The History Teacher Abroad

Last summer, I mentioned I was heading to a seminar in Cambridge as part of a sabbatical through my school. Now that the weather’s cooled and summer seems eons ago, I’m thinking about that experience more than ever – perhaps in no small part because I’m going to talk about it at school this week to all my colleagues and students, and because I finally retrieved the 750+ photos I thought I’d lost from the adventure.

Attending the Oxbridge Summer Seminar for teachers last year was an orchestrated effort on my part: I’m fortunate enough to teach at an institution that offers summer sabbaticals for faculty, and this was my second time applying. Whether or not you’ll get one depends on a variety of factors, including how many other people applied, but there’s also the limits of your own imagination. Most of the time, I haven’t applied because I couldn’t dream up something that sounded good enough, if I’m honest.

(A few years ago, I finally managed my first application, with a colleague in a different department. We didn’t get selected for the dream trip to Cuba, but two colleagues who actually teach Spanish did, so we were happy for them.)

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Peterhouse College, Cambridge, UK

Last spring, I discovered the Oxbridge Summer Seminar by chance and set about writing an application to attend “Why History Matters,” a week-long program held at Peterhouse College, Cambridge University. My proposal paired that experience with the idea of a few days in London to visit the Imperial War Museum and Churchill’s War Rooms, particularly because the world wars come up quite a bit when you teach 20th Century World History and US History.

What happens when you go abroad to spend a week contemplating “Why History Matters?”

First and foremost, of course, you have an amazing time.

The Oxbridge program, which included several seminars under one umbrella (mine, one on math, and one on English), included about 20 people from all over the world: Trinidad, Denmark, Pakistan, Taiwan, Canada, and various US states. In addition to our seminars, our program included daily activities, access to copious amounts of tea, speakers, and excellent food.

We took a guided tour of Cambridge, relaxed with drinks on a bridge over the River Cam, went punting on the river, listened to the choir at King’s College during Evensong, drove out to explore Bletchley Park (the home of WW2 codebreaking efforts). We strolled along the river, through meadows and cow pastures, to visit The Orchard Tea Room, frequented by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke and John Maynard Keynes in years past. One night, we toured a local gin distillery (complete with tasting – and a try of truffle gin, amazing stuff). One afternoon, I walked up the grand staircase into the Trinity College Library, a building designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Cathedrals haven’t moved me as much as the site of those ancient books and shelves and card catalogs long unused.

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Me, geeking out at the Trinity College Library

With my History group, each day was an adventure on top of this. When you think “seminar,” it’s never quite clear how much time you’ll spend in a classroom, but Oxbridge did it right. Following breakfast each morning, our group of 9 or 10 conversed around a table in an upper room with our instructor, the first female fellow at Peterhouse. We explored the British history curriculum, analyzed war poetry and how (and why) we teach it, and even read about ancient magic rituals to think about the role of anthropology and archaeology in studying history.

And then we left the classroom, often first to the warm weather in the Fellows garden, circled up beneath the trees as we chatted over copies of British university history exams. From there, we walked (or drove) to places I had never heard of or had not thought I’d be fortunate enough to see.

We strolled through town. We took taxis out to the Cambridge American Cemetery (and were nearly left there when none returned for us). We explored artwork (mostly Antony Gormley’s). We traipsed through the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, discovering ancient bones on which poets have written a few lines. We didn’t just read about history: we encountered it, we explored it, and we came face to face with our own thoughts about how and why that matters to each of us, as teachers, as people, and as citizens of our respective places.

I left Cambridge after only a week, but it hasn’t left me, which is the way these things always go, happily. It’s always good, then, to have something to head off to next when one adventure ends, and mine included a jaunt to visit one of my oldest friends (not by age, but by length of our relationship). My peaceful weekend between trip legs included little more than sipping elderberry cordial, playing games, walking around a village (or two), and clambering over ruins that once hosted kings. I paid my respects to Sir Churchill, learned how to do the floss, and contemplated the myriad ways we make our lives as we wish.

I finished my summer interlude with a few days on my own, at least, in London. I left the

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I found the cancellation line at the Victoria Palace Theatre, and it was worth the wait.

kindred spirits behind me and spent three nights in solitude at the top of a lovely inn across from the Imperial War Museum. (At night, the breeze blew in just right along with my view of the London Eye.) I tried to make the most of the time I had – as noted, it’s never enough, but I’ll keep trying. I got lost in the Imperial War Museum, waited in line for the Churchill War Rooms, discovered Ben Franklin’s House, and even managed, through a bit of patience, to score a ticket to see Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. Along the way, I discovered the Tardis and King George III’s personal library, visited the Doctor Who shop, rode the London Eye, and visited the mummies and the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.

