New History Chair Draws from Past for Future

For nearly 40 years, Dr. William Marvin Dulaney, Associate Professor of History, has been committed to celebrating African-American history through instruction to his students and his community. As a volunteer, teacher and community educator, he has made the pursuit of knowledge his life’s work. And he will continue on that journey in his new role as Chair of the Department of History.

Dr. Bob Fairbanks is stepping down as chair and returning to full-time teaching and research. Dulaney said he is excited to draw on his experience in and out of the classroom over the next four years of shifting student demographics and department needs.

Dulaney spent much of the late 1970s and early 1980s as an instructor and counselor in Upward Bound, a program that prepares high school students for college. He began full-time teaching once he completed his Ph.D. work at Ohio State University in 1984, spending a year at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., before moving back to Texas to work as an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Arlington. An opportunity to expand his role as community educator found him as director of the Avery Research Center in Charleston, S.C., in 1994, where he also became a professor and department chair at the College of Charleston. A call from Fairbanks initiated a move back to Texas in 2008 and into his current position on the UT Arlington campus.

College of Liberal Arts Communications Coordinator James Dunning sat down with the soft-spoken professor to talk about his own history and what he thinks the future has in store.

Q: As you worked on your master’s and Ph.D., you spent a number of years working with Upward Bound in North Texas. How did you first connect with UT Arlington and eventually begin teaching here?

A: I came to UT Arlington as an associate director of Upward Bound and we started the program here from scratch with a new grant. I had already spoken with the history department about teaching here as an adjunct. But I finished my Ph.D. work in 1984, and went away to teach for a year [at St. Olaf College]. Then UTA lost its African-American history professor in 1985, so I came in then as an assistant professor.

While I was here from ‘86-‘94, I worked with the African-American Museum in Dallas. I have an interest in preservation and public history. I taught courses for the museum, called the Community African-American History courses. We did a history fair focusing on African-American history; we did a summer camp. My longtime colleague and friend Robert Edison, who was teaching in Dallas ISD at the time, and I organized a quiz bowl for community members, set up an exhibition on black politics in Dallas, and put together an annual African-American History in Texas conference and lecture series.

Q: Did that experience in community education and your promotion to tenure open doors that led to a leading role at the Avery Research Center in Charleston, S.C.? And how did you wind up back at UT Arlington in 2008?

A: Well, in 1994, what I really wanted to do was look at the public history aspect of the historical profession. I was there at Avery for 14 years, raised $1.5 million to finish the building, got the place renovated, established new programs, and won several awards for the work we did in the community. But by 2007, I was sort of tired and needed to step away from it. I was working seven days a week, 50-60 hours a week. I got so involved that it was my life. Teaching history and being involved in this historical profession IS my life. I don’t see a separation between what I do and who I am. Being a historian is one of the greatest things you can be because you get involved in so many aspects of life. You get to see how politics, societal ills and events fit together, and you get a unique perspective. You know what happened before and you can watch how things play out in the present.

As I was stepping down as chair of the Avery Research Center in 2007, Bob Fairbanks called and asked if I knew of anyone interested in teaching African-American history. In the course of our conversation, he found out I was stepping down and returning to full-time teaching at the College of Charleston, so he asked if I was interested in coming back. It just sort of worked out. It was karma and destiny that I could come back and teach. It’s been great getting back into the classroom. I’ve still picked up a few of things I used to do with the African-American Museum [in Dallas] but I’m not as involved there as I once was.

Q: How was the transition returning to the second largest school in the UT System after spending so many years at a university with a student population of less than 12,000?

A: The first day I was back, I was down in Room 110 [of University Hall] and there were 150 students in that class and I had to laugh. This is what I’ve missed! It was sort of intimidating. Coming back and doing it blew me away. At the College of Charleston, I served as chair of the history department for six years. Our classes there are capped at 30. Our standard workload there was three classes and 100 students per semester. I come back here and there’s 150 in one class! [Laughs.] It intimidated me looking out at that sea of faces. But I got used to it very quickly.

I love working in those big classes because it forces you to do a lot. Since you don’t have those one-on-one, close relationships as you might in a smaller class, you’ve got to really be on point and grab the students’ attention. Otherwise, they’re looking at their computers and reading email and sleeping and texting. Another thing that’s interesting is the technology. At the College of Charleston we weren’t as technically savvy and only had two ‘smart’ classrooms. Here, every classroom is wired that way and I can do PowerPoint slides, music, videos, whatever. It’s wonderful being here and offering students the full gamut of what they can experience in the classroom.

Q: What underlying messages or themes do you include in your teaching? How do you motivate your students to take the knowledge they gain beyond the classroom?

