Rusty Bittermann on his “Dream” Job

Published on: 27 May 2019

My route to becoming a History professor was not straightforward. I never completed high school. My undergraduate education was interrupted by a fifteen-year pause, during which I made my living primarily as a manual labourer with logging, farming, doing factory work, working in construction, sweeping floors, pumping gas, etcetera. After I acquired a PhD in History, like many others, I spent years making ends meet with part-time employment, post-docs, and teaching outside of my discipline. I was nearly 50 years old when I finally landed a dream tenure-stream job teaching History at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
I say “dream” because I was hired at a moment when generational transition created an opportunity for the St. Thomas History Department to rethink what it could be and what it should be doing. St. Thomas’s administrators also chose to make Liberal Arts a defining aspect of the institution when Liberal Arts seemed to be in retreat most everywhere else. My personal background and the circumstances of my employment set the stage for the teaching that I did at St. Thomas, which could be summarized as: weakly acculturated academic acquires opportunity to innovate in a supportive environment, knowing that his teaching years are limited.
In the fifteen years that I taught at St Thomas, I shifted from offering Canadian History courses to teaching new thematic World History courses, and working with my colleagues to collectively construct a broad World History programme. My contributions to the Department’s new curriculum included courses on Water and World History, Agriculture and World History, Post-World War Two Social Movements, World Environmental History, and a hybrid Local History/World History course titled, “Here.”
These courses were popular. They drew in an extraordinary number of highly-motivated, thoughtful students. I think often of many of those students now that I am retired. We had some great conversations and many of those with whom I remain in touch are doing some inspiring things with their lives. These thematic courses were a magnet for good students and gave me deeply satisfying experiences in the classroom.
I enjoyed teaching bigger, lecture-format classes as well as more intimate upper-level research seminars. But the thematic mid-sized World History seminars were particularly rewarding. They had the feel of an important collective project. Several dozen of us would meet twice a week to grapple with the pattern of water use in human history, or the changing character of social movements, or the great experiment called agriculture. We tried to make sense of where humans had been and where we were going. And I came away from those experiences humbled by my good fortune in having been able to be part of these discussions.
A common comment from my students was, “This stuff matters.” Unsaid in that statement—and the tone of surprise that it contained—was the perception that a lot of what they were studying in other courses did not much matter to their lives, or did not matter to the same degree. It troubles me that excellence in teaching is often framed at an institutional level in a way that denigrates content by fixating on the tactics for teaching: Are a professor’s methods “innovative”? Do they make full use of new technologies? Are students offered a variety of ways to demonstrate their learning? I always figured that my first obligation as a teacher was to sort out what I had to offer to students that would be useful for their lives, knowing that their time for university learning—and mine, for university teaching—was limited. How I chose to communicate an understanding of my subject was secondary. I recognise that many teachers have limited choice regarding course content. But when I saw the opportunity to rethink what I was teaching, I ran with it.
This is not the place to explain the logic of my particular choices of subject, except to say that there was a logic. It included thinking of what I had to contribute knowing what my colleagues were doing in their courses. Students, of course, learn from a wide variety of courses and professors, so it makes sense to reflect on this in making decisions about course structure and content. In the next two weeks, I will share some of the strategies that I used, entitled “Structuring the Course,” in the hopes that they may be of use.


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