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Professor Eileen Findlay: Recipient of the 2016 Outstanding Teaching in a Full-Time Appointment Award

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at American chapter.

Professor Eileen Findlay has been part of the American University History Department for many years. Her classes focus on Colonial Latin American History, which is her favorite field of history to study and teach. She also works as the capstone professor for senior Women, Gender and Sexualities Studies majors each fall. Her impact on the students and faculty she has worked with has been so profound that this past spring she received the University Award for “Outstanding Teaching in a Full-Time Appointment.” Students and faculty can all agree that she is well-deserving of this award, and she spoke to Her Campus about her teaching as well as how she feels about this accomplishment. 



Her Campus American University: As a history professor here at AU, what types of history interest you the most? Any particular country’s history? A certain time period in history?

Eileen Findlay: Well, my own research is on Spanish Caribbean History, and in particular Women’s and Gender History in the late ninteenth and early twentieth century. So that’s what I’ve done my own research on, but I actually like to teach Colonial Latin American History more than Modern Latin American History, just because I think the stuff that’s written is extremely cool.

HCAU: How did you become interested in your field? 

EF: I ended up becoming a community organizer in Philadelphia after I graduated from college, and I had never spoken Spanish before, and I didn’t understand what people were saying. So I began to learn Spanish, and I ultimately became fluent in Spanish, and I began to work teaching adults who were also collaborating in this organization that I was doing organizing work in, who were African-American and white and lived in this community but also didn’t speak Spanish. I began to teach them to speak Spanish and I found out that I loved to do it, and I thought, “Oh my goodness! I would really love to be able to teach people who I don’t have to discipline”. I was not big on thinking about teaching children.

And so, I first started thinking about becoming a professor in that context, which had nothing to do with research or books- it was more about the excitement of teaching in a situation where you are not disciplining people; they at least supposedly want to be in your classroom. Then I put that together with my own experience when, numbers of years before I graduated from college and before I went to this community, I went and lived in Bogota, Colombia, the capital city of Colombia. I lived with a family there, and I was working with a radical church in a squatter’s community, and I thought, “I should try and meet people my own age, who are Colombian”. So I signed up for a class. I hated history myself when I was in high school, I hated it. I never took a history class because of that, and I was a religion and theology major. So I was working with this radical church group in Colombia, and as part of my efforts to become fluent in Spanish, I signed up for this college class that just happened to be a history class and I though, “Oh my god this is horrible”. But in fact, it was amazing, and the professor didn’t teach the kind of history where you’re memorizing dates and having to remember facts, which I’m terrible at, but instead taught history as this deep understanding of people’s pain and struggle and hopes for a better life, and as a way to explain why we are living in the situation we are in today, which I thought was midnboggling.

So I had that experience, and then I returned to this community in Puerto Rico and ended up teaching adults how to speak Spanish and I thought, “Okay, I want to teach people who aren’t children”. And what was the most amazing thing that I ever learned about, and I thought, “Oh my god it was that history class that I had taken in Colombia after I graduated from college”. It completely transformed the way I thought about the world, and I thought, “Okay, I think I want to teach Latin American History!” It was kind of crazy. And so I applied to go get a PhD in Latin American History and I had never studied Latin American History once! I mean, I had in Bogota, but when I was in college, I had never taken a history class, period. So it was because of my connection to Puerto Rico through this Puerto Rican community and my profund experiences through this one class.  

HCAU: What kinds of history classes have you taught?

EF: So I am the only Latin American historian here in the History Department, so I teach two classes at the 200 level, which are Colonial Latin America, so that’s all time from before the Spaniards arrived at all indigneous civilizations, through up until the Latin American independence in the 1920’s. Then I teach another class called Latin America Since Independence, which is from the 1820’s up until the 1980’s or 90’s. And they’re kind of crazy classes because they cover so many countries. It’s nuts- we have eight people who teach U.S. Histroy. One country and eight people teach all different aspects of it, and I’m just one little me and I have to cover all of the Caribbean and Latin America, so I always feel I’m kind of skating along on the surface.