A: I’m a child of the Sixties: you go to college to gain knowledge and skills to take back to your community. This isn’t an isolated process that has no application. We used to quote Kwame Nkrumah, who was educated at Lincoln University [in Pennsylvania] and went back to Ghana and eventually became president. One of his famous quotes was ‘The proof of theory is the application of theory.’ That is, the theory means nothing if you can’t apply it and use it. So essentially me and the friends I went to college with would go back and see if what we learned actually meant anything in the community.

That’s been a part of my mission as an educator, to show students that ‘yes, you are learning something, but you can go back and make a difference in your community.’ It’s not a selfish thing where you are getting your education, a nice car and a big house, and sitting in your home and watching TV all weekend. Indeed, you have to get out and offer your services, your skills, to the community. Otherwise, what’s the point? That’s what I did when I first came to Arlington. And I may have gotten too involved. But I take teaching seriously. I see it as more than imparting information. It’s also imparting values and viewpoints to students.

I usually tell my students on the first day: If you can’t pass my class, you need to get out of here. I give extra credit for going to lectures or workshops on campus, volunteering in the community, and taking advantage of learning opportunities outside of the classroom. I give extra credit for students who go out and do stuff, and not just sit in class and be a bump on the log. And I understand how it’s more difficult these days for students to actually do the extra credit assignments. I’m struck by how many students have to work in order make ends meet. I sympathize with that. So I make these assignments available at various times of the day and on the weekends so anyone can do them if they want to.

Q: What was it about the subject of African-American history that drew your attention?

A: I always tell people that I got involved in teaching African-American history because I didn’t learn any when I was in school. I was shocked and surprised when I stumbled on some African-American history books as a senior in high school. When I went to college, there wasn’t a major in African-American history, so I studied history with an emphasis on African-American history.

In the late 1960s, this was a wide-open field, so just about everything I did got a lot of attention. My master’s thesis was on the history of African-Americans in the Columbus (Ohio) police department. My dissertation was on the history of African-Americans on police forces all across the country. That became a book, Black Police in America, which got me tenure here. And after 18 years that book still sells, believe it or not. It’s an old book, but people still like it. That’s why I got into African-American history: I didn’t learn any, and I wanted to make sure I could teach others about our history.

What I found, especially as director of the Avery Center, is that the field of collecting African-American history, archiving documents and manuscripts, is pretty wide open. I’m constantly encouraging my students to go that route. I’m currently advising a graduate student who is working on a project to organize the records of the Prince Hall Masons in Fort Worth. They’ve kept records for 100 years, and they’re in complete disarray and in various stages of deterioration. The student is working with them to organize and box those records up. He’s also doing a finding aid and may be helping them digitize those records to go online. Of all the things I’ve done, the fact that I’ve been able to get some students interested in preservation and public history is great.

Q: Do some students have a certain mindset about African-American history when they take your classes? How do you change their outlook?

A: I tell all the students who take my classes, ‘Once you’ve had me, your life is gonna change.’ [Laughs.] You will see things in a different way. I infuse my general American history courses with a lot of African-American history, women’s history and Native American history, and I get students to see some of the underside of history. Not necessarily the negative side, but all the struggles we’ve had as a nation: social and political change, racial justice, multi-culturalism. That has made us a better nation than others. I’m able to use the election of Barack Obama as an example of how our nation, more so than others, is open to that type of change. You’ll never see a black man elected Prime Minister of England or some of the European nations, despite the breakthroughs of blacks and Muslims in countries that talk a good game about being   democratic governments. But here, because of the struggles we’ve had, it’s the only place with a Western democracy where it could actually happen. I try to show students this gradual change in our history, of us becoming more democratic, more open and how that has benefitted all of us as a society and individually. I’m teaching liberation and social consciousness and helping these students grow and develop and become good American citizens.

Q: Your new role as department chair is a four-year commitment. Do you have any goals in mind as the new academic year begins?

A: Yes and no. At the College of Charleston, I used to tease my colleagues in our first meeting of the year by saying, ‘This is the year we become an Afro-centric department.’ I liked to joke with them. But I think I had better success in shaping that department by focusing on students, reducing the strife and making everyone more aware of diversity and multi-cultural education and teaching.

I’m not sure what I can do here. We’re in transition; we have older professors who are at the end of their careers, and we’ll be bringing in four or five new professors over the next several years. We’ll need to be very cautious and aware of who we bring in, the type of areas they teach and how that will affect our department. My colleagues are aware that our demographic is now Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, etc. We’re a ‘majority minority’ campus. We need to look at Middle Eastern studies and maybe more with Latin America. We need to think about how we create a department that addresses the needs of our students. That’s my main concern. I don’t want to come in revamp or reshape the department, but I want to work with my colleagues and address the real needs we have.

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