Assistant Professor, History
Expertise: Early American History; Colonial America; Early Republic; Atlantic World; Leadership; War/Military History; George Washington and the American Founders; Cultural/Intellectual History; Honor, Virtue, and Ethics; American Revolution
A Career in History
I didn’t always want to be a historian. When I was first starting out, I thought I would be a hockey player, actor, comedian, or lawyer. And I tried out all of those careers. I was in talks with an Australian professional hockey team, performed in an off-Broadway play, took the stage in many New York City comedy clubs, and interned at the New York State Supreme Court. But nothing felt right.
Growing up in New York City, I was always fascinated by history and the stories of how individuals made decisions.
Looking back, I became a history professor because of my high school AP U.S. History teacher, Ron Vallar. It was the first class I had experienced that wasn’t focused on a straight regurgitation of names and dates. It didn’t feel like the teacher was dictating the textbook. Instead, he talked generally and expected us to interact, discuss issues, and get into the subject — rather than simply memorize who did what.
At the end of the class, we had to take the very difficult standardized AP exam. None of the teacher’s students had earned the top score of 5 in years. He made a challenge to the class: “if you get a 5, I’ll take you out for a steak dinner.” I studied hard and received a 5 on the exam. Having dinner with one of my favorite teachers at a high-end steakhouse is still one of my favorite memories.
During college, I decided to major in history. I was interested in the subject, but also knew that history is a degree you can use for virtually any career. It teaches you essential skills such as research, writing, logic, and the ability to interpret information, which most jobs require. I stayed for an extra year and graduated with a dual bachelor’s and master’s degree.
Teaching High School History
But what to do what that history degree? I was still weighing different careers until I had a conversation with my stepdad. We were talking about the types of people I admired or respected and it turned out that a lot of those people were teachers. Teaching was a natural fit for me because I enjoy talking about history and sharing my interests in it.
I got a job as a history teacher at the same all-boys high school I had attended, teaching freshmen and sophomores and coaching hockey. I employed that same conversation-based teaching style that I had enjoyed as a student. And the students responded well to it. My classes ended up with the highest passing rates on the end-of-year standardized exams in the school’s history. This was a rewarding experience.
On to Graduate School
As much as I enjoyed teaching high school, I always wanted to get a Ph.D. I applied to several graduate programs and ended up at Brandeis University outside Boston, where I worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Dr. David Hackett Fischer.
Getting your doctorate is a life-changing process, but also a very stressful one. Many programs offer you a scholarship and pay you while you’re getting your degree, in exchange for being a teaching assistant or teaching your own classes. You typically take two years of courses, study for an extensive oral exam that tests your knowledge of the field, and then spend the next few years researching and writing your book-length dissertation.
I was one of those annoying people that came in knowing what I wanted to write about: the American Revolution and ideas of honor or ethics. I know many people who didn’t have a clear picture of what they wanted to research or maybe started working in one area and then, all of a sudden, they are several continents and centuries away. You’ll be concentrating on that project for years, so find something that fascinates you.
My research sent me to over 30 different archives around the United States and United Kingdom. It involved tracking down documents, reading eighteenth-century handwriting, and finding obscure texts. The goal is to write about something new and different. It’s not about regurgitating facts — it’s about making your own interpretation and contributing to the field of history.
I was always interested in the key founders of America (like George Washington) and the origins of the nation. There has been a movement for the past few decades to debunk the founders, focusing on their flaws. Were they perfect people? Of course not, but their ideas and examples are worthy of study because they formed the basis for the country and modern democracy.
About a decade later, that dissertation is now an actual book. It’s coming out April 23, 2018, and is called American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era. The book is basically an ethical history of the American Revolution, looking at ideas of honor and virtue (what we now call ethics) and how they influenced the war.
From the East Coast to William Woods
After getting a Ph.D., you get to call yourself a doctor and wear tweed jackets with leather patches. And you also get to teach. I taught at numerous colleges in the Boston area, including Brandeis, Tufts University, Suffolk University, Emmanuel College, and more. But I wanted to find a permanent home where I could work closely with students. And I found that at William Woods.
What I really enjoy about The Woods is the small class size that lets me interact with students on a personal level. At other schools, I’ve taught in lecture halls with over a hundred students. The ability to get to know your students here and engage in a conversation is central to learning and teaching.
Reshaping the History Department
When I started, the history department was in a state of transition after some professors retired or moved on to different careers. I have worked to update the program and offer new classes. What allowed me to do that is the close interaction I have with students. I was able to ask them what they wanted in the history program, what topics they were interested in, and what careers they wanted to pursue. I made decisions based on this information.
We now have classes on the American Revolution, the Age of Exploration, the Civil War, Native Americans, historical biographies, etc. Several students mentioned that they enjoy Hamilton, the Broadway musical, so I developed a class combining Alexander Hamilton’s life and the show.
(Read more about Professor Smith’s Alexander Hamilton class.)
Taking History Classes at WWU
Like most of the classes here at William Woods, history classes are offered at different levels from 100s to 400s. The 100s are general education surveys that everyone has to take, like world and U.S. history. The 200 levels are a bit more specific, so focusing on African American history or the history of war. From there, the 300 classes are more specialized courses that are primarily for majors, such as women’s history or famous turning points in history.
Given that we have so many Equestrian majors at the university, I also developed a special class called the Horse in History, looking at crucial moments when horses altered history.
A Different Type of History
At the beginning of every semester, I ask my new students what they think of the subject of history. The most common thing they say is that they always hated history class because it was all memorizing information that didn’t actually affect their lives.
My goal is to show students that history is more than just names and dates. It’s about the how and the why. How do these things shape our lives and why did people make choices? History is basically about people and their stories.
