The HistoryAccess.com Interview:
David M. Johnson
By Harold Frost
“There are different ways of pursuing entirely satisfactory careers in history. My path is one path, Leon Litwack’s is another, and both are valid.”
Photos by Harold Frost.
Q. Did you love history as a youngster, Prof. Johnson? Is that why you decided to become a historian?
A. I definitely loved getting wrapped up in the drama of the human experience. That said, when I was studying for my doctorate at Cal, I didn’t have the same love for the research and writing aspect of it. I wasn’t passionate about spending months in the library stacks or writing scholarly books and articles. I certainly developed a strong respect for research as I was working on the Ph.D., but what I really love now is teaching.
Q. From what I’ve observed, you’re a gifted teacher, a guy who can get the classroom to hum.
A. I love teaching history. I love creating an atmosphere where people suddenly find themselves getting interested in the past, no matter how much they may have resisted it. Many of my students will say, at first, “Oh, history is soooo boring,” or “It’s just a lot of dates; it has nothing to do with my life; why are we studying something that happened 300 years ago?” I get a lot of that type of feedback at the beginning of a semester. I try to change that, and usually I’m able to. There’s a certain performance element to teaching that I enjoy, getting up there in front of everybody, trying to set a good tone. Setting a good tone is important in the teaching of any field, but I think it’s particularly important in teaching history, because you’re talking about things that happened three or four centuries ago, and this can be tricky for people to connect to. I like getting them engaged. (Big voice): “OK! If YOU were Lincoln and it’s 1861, and you just found out South Carolina seceded, what would you do? You want to save the union. Slavery is an issue, but you’re not trying to eliminate slavery at first, you’re just trying to stop its expansion; you’re the President of the United States faced with the prospect of a civil war; so what do you do?” That’s much different than saying (small, bored-sounding voice): “OK, well, let’s see now, after Fort Sumter was fired upon, Lincoln had to decide….” I enjoy the challenge of getting students excited about this stuff and involved with it.
When we talk about emancipation I don’t want to just give the dry facts – I ask them questions and I create scenarios for them to think about. You’re standing in a field somewhere in Mississippi in 1865 and see a man in a blue uniform come along on his horse, and he says, “Hey everybody, gather around. You’ll always remember this day – from here on, you folks are free.” And he rides away. What would that have been like? What would that have meant to me as I’m standing there picking cotton? What’s the first thing I do? Where would I go? Do I maybe try to find my brother, who was sold? Maybe I might just walk; I have never in my whole life, not once, been over that hill yonder; I’ve looked at that hill every single day; maybe I just want to see what’s on the other side. So I start walking. Or maybe the first thing I want to do is get a book, because I wasn’t allowed to read a book before. Maybe I’ll just stay here on this plantation and change the terms of my labor. Or maybe I think, “I’m not going to work for Master Williams anymore, I’ll go to Mr. Green’s plantation.” When you get a student to think about “What would I have done?” it brings a whole ‘nother context to things and a whole new level of interest in the past.
I was so excited about the opportunity to teach in a community college because the emphasis is on teaching. As I’ve indicated, my interests definitely are more in teaching. I view the classroom as a very, you know (pause) sanctified place, where you can – it’s one of the few places where you can talk about ideas, and there’s a level of collegiality and creativity, and everyone gets listened to, and you see the lightbulb switch on for students and they say, “Oh, I see; I always kind of wondered about that, now it makes sense.” Those are the best moments.
Q. You got a taste of teaching while studying at UC Berkeley, yes?
A. Yes I did; Cal is a large public university, obviously; the U.S. history survey course consists of maybe 800 undergraduates – it’s packed. The students are divided into teaching sections, and graduate students handle those sections. I had two sections of 20 students each.
Q. You’re known as a first-rate teller of history stories, of history anecdotes.
A. I love telling stories. I’ve got lots of ’em. For instance I like to tell about an ex-slave named Jourdan Anderson. After the Civil War, Anderson was living in Ohio, and he received a letter from his former slave master in Tennessee asking Anderson to return and work for him. Anderson writes back, and it’s a phenomenal letter – the tone of it is very low key, but the message is clear, it’s got an edge to it: “Are there any schools in the South? Have you guys started any schools for black children? Because, up here, my kids go to school.” He says, “You remember my wife Mandy; well, up here, folks call her Mrs. Anderson.” He mentions the wages that he’s due from his old master for 23 years of service without pay, more than 11,000 dollars, and he says, “We’ll deduct the two doctor’s visits you paid for in 23 years.” At the end of the letter he says something like, “Thank George for taking the gun away from you when you shot at me.”
