[Note: When I began teaching at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta in the autumn of 1973, I didn’t anticipate staying for the long term. Surely something better (i.e., a college teaching post) would come along? But no: instead, I found myself making the transition from “professor” to “teacher.” I came to like the school, its students, and my faculty colleagues very much, and I spent the next thirty-seven years there, retiring in the spring of 2010. Looking back on my career, I’ve been struck by the powerful role played by contingency in how it developed. This is the second of two posts on the topic. For Part 1, go here.
The images used to illustrate this post show activities involving family, students, and colleagues at Westminster, most of them outside the classroom.]
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In my first two decades at Westminster, I continued to “keep up in my field,” as my Emory professors had taught me, placing book reviews and articles in professional journals; giving an occasional paper or public lecture; and, in 1986, finally publishing my 1973 dissertation so that search committees everywhere would be able to separate me from my rivals and, of course, offer me that endowed History chair at Ivy U.
Perhaps ironically, I also was required to take two “education” courses each year during my first five years at Westminster in order to be certified to teach high school history in Georgia. In retrospect, those classes were not a total loss–I was able to use material developed in a couple of them later in my teaching career.
The 1970s featured the American Revolution bicentennial celebration. My dissertation began with the Revolution in Georgia, so I found opportunities to speak on the Revolutionary era, even, on one occasion, as a panelist on a cable television program in Augusta, Georgia. These engagements offered scholarly exposure, though they did not bring that coveted college or university teaching position any nearer.
Through the end of the 1990s, I usually met my goal of publishing at least one article or book review annually. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, I abandoned book reviewing and contented myself with publishing an occasional article. By then I had decided to remain at Westminster, a teacher rather than a professor, so polishing up the “publications” section of the old resume seemed less pressing than it once had.
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I drew on my liberal arts background to develop several courses at Westminster that were “outside my field” (American, and AP United States, History [APUSH]): Ancient and Medieval History, the department’s introductory offering (evolving over the years into Origins of Western Society, and, eventually, History of the Ancient World); Introduction to History; Modern European/AP Modern European History; the South and the Sectional Image; and the History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement.
In 1989, I became chairman of the History Department, the only administrative position at the school I ever coveted. As chairman, I hoped to move our departmental curriculum away from the “western civilization” model I had grown up with, and in the direction of “world history,” which I believed better reflected the broader world in which our students would live as adults.
I, like my History Department colleagues, had come up through high school, college, and grad school learning about the glories of “western civilization”—and my “field of specialization” was, after all, American history. Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of summer programs designed to help broaden the secondary school History curriculum by incorporating world history—one at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina (1989), the other through the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation at Princeton University (1993). Although these programs enabled me to nudge the school in the direction of world history, I was unable to push quite as far as I’d intended to before I stepped down as chairman. But, I had fun trying!
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The courses at Westminster were solid—for secondary school history offerings—and I really enjoyed my students, even our younger ones in “Introduction to History,” a course I created for freshmen and sophomores and taught regularly (which made me an oddity in my department, most of whose members preferred to teach older students).
Once I decided to remain at Westminster, I began to consider what my next scholarly project would be (yes, I still remembered the advice of my professors, despite my decision not to seek a college teaching job). At Emory University (AKA, “My Old Graduate School,”) I had proposed to study the evolution of political factions and parties in Georgia between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, but I had ended my dissertation in 1806, a logical, but not (to me) satisfactory, conclusion.
In the mid-1990s, I submitted a proposal to Westminster’s sabbatical committee seeking funds to continue research on Georgia’s political party development. The request was approved, and I launched the new project in 1996, the year of the Atlanta Olympics. I hoped to track the story of the evolution of personal and issue-oriented political factions in Georgia from 1807 until state parties resembled those on the national level, a process that, as it turned out, lasted until the mid-1840s. Fulfilling the promise I’d made in my dissertation prospectus a quarter of a century earlier carried me through the rest of my Westminster career and into retirement.
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My transition from “professor” to “teacher” was sometimes bumpy, but my students were bright, their parents generally supported Westminster and its mission, and the school’s “powers that be” usually kept out of the faculty’s way and let us do our jobs.
If I had not harbored hopes of becoming a college professor, the adjustment to being “just a teacher” in a prep school probably would have been smoother. It wasn’t simply a matter of learning how to be a “teacher,” as opposed to a “professor”; there also was the nagging feeling, drummed into me by my grad school professors, that I must continue to “keep up in my field” and take whatever opportunities arose to publish, and otherwise keep my name before an academic “public.”
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While I was head of the History Department, I tried to keep meetings to a minimum and to supervise my charges in a low-key manner. I enjoyed sitting in on other teachers’ classes; going to bat for my colleagues during annual meetings with the administration; taking part in the hiring process; and dealing with the occasional crises that arose, usually with no warning. One thing I quickly learned was that, when a “crisis” flared up, the day flew by, because I had to teach my classes and try to put out the fire(s). It was an exhilarating, rewarding experience, much of the time anyway.
On the other hand, I never enjoyed the school’s regular department heads’ meetings. Usually, we sat around congratulating each other on how hard we worked, but we seldom made any substantive decisions. Instead, we tended to raise a “big question,” then talk it to death—what I termed the “black hole approach” to administration.
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By the time I retired at the end of May 2010 and turned to the completion of my sabbatical project, many Georgia newspapers were readily available online at the Digital Library of Georgia, through the University of Georgia’s GALILEO website, and significant documentary collections could be found elsewhere on the internet. Thus, for my first five years in retirement, I spent more time viewing primary sources on the computer than I did traveling to “brick and mortar” repositories. Eventually, I produced that sequel to my 1986 book. In addition, I assembled a collection of the essays on Georgia history I had written over the years, some previously published, others that had not yet seen the light of day. Both volumes were published in 2015 (yes, that’s correct, nearly two decades after I began research on the sequel in 1996–thank God we didn’t do “publish or perish” at my school!).
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My career commenced as a historian of Georgia and the South who somehow wound up teaching at a prep school in Atlanta, armed with a PhD. If my career path had taken a different direction, I might have embarked upon life as an academic gypsy, traveling from one short-time appointment after another, my family in tow; or, like a few of my grad school friends, actually won an academic post and ended up teaching at one or more colleges, plying my trade as a history professor. Instead, I made the best of what contingency, coincidence, and luck handed me, spending nearly four decades at a fine prep school, and I’m glad I did.
[Note: This essay appeared, in slightly different form, as the introduction to In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of his Adopted State, a collection of historical essays published in 2015 (see below).]
Copyright 2020 George Lamplugh
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: