June 12, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 18

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    2003 Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching: Bruce Cumings, the Norman and Edna Freehling Professor in History

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Bruce Cumings
    Becoming a successful graduate student involves learning to be an independent thinker, capable of developing a unique perspective. Bruce Cumings encourages his students to develop that perspective by studying different interpretations of particular events.

    "When we work on a Cold War document, for instance, I have them read two different scholarly interpretations of the same document and ask them how two scholars could come up with two totally different points of view," he explained.

    "I also tell them that there is no definitive book on any subject. History is always open to new thinking, new interpretations," explained Cumings, the Norman and Edna Freehling Professor in History. "I also tell them that objectivity would be wonderful if we could attain it, but every day historians make selections--this document as opposed to that one, this judgment of the material and not another."

    The process of discussing a wide variety of perspectives leads students toward discoveries that Cumings describes as "self-lit fires that will keep the intellectual engines churning."

    During his years in graduate school at Columbia University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cumings experienced a time of intense intellectual upheaval when many assumptions were no longer considered valid. His teaching attempts to recapture some of the excitement and curiosity he recalls from that era.

    "I didn't have a 'mentor.' I much preferred figuring out what I wanted to work on. I rarely suggest a thesis or dissertation topic to students," he said. He does, however, guide students to discover how their work will influence their academic careers. In his seminars, for instance, he has students read a book each week and often selects books that began as dissertations.

    "In history all else pales before the dissertation, which in the course of an assistant professorship should turn into an important book," he said.

    Among the books students read is The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. This book, which grew out of a dissertation, is the story of the development of railroads, but also examines the impact of railroads on culture.

    "It is a wonderful book, very readable to historians as well as the educated public. It is written with a great deal of self-confidence," he said. Gaining that self-confidence and scholarly perspective is Cumings' goal for his graduate students.