June 6, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 17

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    Michael Geyer, Professor in History

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    At the graduate level, most European history is taught as national history. French historians focus on France, German historians focus on Germany, and so forth, said Michael Geyer, Professor in History. “That’s conventional and it makes perfect sense. Nations have a unique set of characters and facts and events.”

    But Geyer, winner of a 2002 Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching, and a German history professor, believes deeply in the importance of teaching multinational history.

    Geyer’s multinational history classes, such as Compassionate Radicals: Humanitarian Movements and Politics and The Science and Politics of European Populations: 1700-2000, which he co-teaches with French intellectual historian Jan Goldstein, Professor in History and the College, are not easy for students. “And they don’t always like it,” he added. “Students are forced to learn new words, new ideas, new politics,” he said. “It’s an enormous amount of additional work.”

    But, in the end, he said, the extra reading is invaluable. “By stepping out of their particular national history, students are forced out of their frame of reference,” he said. “They begin to develop a much more reflexive understanding of their own national fields.”

    For instance, in a recent class, Geyer’s students studied the debates over eugenics in France and Germany. Because the debates and issues were approached so differently in each country, it forced the German history students to confront ideas in a new way. Likewise, next year, Geyer and Goldstein will co-teach another course to explore the growth of nationalism in both France and Germany. Again, Geyer said he believes nationalism developed in such different ways in the two countries that the course should provoke “a new kind of reflection.”

    Geyer has an unusually diverse range of graduate students for a specialist in German military history, whose own publications have focused on such topics as “German Strategy in the Age of Machine War” and “The Geopolitics of War.” Geyer, who has taught at Chicago since 1986, has advised Ph.D. students researching topics that have ranged from postwar German political and intellectual history to partisan warfare in occupation Ukraine as well as Czech women’s history.

    Geyer, who received his Ph.D from the Albert Ludwigs Universtät in Freiburg, Germany, believes that having graduate students who are studying topics so different from his own specialty is a privilege made possible by the popularity of his field and the selectivity of the University. With most Chicago students, Geyer said, “I can be certain that in four or five years they’ll do work that is equal to my own.”

    As a result of this confidence, Geyer said, he feels comfortable allowing his graduate students to stray far beyond his specialty.

    Having students studying far-ranging topics, Geyer said, “forces me to stretch my mind.” And it is advantageous to his teaching. Students benefit from having an adviser outside of their niche, said Geyer. “They have to learn how to talk with people outside of their field,” he said, “to articulate to outsiders as well as insiders.” This is particularly important when they’re searching for jobs.

    As a teacher of graduate students, Geyer said the most satisfying moment is when he sees a student “arrive”––when a student can pose a problem and then solve that problem, when a student writes a well-documented, well-argued paper. There’s a certain point when a student realizes that they are truly ready for academic life.”

    Geyer said, “That’s a genuinely wonderful moment.”