I heard James Walsh speak Sunday. I was impressed.
Walsh, a history instructor at the University of Colorado in Denver, has a unique way of making history relevant to his students. He assigns each of them the task of interviewing four relatives and, working in groups of eight students, use that information to write a play, which they perform. The process is inspiring and the performances are raw and powerful.
That was the backdrop for the message Walsh delivered at the 2007 Conference of the Association of Personal Historians in Nashville on Sunday morning.
Walsh’s own story is pretty amazing. He owns up to not being a particularly dedicated student as he grew up in the mill country of Pennsylvania, even though that business was dying and family urged him on to higher education. Walsh did manage to snag a wrestling scholarship to Duke University, where his eyes were opened culturally and academically.
It was at Duke where a professor took him to task for his own lack of self-awareness.
“Walsh, how many people in the history of the world will see the world from your perspective?” he was asked. After Walsh’s expected reply, the professor challenged him: “Who will tell those stories from that viewpoint if you don’t?”
The Walsh method of entwining personal histories to spin compelling drama seems to be effective. He’s taught over 3,000 students this way, 130 at a time, over the past eight years. He read from some students’ work on Sunday and told tales of the intensely personal nature of the Cold War, how a collection of wingnuts revealed a bit of unknown family history and the horror of discovering that Grandma met Grandpa while skinnydipping. Walsh also played an excerpt from the Alan Berliner documentary, “Nobody’s Business,” which touches on many of the sensitive issues associated with a family history project.
Walsh describes his students as “soldiers of storytelling.” I wondered how his students described him, so I checked the web site, Rate My Professors. Among the comments: “Walsh is an amazing professor. His teaching style questions the humanity of the world” and “I highly recommend him to anyone who is studying history and like a professor with passion and who is interesting. He makes the students think.”
He scored high on the “Helpful” scale and low on the “Easy” scale, which I interpret as a good thing. He also scored an average 4 (out of 5) on the “Hotness” scale. I guess that’s good, too.
Photo: James Walsh at APH Conference in Nashville.