I share with my students that my grandmother is old enough, was born early enough, where there were people in her community where she grew up, in Texas, who had been slaves! My grandmother! She would talk about Mr. Smith, or Mrs. Jones, or Mr. Williams and his wife – people who had been slaves! These were people she had gone to church with, people in the community who had a first-hand experience of what slavery was like, and my grandmother interacted with those people, and I interacted with her. My grandmother has lived long enough to go from having personal relationships with people who were slaves to casting a ballot for Barack Obama. That happened in one lifetime. Some of my students don’t believe me when I get into this, they have to do the math. I always take issue with people who say, “Oh, things are exactly the same.” Or, “Oh, Barack Obama being elected president doesn’t really mean anything.”
I like to tell stories about Lyndon Johnson and his complexity as a human being. In terms of U.S. presidents and civil rights, Johnson tends to get overlooked sometimes by students. It was Kennedy who articulated some of the civil rights movement, after a lot of grass roots activism, and it was Kennedy’s picture that got put up on many walls next to King’s, but it was Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, who carried out a lot of the federal policy agenda. Many students don’t quite realize how important LBJ was in this regard. A lot of the things that happened, the voting rights act and so on, were on his watch. So I go into that a little bit with a story or two.
Q. I’d like to ask you for the short version of your life story.
A. I was born in San Francisco in 1971. Soon thereafter we moved to Oakland. My father retired recently from the post office after 35 years. My mother had an assortment of jobs including working as an administrator for a health care company.
I’m a proud product of the Oakland public school system. The Oakland schools had a pretty profound effect on me in terms of academics. I was – I don’t know if they still do this – when I was in elementary school they had the GATE program – Gifted and Talented Education – it was a basic form of tracking, where they identified us as talented quite early, and kept tabs on us, and had special classes. For me, at least initially, it was valuable. I was at Sequoia Elementary School which was a very diverse school, ethnically, socioeconomically. We had a fantastic experience there in the GATE program. The teachers had very high expectations of the students. High expectations produce high outcomes.
GATE gave me a pretty good foundation. The other side of tracking is, once I got into high school, somehow I fell off track, by someone’s estimation, so in high school I never had a GATE class, an AP class, or an honors class. My senior year, in my English class, while the “smarter” kids were reading literature, we were learning how to do resumes and cover letters. It was more vocational. The expectation was, no one was going to college from that particular class, so we needed to be prepared for the “real world.” So after high school I didn’t even apply to UC Berkeley. I thought Cal was for the “smart kids.”
Q. You didn’t perceive yourself as smart?
A. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I didn’t perceive myself as smart. I did have a level of support in my home. My mother and father fully supported me. I had two grandmothers who were very high on education – whenever I got good grades as a youngster I’d get a little piece of change from them, a little bit of money for every “A.” They kept me encouraged. I basically felt I was pretty smart.
Q. Paying kids for good grades – I love that! Giving tangible rewards. A lot of people frown on that, but hey, society pays people for everything else they do in the way of work. I remember getting a couple of tangible rewards like that in elementary school – a baseball glove one time – and feeling tremendously proud and motivated. I looked at that glove and thought, “I earned that.”
A. I am a strong advocate of that! I do it with my younger cousins! It’s to the point now, when I go to one of my cousin’s homes, or my brother’s home, and the kids are around, the first thing they say is, “Look at my report card!” And if they’re earning good marks, I always give them ten, twenty dollars. To a seven-year-old, that’s a fortune.
So I wouldn’t say that I didn’t think of myself as being smart (pause) but I think my priorities – and this I think is true of many inner city kids – I’ll just say a lot of African American young men – I think there’s a certain anti-intellectual thread that runs through our community. John McWhorter has written about this in “Losing the Race” where he talks about the reality for a lot of African American students, that to be “smart” somehow means you’re trying to “be white” or something like that. There was some of that feeling at our high school. To a certain degree, no student, regardless of their background, wants to be the teacher’s pet or whatever, so there’s some of that with every student, I’m not trying to say this is uniquely a black problem. But I think there are serious ramifications for carrying that type of attitude within the African American community, there are some grave outcomes that can result.
I never sabotaged myself. I wasn’t into self sabotage; I didn’t take it that far. It’s really just that my focus was sports: “I’m going to play basketball.” My father would say things like, “Mathematically you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than making it to the NBA”, but I, and all of my friends, didn’t think that way. We thought, and said, “We’re going to play sports and we’re going to the pros.”
My tenth grade year was a disaster academically. I had been a pretty good student up to then. Tenth grade, in the Oakland public schools, was the first year of high school. We didn’t do middle school back then, we did junior high school – seventh, eighth, and ninth, and then you’d go to high school. And making that adjustment, I kind of fell into a dangerous pattern, with all my friends cutting class, you know. I was doing just enough to stay eligible for sports.
During my senior year I applied to one college, Howard University in Washington D.C., an HBCU – Historically Black College/University. And it was to play basketball. If I hadn’t gotten in there, I would have gone to a community college to play basketball.
I got into Howard, and I did try to play basketball, and it didn’t work out for me. I was a point guard. This was about 50 pounds ago. I was six feet tall, about 165. You probably think, looking at me now, that I played football rather than basketball in high school! But it was basketball, and in college, it just didn’t work out. But the good thing about Howard was, I was in an academic environment where there wasn’t the same stigma attached to academic excellence. Everyone was trying to do well; the instructors would say, “We’re counting on you to do well! You have a responsibility to do well! You’re going to be the generation that replaces us!” The Howard University faculty was a mixed faculty, black, white, Asian, Latino. Everyone seemed to be invested in student success.
I had a girlfriend who was attending Cal – she said, “Oh, just apply, your grades are good enough” – this was the era of affirmative action, the late 1980s – we can talk about that – so I applied to UC Berkeley. Also UC Davis. Got into both. Moved back home, entered UC Berkeley in the fall of 1990 and kept a steady job too. Back then, I was able to pay my entire tuition with my earnings from a summer job I had. When I got to Cal I think it cost around $900 a semester. It’s a lot more now, obviously – I think they’re trying to push it to eight thousand or nine thousand per semester now. I was very fortunate.
I know that affirmative action played a role in my admission. This is something I think about a lot. I’m not, you know, conflicted by it, or tortured by it. I’m not Richard Rodriguez about it. I look back on it, and this is kind of my take. In high school, for some reason, I didn’t have the opportunity to take some of the same classes, the Advanced Placement classes, that maybe would have raised my GPA. If you get an “A” in an AP class in California, it’s worth five points on a four-point scale. You have students coming into college with GPAs higher than 4.0. Also, I had three different counselors in my three years of high school – the turnover in the Oakland Public School District was crazy.
The attitude I basically took was, as a recipient, or beneficiary, of affirmative action, I thought it was incumbent upon me to do a lot of community service. Studies have shown that typically students that are admitted under affirmative action, or students from under-represented groups, tend to do more of that kind of work. I got very involved in an organization on campus at UC called the Black Recruitment and Retention Center.
I prolonged my stay at Cal. I probably could have graduated in four years total counting Howard; I stayed that fifth year. I prolonged my time because during my junior and senior year I was putting in 20 hours, 30 hours a week just on recruitment activities, also retention activities, trying to make sure African American students were successful once they got there. I’ve always looked at it like, OK, I was given an opportunity, and as a result of that, I had a responsibility to try to help others.
After I left Cal I worked for a while in the Office of Admissions at the University of Washington. Being an admissions officer I got to see how things work. The fact is, there are a lot of affirmative action type programs that have nothing to do with ethnicity or race. There were times I would get phone calls, as an admissions officer, someone would say to me, “I gave such-and-such amount of money to the university….” or “I’m friends with the president….” That goes on at all schools. In scoring people’s applications, there was a box: “Child of Alum.” That would get a certain score. Athletics got a certain score. Even coming from a community college. I used to say, the biggest affirmative action program at the University of Washington was something called the Direct Transfer Agreement, where if you graduated from a community college you’d be given – I wouldn’t say preferential treatment – but there was an emphasis on getting those students accepted and enrolled.
