that she has majored in politics (I'm guessing political science) but now is trying to apply to our graduate program in history. She has written to the American history professor who taught that class, but since she is not sure he will necessarily know who she is, she is hoping that I can put in a good word for her in the hopes that he will write a letter of recommendation for her.

It's the first time a student has asked me to "put in a good word for me" before! So in the past week, I had a student cite me in a paper, and now is looking to me for recommendation help.

It makes me happy, because I feel like perhaps I might actually be making a difference. Maybe some of them really are learning something. Maybe I can be a positive factor in their lives. I hope so. That's part of what I love about teaching. It's the hope of change, the possibility that, beyond teaching them what happened in Europe or in Asia or Africa in the 19th century, they might come away with a greater understanding of themselves, of each other, and might be better for it.

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