Award-winning teachers find the unexpected
By William Harms
Photo by Beth Rooney
Studying does not make you comfortable, but it should be something that prepares and even provokes you to best engage one’s subject, and better engage the world.”
As a 1985 graduate of the College, Adam Green has an unusual perspective on teaching history at UChicago—he now calls some of his former professors his colleagues. His undergraduate experiences, among them courses in cultural history, prepared him for his own teaching career.
“I remember Neil Harris in particular,” says Green of the UChicago cultural historian and Preston & Sterling Morton Professor Emeritus in History.
“Neil found ways, not only intellectually but also through pedagogical style, to make culture compelling as an historical category,” Green says, noting the seamless manner in which Harris would lecture while showing slides of buildings, landscapes, advertisements, and Gilded Age postcards, as a sort of playlist of historical representation.
After graduating from UChicago, Green went to Yale University, where he received a PhD in history in 1998. His research on the African American experience in Chicago during the 20th century is an important part of his undergraduate teaching. In addition to his class on Black Chicago history, Green also teaches 19th-century American civilization, and occasionally civil rights and 20th-century U.S. popular culture.
“In one sense I try to get them to struggle to earn the acquaintance of the past, to appreciate it for its own unique, animated character,” he says of his students. Green tries to avoid making the past seem just like another version of what is happening today in students’ lives; he encourages them to be open to surprise while learning how much has changed and how much remains the same.
Like the intellectual challenges that Green remembers facing as a student in the College, he now strives to make the experience of learning history challenging and memorable for his students.
“The most compelling, provocative teachers I had were the ones who pushed me to recognize that the rewards of learning are great, but the work is demanding,” Green says. “Studying does not make you comfortable, but it should be something that prepares and even provokes you to best engage one’s subject, and better engage the world.”
In Green’s Black Chicago class, the story of black Chicagoans is intertwined with the story of Chicago and the nation. He helps students understand how law and custom influence opportunities. Although the end of restrictive covenants opened housing possibilities in the 1940s, Green believes continued segregation, political clientage, capital flight, deindustrialization, and even systematic police abuse against circumscribed prospects for both material and human development for many African Americans continue even today.
Much like his colleague and former teacher Harris, Green looks to the arts and literature for examples of cultural history that help explain the underlying issues of major trends. When discussing the role of the informal economy in the black community, Green makes a point to incorporate the music of Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Curtis Mayfield into his lectures.
The photography of Wayne Miller, the old, glossy covers of Ebony magazine, and the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks all prompt students to discern what people felt about their particular conditions of life. These artifacts of music, photographs, and poems can help bring students closer to understanding how historical change and continuity impacts people’s lives.
“I want them to recognize their capacity for sustained interpretation, which is itself a transferable skill for living generally,” he says.
“That the students I teach feel positively about what I try to bring into class means the world to me. I am so very fortunate to be able to work with them.”