Thinking Outside the Box (Part 1)

Posted by Bill McCoy on Jun 16, 2015 2:00:00 PM

At the end of every academic year, it is our habit in the History Department to hold an end of the year Senior Banquet, when we celebrate the achievements of the past year and say our farewells to graduating seniors. Amidst the festivities, we usually pause for a few minutes of reflection we call “Thoughts from the Chair,” when the department chair offers a few words of reflection, inspiration, and/or challenge to those in attendance. 


Over the years, when such tasks were NOT my responsibility, I have always thoroughly enjoyed the "thoughts from the chair." I recall one particular occasion when Randall Stephens delivered a rather memorable harangue against academic laziness. Don Yerxa, a more practiced hand at this, would typically proceed through a recitation of the outstanding accomplishments of departmental alums and remind us of the virtues of studying history as a means of preparation for life. To all of which, I say a hearty “Amen.”

This year, however, I no longer had the luxury of simply listening to the thoughts from the chair, and in trying to find my own voice for the occasion, I admit that I felt fairly intimidated by the legacy of my rather more accomplished predecessors. Hence, I tried to steer clear of those paths, which, in part, gave shape to my theme: boxes, or more to the point, the value of getting outside our boxes.

Two years ago, I taught a class on Empires in World History inspired by a hefty tome authored by two well respected NYU faculty, Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper. In that book, writing about the late 18th century, they broke with standard conventions by discussing as a single event the “Franco-Haitian Revolution” rather than distinguishing between the French and Haitian Revolutions.

Even more irksome to my students, they suggested a way of discussing the American Revolution as “The British Imperial Civil War.” To my recollection, for the remaining weeks of the class, I drove a few of my students to distraction by refusing to ever discuss the American Revolution and referring only to the “British Imperial Civil War.”

Now on the one hand, it would be relatively easy to say that this is just so much academic ballet, twisting words and igniting debates over semantics. And there may be some truth in that. But I have, with some regularity since then, asked myself whether there is anything more to it than that. And I think that perhaps there just might be.

Finding new language to describe a problem, finding a new angle from which to analyze previously well researched events is part of what I find most beautiful about the art of interpreting the past as students of history. Becoming accustomed to this sort of activity helps us think outside our normal boxes. And if ever the world needed people who have been habituated to think outside the box, that time is surely now.

In Part 2 of this blog post, I'll talk more about how I think those habits can spill over into our lives as a whole.


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Written by Bill McCoy

Dr. Bill McCoy is assistant professor and chair of the History Department at Eastern Nazarene College. Professor McCoy teaches The West in the World Since 1500, Africa in World History, Twentieth Century Genocide, and survey courses in European and World history. He has also led two travel courses to Swaziland themed around the History of Medical Missions. His doctoral dissertation, completed at Boston University, examined the history of leprosy care in southern Africa, with particular emphasis on missionary activities and the history of humanitarian aid in the region.

Topics: ENC Faculty, Academics