My summer was unexpected from start to finish, but this trip – the most expected part of it all, and yet in so many ways so unexpected itself – was tremendous all around. Now that winter appears to have settled in on my corner of the world, it’s nice to have memories of England and history in summertime, and that dream that maybe one day I’ll be British when I grow up.

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The ruins of Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, England.

Ruminations on the End of Summer, and the Start of the School Year

by Lynn Clement


Labor day weekend can be a mixed bag. While I never lament a Monday off, especially to honor workers past, present, and future, this weekend does herald the end of summer.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I am not particularly sorry to see the summer end this time, though the magnitude of this goodbye is striking. Summer was a struggle that culminated at the end of July with the death of my father. August was spent much like the previous months, with family, facing the harder facts of life.

With the start of my semester approaching quickly after, I anticipated spending more time on self-care than ever before. To cope, I’d been baking, running, and encircling myself with friends.  Despite those invaluable supports, when thoughts and actions turned to work I became increasingly negative. Saying goodbye to summer, no matter how difficult it may have been, is tough and welcoming a September of “same-old, same-old” can hold equal elements of hope and frustration.  I found myself struggling to swallow the stress of what did not get accomplished over break, marinating in disgruntled feelings of another year with little recognition or compensation, annoyance at expectations that syllabi would be available a week before I had even signed a contract meaning months of working for free, and immense pressure about what I wanted from the year ahead and how I would fulfill those goals.

These negative thoughts were fed by recent articles and online dialogue about the cost of higher education, a deluge of emails and articles about the realities of student life, and more importantly, student debt.  I am not new to the subject.  I put myself through undergrad and graduate school, but I’ve always had a support system.  Even though I worried at the start of every school year that my financial aid wouldn’t come through quickly enough, I always knew that I’d be able to make it.  I had to work every semester, and ate a lot of noodle packs of varying quality, but work was part time, it never took precedence over my studies, and I didn’t have to worry about feeding anyone else.  Senior year I had to ask my parents for money to buy books because the financial aid did finally run out.  I knew they went without in order to help me, but the support was there.  Those loans still haunt me, but I still consider them an investment that improved my life and career.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Pexels.com

They are dark days indeed when one realizes that it could have been worse and it has been important for me to acknowledge that my college experience is not the same for my students. At the start of every semester, I read about the escalating monetary struggle of students.  In the middle of every semester, I have students who disappear when funds ran out. They have full time jobs, they have families to support, they have higher costs and less help.

So where did I go when feeling so full of malaise?  Costco, because misery loves company.  It was enough to make me want to actually eat the 5 gallon tub of guacamole I’d put into my cart.

However, the deeper I dug into the articles and twittershpere, the more I found others who had figured out ways to help, and finally I could make steps to do the same, things I should have been doing all along.

Higher education has been changing considerably but I had inadvertently held on to ancient rituals that can no longer be supported. So I filled my cart with groceries to donate to my college’s food pantry, a much needed program that was established last year. I have also vowed that every time I am compelled to shop at that God-forsaken place I will buy enough for them. I’ll be bringing paper and pens to class for students who cannot afford the materials necessary to take notes. Something I had never even considered in the past.  I have made every assignment available to turn in online so students need not worry about the costs associated with printing, or stapling. Last semester I brought snacks and meals to my classes during finals week and will do so again.  Textbooks have always been on reserve at the library, but I also changed my syllabus and study guide so students can utilize older, and thus, cheaper versions of the textbook.  In addition, I will loan out old copies that I have to those who cannot afford any other option.  It’s not much, and it’s not enough, but it’s what I can do. More importantly has been the advice I’ve read about changing my approach to students and their struggles in and out of the classroom.

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Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com

I am lucky to be surrounded by Smart Women who wrote this month about finding your voice in writing, in teaching, and in unfamiliar territory. I have learned from each, luckily at the right time.

I am from a blue collar working- class background teaching a subject associated with the elite. Art should not be kept out of reach and neither should text books, education, and basic needs. I need to amplify my voice and find new ways to facilitate learning with the current academic and economic challenges. It needs to be something I consider every year, particularly on Labor Day weekend.

