My second year of graduate school was used to complete my coursework and take my comprehensive exams. Since I had switched from an American history concentration to a Public history concentration I had a little catching up to do. For the fall semester I took Intro to Public History, a cross-listed grad/undergrad course, with Dr. Otis Graham. The class is exactly what it sounds like, an introduction to all areas of the public history field. What was more fun about this class was Otis himself. He was an old school, New Deal liberal and your typical absent-minded professor. I began working as a research assistant for him this semester. This was not a university-funded position; he hired grad students as assistants and paid them out of pocket. Depending on what he had going on in terms of research, I'd work 5-10 hours per week, keep up with my own time, and he'd cut me a check at the end of each month at a rate of $10 per hour. A lot of what I did was simple. He'd hand me a list of books and ask me to find them in the library or order them via inter-library loan for him. He'd have me find and print journal articles from research databases. Each year he'd have me fill out forms suggesting items the library should purchase. It wasn't hard work, but it formed a bond between him and the grad students who worked for him. My friend Ryan Anderson (now a professor at UNC-Pembroke) worked for him as well. We loved Otis. We'd be heading for his office in the library quoting lines from Animal House (i.e. "Wait 'til Otis sees us; he loves us!). One final story that will give you an idea of who Otis really was.....we used to have these little get togethers on random Friday afternoons. Grad students and faculty were invited to the faculty lounge and one of the professors would discuss current research they were working on, or an article they had just published; you know, academic stuff. Ryan and I attended those gatherings with some regularity, along with some of our colleagues. The first one we attended left an indelible impression on us. Otis walked in about 5-10 minutes late (which was on time for him), sat down, opened his brief case, took out a bottle of port and a sleeve of plastic cups, and proclaimed "OK, this is now a civilized affair; we may begin."
My other class that fall was History, Memory, and Tradition in American Culture with Dr. Peggy Shaffer. At the time, this class was pretty much over my head. Unfortunately for me, this is largely what the Public History program consisted of at the time; lots of theory and little practice. I have come to appreciate this class over time and were I to take it today I would probably love it. At the time however I struggled through it and did my best. This is the class where my thesis project started out. Dr. Shaffer had been approached by a staff member at Wilmington Industrial Development about doing an organizational history for their upcoming 50th anniversary. Knowing of my interest in oral history, Dr. Shaffer put me in touch with them. For my term paper for her class I interviewed some of the founding members of the organization (and they were all big-time heavy hitters in Wilmington) and produced a paper on their memories of "saving" Wilmington from economic disaster in the 1960s. This became the seed for the larger project.
Through all of this I was still working as a teaching assistant. In the fall semester I worked for Dr. Yixin Chen doing Intro to Global History. Dr. Chen was extremely interesting and a very nice guy. Click the link for a great article about him. In the spring I was assisting with Western Civilization II with Dr. Michael Seidman, whom I had taken for the class as an undergrad. He was very easy to get along with and always entertaining.
In spring semester I had to focus on the upcoming comprehensive exams. I took a directed individual study with Dr. Shaffer which was basically a readings course. I had read large portions of the required reading list for comps through my coursework, but had not even touched the section on the field of material culture. Through this readings course, I read each book on the list that dealt with material culture and had weekly discussion sessions with Dr. Shaffer. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but I had to get it done.
I also took Conflict and Consensus in American History with Dr. Robert Brent Toplin. This was one of my favorite classes of my grad school days and I have many fond memories of it. I had lots of friends in this class and it was one of the most diverse groups I ever sat in a seminar room with. Basically, the entire class was structured in order for us to see the historiographical trends in US History as they related to major topics and issues. Our textbook reading was great; each chapter took an issue in US History and presented three divergent essays on the topic by three different historians. You would have a conservative, middle of the road, and liberal take on each issue and it enabled you to see how historians evaluate things differently. It allowed you to see all sides of an argument, which was exactly what you had to show an understanding of on the comps.
I passed my comprehensive exams without difficulty. For Public History students, we were required to declare a focus on one half of American history (either colonial-1865 or 1865-present). Our comps consisted of one public history question and an American history question from our chosen era. Even though my thesis work was focusing on post-World War II Wilmington, I chose the first half of American history because that's where my interests were and where the vast majority of my coursework had been. With the comps behind me, all that was left was my internship and thesis.