Vernon Burton has a Ph.D. in American history from Princeton University. He has been in the history department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign since 1974. He is currently a professor of history and sociology and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. He is the author of more than a hundred articles and author/editor of six books, including In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 1985; finalist for Pulitzer).
The joke is that winning a campus teacher-of-the-year award is a sure way to get yourself paraded right out of town. "Publish or die" is the motto. But teaching and publishing are not mutually exclusive. In fact, excelling as a scholar can actually enhance one's teaching abilities, according to award-winning scholar and teacher Dr. Vernon Burton of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But why bother? If scholarship and research is enough for advancement, why work to improve your teaching skills?
Vernon has something to say about this too, and he should. Vernon won the national award for Outstanding Research and Doctoral Universities Professor, an award created by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Judges evaluated nominees in four areas: 1) impact on and involvement with undergraduate students; 2) scholarly approach to teaching and learning; 3) contributions to undergraduate education within the institution, community and profession; and 4) support from colleagues and students. The award also came with $5,000.
Growing up in Ninety Six, South Carolina during the height of the civil rights movement inspired Burton to study history, and now he is a widely recognized authority in the history of the South. He has written four books, with more on the drawing board. He has also developed an Internet site called RiverWeb (http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/Cyberia/RiverWeb), a multimedia study of the Mississippi River's interaction with people over time. Vernon has a unique and worthwhile perspective on teaching.
RI: Why did you become a professor?
Burton: I think mainly because my professors wanted me to. My religion professors encouraged me to go on to Princeton or one of the other schools I had offers from because it was too good an academic opportunity to pass up. I was also inspired by a wonderful book by a historian named C. Vann Woodward, called Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel. I had an interest in race relations and the American South, so that might have spurred me on to be a teacher as well. I grew up during the civil rights movement and I was fascinated by race relations.
RI: In your opinion, what makes a good teacher?
Burton: The main thing is to care about students. The best teacher is not always the one who is able to talk to a large crowd or entertain when they speak. Sometimes the best teachers may be those who might even have a speech impediment, but they are willing to spend time teaching students how to write or helping them rework their papers.
There are various styles, but I think all of them come back to the care and concern for studentssomehow you have to relate to them and want them to learn. People did that for me and that was very important in the background I came out of in rural South Carolina. No one had, I think, even graduated from high school, let alone college, in my family. So my teachers had really worked and stretched and helped me stretch to become better, and I wanted to do the same thing for other students.
RI: Why should faculty bother with teaching?
Burton: For Christian faculty I think there is a Biblical imperative. All of us have different gifts and one of them, of course, is teaching. I think for us it's the imperative, but I also think that our rewards can't be the rewards of the world.
I have told people, jokingly of course, that I'll probably get a salary cut next year when they discover at a research university that I won the teacher of the year award for the U.S. It's clear here that what is cared about is scholarship. It's a research university and that's what it advertises itself as, not as a teaching university. But it's hard for me to believe that people would want to be a historian and not want to teach. That's what a historian is doing, whether writing or otherwise. To interact with students about ideas is exciting.
RI: How do you find a balance between the two?
Burton: At a research university you have no choice; you won't be there unless you do scholarship. But I believe scholarship and teaching use the same skills. I believe being a good researcher and scholar can help you be a good teacher by helping to bring fresh insights to class, introducing students to the latest research and thinking, showing how people are changing their ideas about the past, and so on. I'm not sympathetic to people who say, "I'm not a teacher; I'm a scholar," because I believe the same skills are there--if you can do the scholarship, you can certainly do good teaching. There's organization and hard work in teaching, of course, but I think there's a responsibility too. I think we have an obligation to the citizens, to the parents, who are sending their children to us. Of course I would say that as a parent of five children.
RI: How would a professor go about improving himself or herself as a teacher?
Burton: Basically being prepared, organized and having enthusiasm for the subject; those things carry a teacher a long way. There is now developing what is called a pedagogy of teaching, or scholarship of teaching. I think that is important--learning about how to be an effective teacher.
One important aspect is just caring about the students. I don't like the movies students watch today, but I watch them so I can know what vocabulary they are using, and what are some of the values being passed on to them through different media. Then I know where to begin and how to work with them so at least my students can know where I'm coming from.
RI: So you are learning the culture of your students as much as you can?
