This spring, Professor Stanley Palmer (History) retired after 41 years of teaching at UT Arlington.
Since his arrival in 1973, Palmer has won numerous teaching awards, including the President’s Award for Undergraduate Teaching (1994), membership into the UTA Academy of Distinguished Teachers (1996), a Minnie Piper Stevens Foundation Piper Professor nominee (1999) and the Gertrude Golladay Memorial Award for Outstanding Teaching in the College of Liberal Arts (2009). He has received numerous research honors and is regarded as the “driving force” behind the University’s Transatlantic Ph.D. program.
Communications Coordinator James Dunning sat down with Palmer during Finals Week to look back at four decades of education and scholarship and get a glimpse into his retirement plans.
Q: When you think about the last 40 years at UT Arlington, what comes to mind first?
A: Well, it was a long time ago and I’ve seen the university change. When I came, there were about 10,000 students and my salary was $10,500. I had been in grad school, so I thought that was really quite generous. [Laughing.] The university has grown, of course. It was 100 percent a commuter school back then. Nobody was walking around the campus after 2 p.m. There were a lot of night courses because of so many working adults who were students. That’s true today, as well. I’ve enjoyed teaching here all these years because so many of the students are first-generation college students. They’re working, many of them paying for school with their own money.
Q: Is there a difference between the students of the 1970s and the students of today?
A: Yes, especially in the demographics. It’s much more a rainbow campus now than it once was: Hispanics, African Americans, international students. When I came in 1973, it was local students from Arlington and the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area. Mostly local, white and Protestant. It’s much more mixed now. We really reflect the broader society.
Q: What impact does a new generation of students have on the classroom?
A: I don’t get as many religious questions as I did 40 years ago. I get good questions from the top third or fourth of the class. One of the things today’s undergraduate students think is that it’s optional to come to class. Of course, each class has its own personality. I have a 9 a.m. class… and you just don’t see the students on a regular basis. They would be in class 30 or 40 years ago. I don’t know what causes that. Maybe it has to do with work. Back in the day, students might have one part-time job. Now they have two or three and crazy work schedules. It always impresses me how students can sneak in their academic career and do as well as they can.
Q: You’ve spent decades researching British and Irish history and examining the British Empire. How has that field of study changed over the years?
A: The approaches are different now. There’s a lot more interest in the colonies becoming nations. Take South Africa, for example. Forty years ago, you would have been talking about apartheid and European governance. You would have been very surprised if apartheid ended and [Nelson] Mandela became president of the country. It’s like the Russian historian who says, “What do you mean Communism is going to go away?” The questions asked have changed a lot. There’s a lot more concern today for indigenous cultures, self-governance and the like. The top-down rule in the British Empire isn’t as interesting as it once was.
Q: You were an integral part of the creation of the Transatlantic Ph.D. program. How did that happen?
A: When the Humanities Ph.D. program went away, we had one year where we had “History/Western Civilization” while we tried to figure out what we should be doing. I was graduate advisor then. Earlier, I had been department chair for five years, back in the ’80s. The inaugural year of the transatlantic Ph.D. program was 1998.
At that time, Ken Philp, who is retired now, was the department chair and I was the graduate advisor. We had to go down and present our case to the Coordinating Board in Austin. They gave us tentative approval for three years, but we had to come back and show what we had done with the program. Bob Witt was the president of the university at that time and he was a big supporter of the History Ph.D. program. So we went down there, and after recruiting a lot of students and submitting documentation, they approved the Transatlantic Ph.D. program. That was probably my most satisfying moment in my career – apart, of course, from the joy of getting paid to teach.
I guess I was the driving force behind that program. I was plugged in and I wanted to get away from one-nation history, like the “history of England” or the “history of the U.S.A.” It’s much more interesting if you’ve got the interaction of the transatlantic, which we try to demonstrate that it can be Europe and North America, but it can also be Europe and Africa, or Europe and Latin America, or Africa and South America.