So there are those two. I also teach a General Education course, which I love, called “History, Memory and the Changeable Past”, and that is about people’s memories of war. So, in that class we talk a lot about how memory works, and how we think of history as straight facts, but memory changes, and then we talk about how people’s memories actually affect the history that we can tell, and it’s a great class because none of the kids who take it think they’re going to be history majors. It’s not a history major class- it’s History 100, the most basic history class. So kids walk into the classroom and they’re like, “Oh you’re going to make us memorize facts”, and I say, “Forget the facts. We’re going to talk about why people, families, communities, and nations remember certain things, and why they forget certain things. So we’re not going to be talking about facts, there’s no memorization”. It’s a very writing intensive class; they read a lot, half the class meetings are group discussions, so the students are always in small groups. And I always feel like it gets sort of tense, like all the kids are on fire. They’re like, “Oh my god! I thought college was sitting and listening to a lecture!” But it’s all this intense discussion, and they work really hard, and they come out thinking about history in completely new ways. So they come out realizing that history is not just facts to be memorized, which is what I hated so much about it when I was young. 

HCAU: How long have you been teaching at AU? Did you teach at another college or university prior to AU? 

EF:  AU was my first full-time, tenure-track job. So I’ve been here for a long time, which is kind of sobering. I think of myself as still kind of a “newbie” at AU, but I realize I’m not. I started here in the fall of ’94, which means that this fall I will have been here twenty-two years. It’s terrifying. Before I taught here, I taught as a teaching assistant, because I was a PhD graduate student, at the University of Wisconsin. But this is the first “me being a professor” job I’ve had. 

HCAU: Is history the only subject you teach? If not, what other subjects do you teach/have you taught? 

EF: So in addtion to teaching history and those three core courses I told you about, every fall I teach the capstone research seminar for the Women, Gender and Sexualities Studies program. It was just being created as a major when I came to campus twenty two years ago, and the woman who founded it called me up my very first year of teaching here and said, “Hi! I’ve heard about you, and I want you to teach the very first round of the capstone for this major”, and I was terrified. I was like, “I don’t want to do it”, and she said, “You’ll figure it out! I want you to do it!” And I’ve done it ever since. So it was fall of my second year here, and so every fall I teach that. And that’s wonderful, because I get students who are doing all kinds of interdisciplinary projects, and almost never-ending history. So it’s a lot of fun. So I get to meet all of the Women, Gender and Sexualities Studies majors when they are seniors. 

HCAU: What would you say has been the best part about working at AU and teaching college students? 

EF: Well, there are a couple of things. One is, I love the exciting conversations that we have, where you see the students’ eyes light up when they’re thinking in a new way, and I live for those moments. They’re really special; they don’t happen all the time, because sometimes students are bored or angry because I’m giving them too much work, but they happen, you know, every semester they definitely happen a lot. But also, I love the fact that people in their late teens and early twenties are at a really important turning point in their lives, where, in this country anyway, you’re struggling to think about who you are as an adult, what your path is going to be in life, and what your values are. I mean, in a lot of ways, your values are decided but they aren’t set in stone, and I feel like my teaching can really make a difference in opening up a world of possiblity to students who come to my classes. And I try to instill the responsibility in all my students to ask questions, to think hard, to listen to other people before they form an opinion, and to learn how to write well and just to be in the world and be a respectful person, and not think that you’re better than other people just because you’re from the U.S. And I feel like it’s an amazing time in people’s lives for me to be able to do that work, because when you’re in high school you’re starting that process, but then you’re still very much in your home, you know, within your family and your community setting. But when you’re in college, even if you’re from DC, you’re stepping out, you know? And then I get to be here to say, “Woah! Think about things in a new way!” And I think it’s very empowering, I hope so for the students, and it’s very challenging, and I just feel very blessed to teach young people in this moment in their lives, you know? 