Burton: As much as I can, yes. I'm helped a little bit there by still having children in the home. When I was at Princeton as a graduate student, I became an "assistant master," I was the only resident "master" of an undergraduate college, Woodrow Wilson College. It was there I saw how important it was to view students from their culture and perspective. Now I go regularly with my family to one of the dorms to eat with students so I can see them outside the classroom setting and see what they're thinking. I believe that most of the time we undersell students; they really do want to learn, and you have to challenge them to make them do it.
RI: Does your teaching extend to outside the classroom? Is it a lifestyle?
Burton: I think so. I regularly have students to dinner in my home. There it is clear we are a Christian family with the decorations and such. In my own home I do say grace at meals. They are not required to come but I offer them the opportunity to see me in that setting. I've also taught Sunday school and I speak to a lot of groups and give lectures in the dorms. I take any opportunity, such as speaking to minority students whom the administration is trying to interest in an academic career.
I don't have to do those things. I don't get paid for them, and they take time away from other things. But at the same time I think it's part of my responsibility or obligation. My beliefs and my faith in being a Christian leads me to do things that other faculty would probably pass over. Their attitude is that it just takes away from what's really important--what the university really cares about, such as the research and writing. And they are right to some extent, but we don't live our lives as Christians for the same value system that others do.
Now, I have been very lucky. I think God has really rewarded me probably much more than I ever deserved. I could not be as successful a teacher if I had not been so successful as a scholar. I hope that both the award and my scholarship grants me an opportunity to help bring some legitimacy to Christian scholars. Before I acquired some standing in the profession, I think people assumed that my being a Christian must have meant I couldn't be intellectual. That attitude is much more common in the humanities and the social sciences.
RI: What sorts of techniques and ideas do you use in the classroom?
Burton: I try different things to make class interesting. I study community--that's one of my subject areas. So I try to build into teaching the sense of community among classes along with the responsibilities and rights that go along with that. I have a lot of different techniques. For instance, I have done a clip with Gone With the Wind where I take only the images that have African Americans in it. It is a much-loved movie, but I have never had anyone that didn't come away with an understanding of the way we build racism, unintentionally, into our media that reinforces stereotypes of people.
You start with where students are and use that to teach them what you want them to learn and know. For example, the movie Good Will Hunting has a scene in a bar where the characters are talking about historiography and the American Revolution. I'll show that and I can use it because it will relate to them about what historiography is, about what historians are arguing and why that's important, and they can relate to Good Will Hunting. And from there I can go into the different interpretations of the revolution, and actually expand upon that. I also use music as much as I can.
I also have students conduct research on their own. I think it is crucial that even in the basic survey courses it is important for students to work with primary documents and learn about interpretations. Sometimes it's research I've already done--I have a source I can give them to work with. For instance, I do an exercise on the former slave narratives in a basic survey class and we use RiverWeb. At the RiverWeb Internet site, instead of going to the library, students can look at the original documents we've scanned and work from there. So they're doing their own research.
I think all of it again comes back to caring about students as people who potentially could be your colleagues. Certainly you know that they are there to learn, so you want to try to help them learn. The more you can get students learning to be critical thinkers the better. I learned the most from people who demanded the most of me.
RI: What projects are you now working on?
Burton: I have the frustration of trying to do too many things. I'm actually working on finishing a book on the civil war. I want to do a book on the civil rights movement. I've done a lot of voting rights testimony over the years, in minority rights, and so I want to do one on the civil rights movement and the voting rights act. But RiverWeb is another project, and it's multimedia. One of the problems of doing a project like RiverWeb is that it is not as yet something that would be accepted as real research, though it clearly is. But I set RiverWeb up as much as to help my graduate students as anything else--to help them get jobs. Also I believe it is a great way to teach history.
I believe the new media could go one of two ways. It has the potential to democratize, but it could also become a tool of the elite. I hope by the kinds of things we're doing with RiverWeb we can democratize and make history more available, and learning more available, to people who aren't necessarily here at the University of Illinois.
Another project I'm working on is with East St. Louis, which is rather economically depressed. I'm working with the churches and schools there to get young people involved in RiverWeb; they get to tailor RiverWeb to make their own little tour guide. So we're giving them a little of their history back.
RI: Is your faith a factor in your success as a scholar and a teacher?
Burton: I think it is. I try to give God the credit for any success. In my first book, In My Father's House are Many Mansions, I sort of announced that my faith was important--I mean it was important to me personally, and that it is a powerful force historically in people's lives. Religious faith motivates people to give up food, water and even sex. The only thing I know that would do that is religion. But I think scholars ignored the importance of it; they didn't take religion seriously.
