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Cultivating curiosity through hands on history at CVCC

This week, EducationNC is spotlighting perspectives from those we are thankful for: our students and our educators. Follow along as we share the stories of first-generation college students and five educators at Catawba Valley Community College.

I came to teaching as a mid-career choice after 15 years managing a video production and news department. During that time, I went back to school for my master’s degree, never knowing how or even if I might use it one day. I applied to teach at several community colleges as an adjunct to see if teaching was as much fun as learning. After the initial fright over the gravity of knowing it was my responsibility to turn students on to history, I began to really enjoy the opportunity to share my passion. I decided within a year or two that I wanted to teach full time. 

When the only history instructor at Catawba Valley Community College announced his retirement, I had my chance. I interviewed, was offered the job, and turned it down. Let’s call it “sticker shock.” They were going to pay me just over half of what I was making in the private sector. I had to ask myself some very important questions: Could I put my family through the change in lifestyle? Would I regret taking a “vow of poverty,” as I called it? 

Instead, I regretted the refusal of the job almost instantly. I sat down with my wife, and she, seeing the need I had to venture out and teach, encouraged me to follow the passion. I went back after a week and said with my tail between my legs, “If you still have that job, could we talk?” The position had not been filled and they were gracious to do so.  I was saved, and I have never regretted that decision.

Hands on history

Quickly after getting acclimated to the rigors of class prep, grading, and the like, I began to look for new ways to pull students into the wonderful world of the past that I knew. One of the best ways was to get students to the sites where history happened. I petitioned to take a class to Gettysburg for a course on the American Civil War. With only minor bumps, we succeeded, mixing college age students with older learners unconcerned with credits. What we called “HandsOnHistory” was born.

Since then, we have taken trips to sites connected with North Carolina history, the American Revolution, African-American history, even World War II (we got to go to Normandy for that one).

Since that first field trip in 2004, our job of expanding the work of historical research has bloomed to involving students (and fellow faculty) in a number of endeavors, including film documentaries, museum exhibits, and a variety of books. Our ongoing goal is the same as the community college: to help students roll up their sleeves and see how the telling of history works, ask the questions that develop critical thinking, and apply that to everything in the future that they encounter.

Cultivating curiosity

Currently, the biggest obstacle to our mission is perception: ours, our colleagues, and our stakeholders. As technology invites change, we have to be willing to change the activities associated with learning. Be not mistaken, we need funding, too. But when supplied, instructors need to be ready to allocate that assistance in learning activities that excite while they educate. Information is available everywhere. No one needs a community college (or any other learning institution for that matter) to get information. But where a community college is needed is as a nearby place for interests to be developed, imaginations to be realized, and passions to be created.

It happened for me when I first (begrudgingly) started college at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute with an instructor named Laurette LePrevost who took the time to plug me into something that I couldn’t even conceive at the time: a curiosity that could bloom into a lifelong pursuit of knowledge. My curiosity is in the life and achievements of those who came before. Come develop yours.

Richard Eller

Richard Eller is a history professor at Catawba Valley Community College.