HCAU: What has been your favorite class to teach and why? 

EF: Wow, that’s hard because I’ve taught a lot of different classes over the years. You know, I would have to say, believe it or not, I think a lot of people wouldn’t say this, but I think my GenEd class, because I feel like in that class, more than any other, I reach out to students who wouldn’t think that they were interested in history at all. And they also have some pretty powerful pre-conceived notions of history, often that it’s boring. And I not only change the way they think about history, but I hope that I also really change the way they think about themselves, their families and their country, and I really insist that they learn how to be questioning people. And they may never have a class with me or anybody else, but I hope that they can carry that on in the rest of their lives, and it just feels like a really important class. 

HCAU: I read in your bio on the AU website that you have written and published two books. Could you tell me a little bit about each one?

EF: So the first one was a really long time ago, before two kids and a lot of other events going on in my life. So the first one is called, Imposing Decency: The Politics of Race and Sexuality in Puerto Rico 1899 to 1920, and in that book I was trying to understand the way people understood quesitons of sexual morality and respectability, and disreputability in Puerto Rico, and it was really tied up with how they formed political movements, local communities and perceptions and understandings of race and who was poor, and who was worthy and who wasn’t. And I loved doing the research for it, and it was one of the first books in all of Latin American History to really think about how sexuality was an important topic for history, and so I think it made a good contribution.

And then my second book, which just came out a year or so ago, was a very different book. It was about the 1950’s in Puerto Rico, and the experience of people who left Puerto Rico and migrated to the U.S. So, it wasn’t just focused on the island, it also focused on people who had left the island in desperation because of their poverty. And that book is called We are Left Without a Father Here: Masculinity, Domesticity and Migration in Postwar Puerto Rico. The first book was about women, and how women were talked about, and how women fought for their right to have an autonomus sexual life and have families of their own if they wanted to, very much a women’s history book. The new book is about masculinity, and how working class and impoverished men in Puerto Rico understood themselves as fathers, and how they expected Puerto Rican politicians and even U.S. politicians to also treat them as dignified fathers, and how when they weren’t treated with respect, they formed all kinds of protests saying, “We’re manly fathers and we have a right to be respected that way!” And so how fatherhood was a really really important underpinning for the politics of how Puerto Ricans expressed themselves, and also why they even decided to migrate to the United States; many of them were desperately hoping to feed their families and be fathers who provided for their families. So they would leave their families in order to try and provide for them. So, the same book is very much looking at men, but sort of questions of manhood and manliness and fatherhood. 

HCAU: Congratulations on being the recipient of the 2016 Outstanding Teaching in a Full-Time Appointment award! How does it feel to win such an amazing honor?

EF: It’s really fabulous. I was completely surprised. I didn’t know I had been nominated; my chair nominated me. It’s interesting because I have actually been nominated by different department chairs over the years, I think maybe four or five times for some kind of teaching award. When I was a junior faculty member I won the GenEd teaching award, and often the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences would also nominate me for these awards, but I never got them. So I thought, “Eh. It’s fine. I love teaching. So I’m not going to win that big, university-wide award, it’s okay. I know I love teaching and my students love me, it’s fine.” And then when I had just sort of stopped thinking about it, oh my goodness, then I won this award! It was really pretty crazy. So it’s really thrilling, and, you know I was promoted last year to full professor after I finished this book, but I feel almost like this prize is more important than having gotten promoted, because it’s, you know, a recognition of what I love most to do, which is to teach.

HCAU: Is there anything you would like to say to your students and colleagues you have worked with thus far and to students you may teach in the years to come? 

EF: To the students: keep an open mind, always ask questions, think hard; don’t be sloppy in your thinking. And I think to my colleagues, I think what I would say is this: be firm in your standards for academic excellence, but also listen to your students, not only in their ideas, but in the way they see the world. And I think that we often get caught up in understanding ourselves as the experts in everything, but we can learn a whole lot from the students. 

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