We’re not learning these stories for a state exam or standardized test. We’re learning it because we all face key decisions every day and there’s a lot we can learn from the successes and failures of others.
I like to think that my history classes are entertaining. I try to keep students engaged through discussion and everyone is expected to talk every class. Students need to know that their opinions and interpretations are just as valid as mine, as long as they can support them with facts. If everything goes well, students are talking to each other and to me, rather than me just standing up at the front of the classroom lecturing.
Because I’m not focusing on names and dates, I don’t give fill-in-the-blank quizzes or multiple-choice exams. Instead, students write essays. I don’t want students to just memorize information and retain it for an exam. They need to be able to put the pieces together themselves, explaining why something happened. Essays help students collect their thoughts and understand that you can answer questions from differing perspectives.
Research in the Classroom
Another thing that students encounter in my classes: original research. There’s a research paper assignment in all of my courses because history is about investigating and drawing your own conclusions. You have to make a claim or else you’re regurgitating what other people have said. I want everyone to have their own opinion. Students often work with primary sources (letters, images, newspapers, government records, etc.) to learn what actually happened in the participants’ own words — not another author’s interpretation.
In classes that deal with early America, I teach students how to read eighteenth-century handwriting. There’s no standardized spelling or grammar, and lots of confusing script. Students sometimes get intimidated in the beginning, but then feel very accomplished when they’re able to translate a text.
The other day, I took my Civil War class to the local historical society, where they viewed authentic artifacts, discussed local battles, and read original period documents.
In more of a modern history course, we may look at film and music as texts. How does it reflect the person that created it or the time period it was developed? I try to incorporate public history elements, where students research information and create their own exhibits for a general audience. In a class looking at America during the 1960s, we held a campus event where students presented displays on the history of William Woods and Fulton in the 60s.
I want students to understand that they are historians. When they are working in history, when they are studying history, they are historians. These firsthand research experiences give students the skills to go out in a variety of careers — it’s not about if they can remember who did what in 1492.
Another way we are incorporating research is through the mentor-mentee program (a competitive William Woods initiative that pairs a faculty member with an undergraduate for an intense year-long one-on-one research project). This year, Paige Bichsel ’20 is assisting me with my next book project about global perspectives on George Washington. We are looking at how other countries viewed this Founding Father and how he became a world symbol, not simply an American one. Bichsel has investigated over a thousand primary sources in English, German, and Spanish, looking for and analyzing references to Washington. We just gave a joint presentation on the project at the Missouri Conference on History.
So proud to have co-presented “Washington: American Founder, Global Figure” with @WilliamWoodsU‘s Paige Bichsel ’20 (@SHSofMo conference). She’s read 1000+ primary docs in English, German, and Spanish for our Mentor-Mentee Project on my new book “The Greatest Man in the World” pic.twitter.com/29Lka1IBsA
— Craig Bruce Smith (@craigbrucesmith) March 19, 2018
Jobs for History Majors
The most common question I’m asked by parents of incoming students is: “Can my child get a job with a history degree?”. And the answer is yes!
Research has proven it. A recent issue of the Harvard Business Review said the future of many industries (from technology to automotive and beyond) is the liberal arts major (such as history). Liberal arts teach you to think and make your own interpretations based on evidence. In an ever-changing world, the liberal arts and their adaptable skills, in many ways, better prepare students for more occupations than specialized majors.
Career options for historians are very, very diverse.
It is one of the majors that will allow you to do almost anything. Yes, you can be a history teacher or professor, but that is just the beginning. You can work in professions from the government and the law to business and entrepreneurship.
It’s also a great program to pair with other degrees. I have history majors and minors who are also getting degrees in education, ASL, science, political/legal studies, EQS, etc. If you think of any field, you can look at the history of it, and the history of its ideas, its people, and its development. History is something you can attach to anything. It centers on research, making a claim, and supporting it. That’s every academic disciple—and most careers.
Becoming a History Teacher
Many students coming through our program want to be history teachers. I am a firm believer in the idea that to teach history, you need to know history. There’s a recent article in the Atlantic where Columbia University Professor Eric Foner talks specifically about this. The best teachers are those who know the information and can passionately and intelligently convey that content to their students. My goal is to create teachers who are confident in themselves and their understanding of the material so that they have the freedom to experiment in how they want to deliver it.
I recently created a class called Teaching History that is specifically for teachers. We are spending the semester learning literally how to teach history. What information do you need to know and how do you best deliver it? We focus on events and topics: what are the important points, why are they important, what should a student take away? I’m giving them practical applications and connecting them with the content, rather than focusing on standardized tests. When it comes time to take teaching certification exams, they are primarily based on content, so I want my students to be strong in that area. If you don’t know the content, you can’t teach the class.
The Society of Historians
When I first started at William Woods, a group of students talked about how much they enjoyed history, so we created a club for it called the Society of Historians. It’s about having our members engage with history in different ways. They are a group of students who are very passionate and very active in promoting this field. They host a variety of events, such as the annual (history-based) ghost tour, a Revolutionary-themed tea party, and a contest for the best history paper of the year. We have also attended a variety of lectures, including ones by Jon Meacham (a presidential historian and the former editor-in-chief of Newsweek), Dr. Jay Sexton (a prominent nineteenth-century political and economic historian), Dr. Steven Watts (a modern cultural and intellectual historian), and Dr. Alan Taylor (a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian).
It’s very important for students to hear outside speakers and understand that there are multiple opinions out there. I have sponsored events such as a three-part lecture series on influential presidents (Washington, Lincoln, and JFK), a talk on early American elections, and a look at anti-KKK activism in Missouri in the 20s. Students should have access to different perspectives, different research, and different voices of people who are prominent in their fields.
I want to expand students’ spheres so they better understand the world beyond William Woods.
|Learn more about the William Woods History program|