I also earned a master’s degree in communications at the University of Washington. As a student at Howard I had taken a communications class and loved it. When I transferred to Cal as an undergraduate, I thought, “I’ll just keep studying communications.” Then, after Cal, when I wasn’t ready to take a full-time job, and I just wanted to stay in school, I thought, “What will I do? Well, I’ll just keep doing communications.”
After earning a master’s in communications and working at the University of Washington, I realized that every project I’d ever done had something to do with African American history. I was always taking a historical view of things. My master’s thesis in communications was about the history of a black academic journal, which back then was called The Journal of Negro History. I was thinking to myself, “For this Ph.D. that I want to get at Cal, instead of doing work in communications with a focus on African American history, why don’t I just zero in on history?” Meanwhile, before I left Washington, I took a few classes to bolster my academic record in history because I hadn’t majored in it. In the fall of 1998 I began my first semester as a doctoral student at UC Berkeley in the department of history, without being a history major. I don’t know how many students can lay claim to that.
Q. But clearly you had a feel for history by that point.
A. Yes. I think particularly African American history. I minored in African American Studies with an emphasis on literature and history. So, I think initially, my love was for African American history.
I was in a seminar with other doctoral students at Cal; we were reading some early American history stuff, and I’m like, “Feelin’ a little lost!” We had 11 people in our cohort, 11 students who were Americanists in the Department of History who took this beginning seminar, and I would say maybe eight or nine of us felt like we didn’t have the handle on early American history that was really needed. So we went back to basic history texts quite often. It was fascinating. Just kind of discovering it. It opened up my eyes. A lot of things clicked: “Oh, that’s why things worked the way they did,” “Oh, that’s who this figure was.” “Oh – Jamestown.” I knew a lot of these things on a superficial level, but to understand some of the intricacies, this was eye-opening for me. I wasn’t really worried about raising my hand and asking a question in class. I wasn’t worried about what people might think. My attitude always was, if I knew everything already, there’d be no point in my pursuing the Ph.D.
Q. You’re director of, and teach in, the adult education program of Berkeley City College, the Program for Adult College Education, known as PACE. Obviously there’s great variance among the students but please describe a composite student.
A. OK, a composite – you’re looking at a student in her late 20s to early 30s who is coming back to school. Probably a student of color, a female student of color, let’s say, probably with children, trying to balance family and work life, probably working full-time or at least 30 hours a week.
People come back to school for different reasons. Some people want personal enrichment – they always wanted to learn more history; they want to become better people, more knowledgeable people. Some come back because they’ve gone as far as they can in their career and need a degree to get promoted. Some come back because they want to start on the road to getting a bachelor’s. Some come back because they want to set an example for their children; they’re wanting to model certain aspirations for the kids.
Typically, as I say, my students are working; they’re often in positions of authority in their job, they supervise people. That fact creates a different dynamic from a classroom of 19-year-olds; adult education students definitely have ideas about things, and that’s a good thing, it creates a rich classroom environment. They’re more apt to question things the teacher says.
Q. What sort of job might our composite student have?
A. Maybe an office job. A lot of them have clerical jobs. We have one student who is finishing up this spring who’s an executive with a well-known company in the loss prevention division, and she’s traveled all over the world. She might say to me, “I’m not going to be in class this week because corporate is going over to China for a week, we’re having meetings there to help them redesign their policies around loss prevention.” This is someone who started off in that company very young, and worked her way up, and most of her colleagues assume she has an MBA. But she never even earned her AA. I think eventually she wants to get an MBA; Berkeley City College is a step toward that. For her, adult education is not necessarily for career advancement; it was something – I won’t say that she felt insecure – it was something that always kind of nagged at her, that somehow she didn’t have an education comparable to some of her peers.
Q. Do you think a knowledge of history is going to be directly helpful to her in her job? Or is history, for her, more of a personal enrichment thing? Or some combination of those things?
A. I think history can teach a person how to think. Sharpening analytical skills, critical thinking skills. How you say things; your ability to convey information in a precise manner. When I want to sell history to my students, I say, “Even if you’re not interested so much in all the different facts and historical figures, it’s a discipline that’s going to allow you to hone your skills, deepen your understanding, teach you how to think about things.” There is a certain inherent value in the liberal arts, irrespective of what the discipline is – history, political science, psychology, sociology, art, whatever. The liberal arts in general are good in terms of teaching people how to think and make sense of their world. (Editor’s Note: See here for additional thoughts on this topic.)
Q. Please describe a week in your work life.
A. My main challenge is trying to balance my teaching responsibilities with my administrative work as director of PACE. PACE takes a lot of my time.
So during a typical work week I teach two days a week. My teaching days start at about 9 o’clock, looking over my lecture notes for my first class. Preparing, looking over my notes, trying to figure out how I am going to present the material – even though I know the information, my students, for many of them, this will be the first time they’ve heard it. The challenge is staying fresh, because if you’re not fresh and engaged, the students instantly pick up on that.
This semester I teach U.S. History from the Civil War to the Present. This is my first morning class, from 9:30 to 11:00. I prepare for that class, I go in, I do it. After class, perhaps your more motivated students have questions and want to come to your office hours for a bit. I encourage all my students to do that. I always have an open door policy where students can feel free to come in and sit down and discuss anything that they find interesting or confusing.
Q. What’s a typical question they might have? What would be something you would say while lecturing that they’d want to know more about?
A. Many of these students have very, very little background in history. So they’re asking questions that maybe you or I might think are pretty elementary. If I give a lecture on, say, Reconstruction, I might get questions about the transition of African Americans from being slaves to being free. A lot of questions about how much freedom they actually had. The question of how free is free. I get questions about Lincoln, always – what was his attitude toward slavery, what was his attitude toward African Americans.
In an introductory class, at the start of the semester, students are often asking questions about basic facts. As the semester progresses, if you’re effective, they should be asking questions related more to interpretation. That’s one way of knowing you’re reaching them.
So Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach from 9:30 to 11; I might have impromptu office hours for a bit; then it’s lunch. I teach Tuesday and Thursday evenings. On Tuesday evenings I teach Introduction to African American Studies, which I do more as a historical survey class, it’s really the history of the African American experience. That class meets from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Thursday night is my Early American History class. That’s my PACE class. That class is from 7 to 10 p.m., and in terms of trying to motivate students – these are students who for the most part have worked all day. They’ve been at work since maybe 8 o’clock in the morning. Most of them have an English class that meets right before my class, from 5 to 7 p.m., so by the time I get them, it’s been a very long day for them. And for me. But they’re pretty motivated. They’re not there to screw around. But they’re tired sometimes.
The rest of my time each week is dealing with my PACE responsibilities, handling student grievances, student challenges, student concerns. Trying to monitor student/teacher interactions. I have maybe 15 instructors in my program. I serve on several committees. I’m the faculty sponsor for three different student clubs – the Black Student Union, the Dance Club, and the Archer’s Guild. I’m on the planning committee for Black History Month in February. I go to departmental meetings. Depending on the time of year, I have grading responsibilities. So there’s never a dull moment.
Q. Is PACE getting hit by the financial crisis that confronts California’s community colleges these days, or are you insulated from that? This is a crunch that’s doing significant damage, affecting the entirety of the state’s public educational system.
A. Everyone is feeling it, but because of the success of PACE, I’ve been somewhat insulated. PACE represents only about three percent of the student body population at Berkeley City College but last year we were about 35 percent of the people who graduated. Berkeley City’s valedictorian was a PACE student; the salutatorian was as well; also the recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for the entire four-college district. This spring we’re going to make a presentation to the district as a Program of Distinction. We’ve been pretty successful. That does give us some relief.
Nonetheless, enrollment challenges and budget considerations – these are definitely part of my job, making sure that enrollment and productivity are high while maintaining the integrity of the program. When I first joined PACE as an instructor, we had four different sections of U.S. history, and we had maybe 15 to 16 people per section – smaller groups, a better classroom dynamic. Now, I offer two sections, because, from a budgetary standpoint, it’s better to have two classes with 40 people as opposed to four classes with 20, because you’re only paying two instructors. It’s something we’ve had to do in order to adjust to budgetary realities.