Even my initial interest in the civil rights movement and race relations came about from trying to understand my home church. The people there were very good to me and were good people, but they were opposed to having African Americans in their church. I believe so much of it is a lack of education or a lack of understanding of how history has been presented to people. History can be used badly, but it can also be used to great effect to try to make decisions and to help us understand where we are.
But is faith a factor in my success? Absolutely. I wouldn't be who I was without my faith. That's who I am--my value system, my whole ideas come out of Christianity and my faith as a believer in Jesus Christ as Lord. I do not succeed as much as I would like to but I try to keep those values foremost.
RI: What are some other ways in which you seek to integrate your faith with your profession?
Burton: I argue for the importance of religion in people's lives in my book, In My Father's House are Many Mansions, both from African American and white perspectives. While religion was used in some cases by whites to oppress and control blacks, it also helped African Americans to be able to survive with some sense of integrity and without becoming people with warped personalities. It gave them a wholeness and a way to judge their oppressors outside of the political arena. At the same time it helped them to see the humanity of their oppressors. So I was able to write about these things.
RI: Is being a Christian professor different from being just a professor?
Burton: I think it is. But I want to emphasize that the standards are the same. In Marsden's book, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, I think Marsden is right: we have to meet the academic standards. We have to write for the system. People will be tempted to think we are more prejudiced, but we aren't. I think we always have to think in terms of the standards of whose game we are playing in.
RI: Is it important to spend time with other Christian faculty?
Burton: Increasingly so. I have done that here, but it was always with older faculty who were not in the humanities. But now we are trying to get people together in the humanities and social sciences. I crave this and I think we need to have more people. I was a Pew Evangelical scholar, and that was good to meet some other Christian scholars. But it is particularly hard, at least here where I am in this research university, to find other Christians who are in the humanities and social sciences. No one like that has been hired in my department, and I've been here 26 years. Many who have been hired since are hostile to the idea of religion.
As an academic in the humanities and social sciences, I need to seek out believers in other places; it's important for me to have Christian peers. That's one of the things we really miss in academics; I wish there were ways that we could build more networks because there usually aren't many Christians in one place.
There were believers in the older generation when I came here, but then none of them were regarded as top scholars, either. If it had not been for my scholarship, I could not have survived here, good teacher or not. I try to give God the credit for that. I worried about that when I made my faith pronouncement in my book In My Father's House. Its first review was done by the greatest scholar in my field, C. Vann Woodward. In the New York Review of Books, he basically gave it his blessing and that made all the difference. I really think that in some ways God was protecting me.
RI: How important of an event was being honored with the Carnegie Award?
Burton: It was nice, but it's not why I teach. I'm hoping that God is giving me this opportunity as a Christian to speak, to encourage others as Christians and also to give some legitimacy to being a Christian, a scholar and a teacher. I think there's an opportunity for me as a Christian to speak out in a way that I hope can be encouraging to others. I'm not this person, but I think we need someone of a C. S. Lewis stature who can legitimize the intellectual practice of Christian scholars. We have not had that for a while.
RI: What are your goals as a future teacher and scholar?
Burton: I have writing to do, and I have a great desire to come back to the South. That's what I want to do. I've prayed about this--the perfect job for me was offered a few years back: an endowed chair at the University of Alabama. That's the kind of place I'd like to be, where I can do something on the civil rights movement. But I guess I'll have to leave that up to either academics or God. I know God has called me, and I'm assuming He is using me here. I certainly would not have the teaching award if I were not here. So I'm taking it that the award is something I should use as a witness for Him.
RI: What is your personal spiritual history?
Burton: My mother is a devout Christian. She is one of those who lives her life as a Christian. My dad died when I was seven, so it was just the two of us without any help from social security or anything, not even insurance. It was very hard--this was 1954. My mother was dedicated to me and her faith was overwhelming, and it still is.
My mother is an inspiration to me. She has been my model. She lives her life as close as one can imagine to the ideal Christian. I remember her telling me as a child that all children were the children of God. She said that black or white, it made no difference. That's pretty interesting when you think she didn't get a chance to go to high school. She got that from reading the Bible. Even her church wasn't saying that at the time, including her own minister. But she had this strong belief that you prayed, read the Bible and God directed and took care of you. And she still has that at 89. That's part of why I want to go back South--to be near her. She still lives in Ninety Six, South Carolina. I go there every time I can.
RI: Any final thoughts?
Burton: I really want to make a difference as a Christian scholar. Not just as a scholar and teacher, but as a Christian scholar. It's very important to encourage others to be people of faith as scholars and witnesses to students as well as other faculty.