Tuesday, August 5, 2014

7 Questions With Professor Kevin Shirley, Co-coordinator of National History Day Georgia

(Kevin Shirley is professor of History at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He is also Co-coordinator of NHD Georgia (along with Laura McCarty, Vice President, Georgia Humanities Council) and coordinator of the National History Day Mentoring Program at LaGrange College. A medievalist by training, he studied 12th century monastic and legal history at Florida Stat and cooe University earning his PhD in 1998.

For more information visit the NHD Mentoring Program on the web at:
www.lagrange.edu/nhd, ‘Like’ the program on Facebook at www.facebook.com/NHDatLaGrangeCollege and follow Dr. Shirley on Twitter @LCNHD. You can also learn about NHD at www.nhd.org as well as the Georgia Humanities Council www.georgiahumanities.org . If you have questions you can contact Dr. Shirley directly via email at kshirley@lagrange.edu or by phone at 706-880-8033.)

1.         How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

I’ve always been drawn to current affairs and have wanted to understand the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ behind them.  Growing up in Chicago during the 1960s, and with a father serving multiple tours of duty in Vietnam, I was an avid watcher of the evening news.  From those nightly ‘introductions’ I found my way to (believe it or not) the family’s copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica and its ‘Book of the Year’ series.  I was looking at the illustrations before I could read the text.   I can still recall how thrilled I was to get my first library card!  We lived on the far south side of Chicago and our neighborhood had a small store front branch of the public library.  I loved going in there, seeing all the books, wondering about everything they contained and when the day came I could actually check them out with my card, well, I had arrived.  I love libraries to this day.

2.         What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

I love reading and studying about the past.  It’s what I do.  At this moment I am reading a history of Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi, a history of Dwight Eisenhower’s command of Allied forces 1943-1945, an article on the intricacies of 11th century monastic scribes and I’m rereading the Bhagavad-Gita.  I also love to visit museums and historic sites.  It’s always a personal highlight of the National History Day Competition to visit the museums on the Mall in Washington D.C.  I love the Medieval and Renaissance Halls in the National Gallery of Art.  In Atlanta, we have regularly taken students to both the Carlos and High Museums.   It’s a joy to spend the day immersed in the past.

3.         How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

I am very blessed to be a professional historian.  I’ve had the great fortune to research and publish, travel and teach in my field for almost twenty years.  I’m one of four history professors at LaGrange College which means I get to study and teach across a number of fields and serve in a variety of roles.  I get to work with people who all share a passion for learning and teaching.  I do work that has an impact, that makes a real difference in the lives of our students and our community.  You know the old adage: ‘it’s not a job if you love what you do,’ well I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful.    

4.         Why is studying/knowing history important?

You know the standard answer is always that we study the past to avoid repeating it but I think the study of history really facilitates and deepens our understanding of self.  We can learn a great deal about our current state (as a society, as people, as individuals) by studying the past.  You see, I don’t believe the basic human condition has changed that much over the millennia.  Technologies have certainly, but not people.  We grapple with many of the same questions and problems today that our distant ancestors did and by studying the way they answered the questions and resolved the problems we can gain insight into where we’re at and how we handle them.  History is a journey of discovery; discovery of the world and ourselves.

5.         What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

I am interested in many areas of history but I am especially drawn to Greco-Roman and Medieval history.  One of the earliest stories I can remember being captivated by was the ‘Trojan Horse’.  As I grew older I became fascinated with the work of classical archaeology (I may yet return to school and earn an archaeology degree).  There’s just something ‘magical’ about the Athenian acropolis.  As for my interest in medieval history, it began when I read the back jacket of my copy of LOTR (Lord of the Rings) and discovered that JRR Tolkien was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature.  I immediately wanted to study what he had.  From there I can’t tell you when it happened but I became fascinated with medieval monasticism.  As a religion graduate student I studied Late Antique Christian spirituality, including the development of Benedictine monasticism.  I guess I have always associated monasticism with the life of learning, the life of contemplation and the mind.

6.         How did you get involved with National History Day?

I had never heard of National History Day before our arrival in LaGrange.  The history department has co-hosted the West Georgia Regional Competition since the mid-1980s, and we always provided not only facilities to house the competition but judges as well.  None the less, my first real exposure to NHD and the impact it has on students was as a parent.  In 2001 our oldest child participated in NHD at her middle school.  The competition occurred in the school’s media center and I was struck by the quality and diversity of the work.  With our second child we made our first visit to the state competition and with our third we got to attend the national competition.  By the time I started participating in the national contest, first as a parent and then as a judge, I had come to fully realize the transformative power of NHD.  I saw what NHD did for our children, the development of creative and critical thinking skills, the way it challenged them and the way they grew.  I came to fully realize that this program is changing the lives of thousands of young people every year. 

7.         Why should students and teachers participate in National History Day ?

National History Day is a history education program that began as a way to get middle and high school students excited about the study of history.  The college faculty who held the first ‘History Day’ were worried that that an appreciation for the value of the humanities was being lost in an increasingly technological world.  That was almost 40 years ago.  In today’s STEM dominated, project based learning, Common Core and Performance based assessment environment, NHD is even more appropriate.   NHD certainly engages students in the historical process and gives them an appreciation for the complexities of the human experience but it does so much more.  It is the perfect project based pedagogical tool because it can literally be a yearlong project.  NHD culminates in a product that can be measured by any performance based assessment rubric.  In fact, the final product can appear in one of five different forms:  historical paper, exhibit, performance, documentary or website.   So, it certainly works within the context of today’s educational environment.  Ultimately, however, students and teachers should do NHD for another, more fundamental reason:  NHD empowers and transforms.  Teachers are incredibly dedicated folk.  The general public does not fully comprehend the demands and challenges teachers face every single day.  To be an educator in this country today requires nothing short of a sense of vocation; a belief that they are teaching in order to make a difference in the lives of their students. The question then becomes what does ‘difference’ mean and how does she/he do it?  Teachers are educators, facilitators, mentors, counselors, advocates, and policeman all in one.  NHD is the tool that transforms students from within.  Through the context of a ‘competition’ the program develops skills the students don’t even realize they’re developing:  reading and research skills, critical thinking and analysis, communication skills (written and oral).  It’ll be years before most NHD students fully realize and appreciate all the program, and the teacher who sponsored them, actually did.   Even more, NHD is a vehicle that allows students to develop self-esteem and confidence.  They can achieve things they never, ever dreamed possible through this program.  Seeing it happen first hand, well there’s nothing better!

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