Q. Just to backtrack – you mentioned Lincoln a few minutes ago. What’s your view of the man?
A. Lincoln is, maybe with Washington, probably the greatest American president. Historians have kind of chipped away at the moniker “The Great Emancipator” and all that, it’s not an altogether accurate label. Lincoln was a pragmatist about the issue of slavery. He said early on that it wasn’t his intention to destroy the institution, but rather, to limit its expansion. He famously said he wanted to bring Southern states back into their proper relationship with the union; he said, “If I could do that by freeing all the slaves, I’d do that; if I could do it by not touching slavery at all, I’d do that.” So, a pragmatist, rather than this idealized figure; but I think, given what he was facing, this unparalleled crisis, he handled it in a fashion that makes him a great figure. He did evolve. He pushed the agenda to where the elimination of slavery was the object of the war, after 1863 at least. I can’t imagine the amount of stress and tension that he endured during those days.
Q. Were you disappointed at all, as you learned more about Lincoln, to realize that he was not Mr. Idealism, but was, as you say, a pragmatic politician, someone who had to attend to what was actually do-able in the real world?
A. There’s a narrative of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator that you learn in the fifth, eighth, and 11th grades, and there’s that moment of clarity where you’re like, “OK, well, things are a bit more complicated than that.” But I didn’t have any sort of big let-down moment. I just started to realize that most people are complicated, and I was OK with that. Like I indicated earlier with LBJ, that’s one of the things I try to get my students to embrace – you need to see things not as black and white. Or right and wrong. Or up and down. Or yes and no. Or them and us. Complexity. I ask my students, if you were writing your own autobiography, or someone were writing your biography, what would it look like? There would be paradoxes, and contradictions, and moments of heroism, and moments of cowardice, probably in the same individual. You don’t need to feel betrayed because Lincoln wasn’t this or Washington wasn’t that, or Martin Luther King, or whomever. Most people lead complex lives.
Booker T. Washington is an example of the idea that people and history are complicated. There’s a lot to chew on in his life. Maybe he was doing certain things from a strategic standpoint in order to make strides – but at what cost? When he gave his famous Atlanta Compromise speech of 1895, saying, “In all things social, blacks and whites can be separate like the fingers; but united as a fist in everything related to mutual progress” – that’s an attractive message for some, but a very destructive message for others. A year later you’re going to hear the Supreme Court sanctioning the principle of separate but equal, and it becomes the law of the land for decades.
Q. Much about his thinking was clearly flawed, as W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out, but his life was fascinating. If we scratch the surface, we find out the complexities. As Norman Mailer said more than once, “Please don’t understand me too quickly.” It seems to me that history and biography, used well, inculcate that habit of mind.
A. One of the things that blows away some of my students, when we get to the 19-teens and the early 1920s and start talking about Marcus Garvey, they associate him with being one of the most radical and nationalist figures, and I explain to them that his hero was Booker T. Washington! His main reason for coming to the United States was to meet with Booker T. Washington! Washington passed away shortly before he arrived. My point is, you would never associate Booker T. Washington – “Uncle Tom” – with Marcus Garvey – this major radical – but Washington’s emphasis on being self-sufficient, on creating black businesses – people learn about that and start thinking, “Oh, yeah, OK, that’s in line with some of the things Garvey was saying.”
Q. What three figures from history, whether from American or world history, would you most like to meet and converse with and ask questions of?
A. Wow. Hmm. I would probably say – this is a dinner?
Q. Yes, a history dinner party.
A. I would probably say (pause) – I want to limit this to U.S. history – I would probably say Lincoln, W.E.B. Du Bois – and maybe (pause) Martin Luther King. Lincoln, Du Bois, Martin Luther King. That’d be a pretty good dinner group. Can I fit in one more person? I don’t have any women there, maybe Emma Goldman. I bet she has some stories!