On the sixth floor of the library we have Special Collections, which is full of maps. In the 1970s, many of those maps were given to UTA from a wealthy benefactor from Fort Worth, Jenkins Garrett and his wife, Virginia. They were sitting there and we thought, “Why don’t we have the history program be about transatlantic and part of the program will be to use the maps?” We decided we’d make graduate students use the maps as part of their curriculum in the Ph.D. program. At the start, we were fortunate to hire as cartographer, Dr. David Buisseret from the Newberry Library in Chicago. He’s retired now, but his successor and current professor is a distinguished German cartrographer, Dr. Imre Demhardt, who holds the Garrett Endowed Chair in the History of Cartography.
Q: Of all the students you’ve taught over the years, do any standout?
A: Most recently, at the March 2014 Webb Lectures, I saw several of my former Transatlantic doctoral graduates. I really liked what we did with the Webb Lectures this spring. We had the spotlight on daytime talks by our own program’s graduates instead of, as in the past, day sessions involving only distinguished faculty from off our campus. The change this year, I thought, was a bit overdue and kind of cool. Our night speaker this year, Professor Marcus Rediker from the University of Pittsburgh, gave a spectacular talk.
Q: What about faculty? Were there colleagues who made an impression on you?
A: There were. George Wolfskill and Robert Williamson. They came in the 1950s, so when I came in 1973, they were in the middle of their careers. They were very helpful and took an interest in me. I became friends with both of them. It was a smaller college back then. There used to be a lunch table over in the University Center. They let me sit at their lunch table. Me, this 30-year-old, green professor from the Northeast. They kind of adopted me. The department was full of that kind of sociability. Now we’re all about being professional. [Laughs.] Of course, there are many others whom I respected or to whom I was really close. They’re all gone, now, retired that is. [Laughs.] If I start giving names, I’ll forget someone or two.
Q: What were some of your initial challenges when you started teaching?
A: I had to learn to teach. Back then, I came from a university that was all about researching and writing and maybe in your spare time you could learn a little bit about how to teach. The first semester, Richard Miller, the department chair at the time, said, “Stanley, I don’t think your syllabus is going to work. You can’t assign them 14 books.” [Laughs.] I learned that three or four books a semester is a good load. Back then, I was the wonky graduate student, so I had to learn that not all of my students were going to go on to grad school in history. I had to learn how to reach my audience.
Q: You’ve won several teaching awards over the years. Is there a secret to being a good teacher?
A: It’s very important that you engage your audience. You can still have high standards but you need to understand where they’re coming from. Until I did that, I wasn’t a very good teacher.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges professors face today?
A: For people my age, it’s how rapidly the technology has come in. I tell my students, “Back in the day if we wanted to know the answer to something, we had to cruise around in the library, check the bookshelves, look at the index of a book and finally, eventually, find what you were looking for.” Nowadays, you just Google it. The thrill of the chase is gone. We’ve got all this data; we’re awash in facts. But it makes life easier.
How does that alter teaching? I try to emphasize how to connect things. With all this data, you have to know what to keep, what to ignore, what to put in the trash, and figure out cause and effect. That’s still what history should be all about.
Online courses are another challenge. What’s the future going to be with online courses? A student here at UT Arlington may in future be able to take a course from Professor X at Stanford. It’s a brave new world and I don’t know how it’s going to come out. I’m “old school”; I like to perform in a classroom with four walls and looking at 40 or 50 students. I don’t know if that’s going to survive. Of course, history, after all, is all about change.
Q: What are your plans for retirement?
A; My wife and I are going to move to a house we bought in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. We bought it almost six years ago now. I knew on the cusp of 70, I would walk away from a job I’ve been fortunate to have all this time. We bought a house in this little fishing town on Lake Michigan, about an hour and half north of Milwaukee. Everyone says, “Do you love winter?” I grew up in New Jersey and was educated in New England; snow and cold don’t bother me. Winter is the indoor season. Unlike in Texas, where it’s the summer season. Plans? One thing I’d like to do is some writing. My wife and I would like to engage with the people there in Two Rivers. Do some volunteer work. We did some last summer while we were up there. Retirement can be a new beginning, right?