“Everyone Takes a Hand in Shaping our Discussions and Helping Fellow Class Members:” More thoughts on Roy as a Teacher and Facilitator

Contributed By Katja Hering

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A few weeks after Roy died, I went back and read Eight Hours For What We Will. It begins with the description of how Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Modiste Aronstamm opened an ice-cream parlor and lunchroom in Worcester, hoping that the profits would provide financial support for the return to their native Russia. But then, in the summer of 1892, the Carnegie Steel Company locked out the workers at its Homestead plant, and evicted strikers from company houses. Goldman and Berkman, hoping that the class struggle in the United States would finally take off, thought the day had come and the “native toiler had risen.” They left Worcester and the ice-cream parlor, went to Homestead, and Berkman went on with his unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the chairman of the Carnegie Steel company. Roy noted that, however, despite their dedication to the Homestead workers, Berkman’s and Goldman’s “understanding of the American proletariat remained limited.” Berkman remained preoccupied with the situation in Russia, and Goldman, at least in her reminiscences, largely seemed to have ignored the situation of the workers in Worcester. In a way, as a historian, Roy picked up where Emma Goldman and Sasha Berkman had left off, and he went back to the ice cream parlor and back to the workers in Worcester, and showed that that they mattered, the ice-cream-parlor, the workers, and their eight hours for what we will, even though Worcester wasn’t exactly the revolutionary hot-spot of the time. And, working at George Mason University in Fairfax County, Virginia, which, as Mike O’Malley had pointed out at the OAH, started as a branch college of the University of Virginia and which, to this day, is not exactly known as a radical hot-spot, Roy approached his students as a teacher with a similar interest, respect and consideration of circumstances as he approached the workers in Worcester as a historian.

When dealing with the students at Mason, both the masters and the doctoral students, most of whom work part or full-time outside campus while getting their degrees, and many of whom don’t plan on pursuing traditional careers in university teaching, Roy was not only supportive, but always considerate of economy and circumstances. He picked people up where they stood, and practical questions greatly mattered to him. He wasn’t only concerned about how can you write a really good research paper or a dissertation, but how you can do it if you work x-hours during the week and the archives with your research materials are only open 9-5 during the week. Indeed, he sometimes indicated that such practical considerations were among the reasons why he was so interested in the possibilities of the internet in making research materials available online.

Roy sometimes mentioned that he had never really gotten that much out of his formal university education himself, and that the most important thing during his time as a graduate student had been the access to the library, and the chance to meet and study with numerous of his fellow students and friends, many of whom have shared stories and memories on this website or at the memorials in Arlington, at the AHA, or at the OAH. Whether it was driven by his experiences at Harvard, by his New Left radicalism, by his anti-authoritarian attitude toward professorial authority, by the belief that higher education should be accessible to everyone, or by something else, I got the sense that he thought (and I think I remember that he even said it at one point) that studying history, when it comes down to it, doesn’t really require that much and not necessarily a university and a professor, that, instead, all it really takes is your interest, a library card, nowadays a computer with internet access, and some people with whom you can talk or correspond, whether or not they have a formal degree. And he brought this moment of reflection about his role, about authority, and about the sense of formal education, into the classroom and into his interactions with his students, and served as a facilitator rather than as the instructing authority. He was particularly good at facilitating discussions, which he moderated with a keen sense of fairness -- if someone didn’t get the chance to say anything or needed a little support, he often sensed that, said something supportive, or just gave people a little more time and opportunity to speak up. Roy managed to open up the classroom, with its often alienating rules and regulations, and to turn it into a pleasant opportunity to get together -- he provided space, structure, and ideas, and everybody could meet, discuss, build websites, watch movies, have guests, and, of course, eat and drink.

Clio Wired, the course on history and new media that Roy developed and taught, and which I took in the fall of 2001, perfectly reflected his spirit that everyone should help each other: ”Unlike a conventional class where almost all the advice and assistance comes from the instructor, in a seminar everyone will take a hand in shaping our discussions and helping fellow class members,” he had written in the online syllabus, http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/rr/f01/cw/, a work in progress that he frequently updated. The course was, “experimental,” and he advised that, “we need to be open to changes in schedule, format, and requirements.” There was always a moment of curiosity and excitement in his assignments – do the scavenger hunt, explore this site, check out that online community, spend a significant amount of time at a website of your choice. In his assignments, in the questions he posed, he often offered options, as if he didn’t want to constrain his students to his suggestions -- if you don’t want to do this, try that, if not that, try something else. Including your own ideas for assignments was usually an option, too. I didn’t get the impression he ever came up with any assignments that he didn’t like to do as well. In more than one way, he also didn’t want to constrain the students to the classroom, and I remember one night when he must have thought that we all seemed knocked out by the computer lab, and when, in the middle of the class, he said let’s get up and go next door, and we all walked out of the classroom and sat down in the adjacent room, just to continue our discussion in a different environment.

Roy, as busy as he always was, regularly attended the PhD colloquium, which was entirely voluntary for faculty members, and, I think, he always attended when students presented their dissertation proposals and offered suggestions, whether he was the dissertation advisor of the students who presented or not. Last fall, he served as the coordinating instructor of the colloquium until he died. Before taking over as the instructor in the fall semester, he had sent out a survey to all of us PhD students to collect feedback on the colloquium, making sure that he planned the sessions together with us, and not for us. I think as one of the results of the feedback he received, he set up a blog for the colloquium (together with Jeremy Boggs of the CHNM), so that we could have and extend our discussions online. Very much Roy, he put technology to its best use and served as facilitator and host, online as well as offline. When he was too ill to come to the colloquium, he continued to post questions on the blog, once again always offering options, thinking of what we and he might enjoy to do. And I remember the last colloquium he was able to attend, with filmmaker (and Mason professor) Carma Hinton, as the guest, and we were talking about historical documentaries, and he was really interested in the discussion and then said that he feels like going out and seeing all those movies...So, in his spirit, I fill up my Thanks, Roy mug with coffee, drink it in his memory, go see a movie, and look forward to the next refill.