Q. Please mention two or three books that you’ve loved over the course of your reading career.
A. “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois had more effect on me than anything I’ve ever read. I read it in my freshman year in college. His intention is to try to explain to the world the thoughts and hopes and aspirations and feelings of African Americans. People who white Americans thought they knew, but didn’t really know.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” had a strong effect on me. “The Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison – I picked it up in high school – I had no idea who Toni Morrison was. I just happened to pick this book off my mother’s shelf. It’s an incredible book.
Q. I know you use Eric Foner’s “Give Me Liberty” as one of your textbooks; what others?
A. I use the Gary Nash book for early American history – “The American People.” I use Foner for the Civil War to the present. I use Howard Zinn. Even though I don’t agree with everything Howard Zinn says in “People’s History,” it’s great for debate. It’s more of a supplement to a good textbook. I like various viewpoints. I often tell my students, “Don’t think there’s a particular line of ideological bent that you need to support or follow. Feel feel to disagree with me in your papers and your exams. I’m not trying to tell you what to think, I’m just trying to give you things to think about.”
Q. Your dissertation adviser at Cal was Leon Litwack, a legendary figure in the history profession – what are five words you would use to describe him?
Prof. Leon Litwack
(UC Berkeley photo)
A. Brilliant. (Pause.) Acerbic. (Pause.) Charitable; very charitable with his resources, with his time. He will literally – here’s someone who won a Pulitzer Prize for History for “Been in the Storm So Long” and he’s literally hand-editing chapters of my dissertation. Not just making notes; correcting the sentence structure! So: Brilliant, acerbic, charitable….he’s gregarious; he loves to have students around him. Loves to talk. His office hours – often times he wouldn’t have just one student at a time, he’d have six or seven students, chatting, a little seminar really. (Pause.) I would also say curious. Incredibly curious; constantly trying to learn things. One time he asked me about Mary J. Blige; he said, “What’s your opinion of her new album? I’m thinking about getting it as a Christmas gift for my niece.” I was thinking, “You’re like 75 years old, how do you even know about her?” He stays open and curious about everything. So – Leon Litwack: Brilliant. Acerbic. Charitable. Gregarious. Curious.
Q. What are your aspirations for the next 30 years? Do you want to write a book? Get more into administration? Is Berkeley City College home for you?
A. I definitely feel at home at Berkeley City. Once I got a foothold here I was very pleased. I received some interesting perspective on this a couple of years ago from one of my former colleagues, Charles Postel, who is now a professor of history at San Francisco State – up to last year he was teaching at Sacramento State. He won a Bancroft Prize in 2008, which is given to authors of outstanding works in American history, biography, and diplomacy. The book he won for is “The Populist Vision.” We were having a dinner for him at Leon Litwack’s home up in the Berkeley hills – Charles is a graduate of Cal – he’s probably in his 50s, he went back to school later in life – I had just gotten the tenure track position at Berkeley City and he was like, “Dave, I’m so jealous of you, you’re teaching at Berkeley City College, I went there years ago, I would LOVE to come back and teach in that environment, in the Bay Area.” Everybody is congratulating Charles on his accomplishment and he’s going on and on about how he wishes he could teach somewhere like Berkeley City College!
Academe is a very competitive and in some ways heartbreaking process – you spend all this time trying to get your dissertation done, years and years, and then you turn it into a book, and you publish articles in journals, and you go to all these interviews, just to end up not getting a tenure track position. For me, the opportunity to stay here, and teach here, and work with students, and have tenure – Charles brought home for me the value of that.
So my long-term goal is to stay in community colleges. I’d love to make a career in the Peralta Community College District. We have four schools here – Berkeley City, College of Alameda, Laney College, and Merritt College. Laney is the largest of the four. This is a wonderful district.
I do find myself looking toward administration. I’m enjoying my administrative work. Ideally I want to be able to maintain a balance between staying in the classroom and administration. I always want to be in the classroom to some extent, to stay sharp – I look at it like a musician who wants to keep up his chops, so he sits in on somebody’s set every once in a while.
If I were still at Cal, or wanted to pursue a career at a research university, a book would be an imperative. At the community college level, there’s much more emphasis placed on teaching and service. There are different ways of pursuing entirely satisfactory careers in history. My path is one path, Leon Litwack’s is another, and both are valid.
Q. Thank you.
A. My pleasure. ●