The Smart Woman’s Summer, Part 4: The Siren Song of Summer

by Lynn Clement


As with the season itself, my summer themed blog post has gone through a lot of edits.  Most recently it devolved into one sentence that started with the letter “A” followed by countless “H”s: a primal scream to express the despair induced by the summer of 2018.  Like my colleagues, I had begun the summer with high hopes to do what was important, professionally and politically, because summer is an occasion to carve out time for the work that gets neglected during the year.

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Detail of South Wall, Detroit Industry, by Diego Rivera, 1933, fresco, photo taken by author at the Detroit Institutes of the Arts

I tried. I really did.  I had a manageable, organized schedule of all the significant (and some insignificant) things I was going to accomplish.  I was going to update all my syllabi early and set up all my courses’ online components in May. I was going to do the bulk of my research for lecture improvements and attend important protests in June.  I was going to teach two summer classes in July.  I was going to do independent research in August.  I was going to arrive at the fall semester feeling prepared, having had a fulfilling and productive summer.

I’m going to say something that may shock those who work in fields that do not “observe” summer break, and it may even seem controversial for those who do:  I dislike summer vacation.  I equate summers to holidays like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and ones 21st birthday.  Expectations are too high, you never end up doing what you really wanted, and most of the time it ends with you sweaty, stressed, and either too drunk or not nearly drunk enough.

I know I’m not alone when I say that my summer did not turn out how I had planned. Syllabi remain unfinished, I have yet to read a book in its entirety, another adjunct was kind enough to take my classes, and August is shaping up to be a real shit-show.  Despite the stress to come, I am glad I made this decision. Time with my family has been invaluable.  Most of my summer days thus far have been filled with a different kind of valuable work: trying to keep my daughter busy and happy as I help my mother take care of my father.  I never thought I’d be dealing with a dying parent at this point in my life, but here I am, living in my hometown, something I haven’t done since I was 18.  Although there have been picnics, crafts, sprinklers, and quality time with loved ones, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that the weight of those unfilled expectations is staggering.  The thought of extending and postponing my to-do list until next summer is crushing.

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The Blue Gown, by Frederick Carl Frieseke, 1917, oil on canvas, photo of original taken by author at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Being forced to slow my life to a screeching halt has been an incredibly tough adjustment, but it has given me some clarity and a new plan for summers to come.  I’m giving up the summer to-do list, possibly forever.

I do so with a happy heart, to honor my father because it’s time for me to find a better work-life balance in all seasons. Most of my memories of my dad revolve around labor, projects, and things that needed doing.  Running a successful family owned and operated heating and cooling business in a small town meant working hard…always.  Despite his large circle of friends, countless creative hobbies, and an aggravatingly optimistic personality he spent most of his life elbow deep in work.  It wasn’t until he was forced to retire due to the cancer that he was able to enjoy his “summer” and even then he spent much of his time on building projects.  I wish reconnecting with friends, traveling, and playing in a band had not been left to, what would become, the last years of his life.  I’ve inherited his work ethic and I’ve realized that I don’t want to sing karaoke as a pot-bellied 60 year old.  I want to do it now, as a pot-bellied 40 year old.

Like most everyone, I still have to deal with normal life constraints, but this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give up on the idea that at some magical point in my year, or life, the stars will align and I will have the opportunity to get everything done.  The promise of summer often allows me to put off until tomorrow what should be today, and this is my trouble.  I have to strive to make time for what is important at all times, so that life may be fuller, rather than just busier. This will be more easily said (typed) than done, I know, but I can try.  I’m throwing the summer to-do list out and instead, each month I plan to do at least one thing I’d normally save for summer. It could be as small as finally reading that book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a decade, or big, like finally taking that research trip to Paris.

All the things on my list cannot not, and should not, wait until a literal or metaphorical summer.  Lectures will be re-written, research will be done, articles will submitted, Python and SQL will be learned, cabins will be rented with friends, parties will be planned, canvases will be painted.  It will all be done, but not if it is relegated to side projects to be executed during vacations and holiday breaks.

I look forward to the experiment of interspersing the year with greater flexibility for all important activities and opportunities.  If you don’t mind indulging me, I’ll tell you sporadically of the successes and failures in future posts.

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Grasslands, painted by the author, July 2018, acrylic