Friday, July 26, 2013

James Farrell, St. Olaf College

In May 2005, I drove from Minneapolis to Northfield, to interview for my first academic position outside the graduate school bubble. The position involved teaching three classes, one in J-term and two in the spring, for the pre-modernist who was joining the "Great Conversation" program. It was a spectacularly beautiful spring day in Minnesota. I wore a dark suit, found my way to the History Department, and met the chair, Jim Farrell. He was preposterously tall, had a deep voice, wore jeans, and shirt with rolled up sleeves, and immediately began pushing me to talk about teaching.

I still remember a lot about that interview (and I'm leaving out the bits about the intelligent and kind woman whose classes I was taking over) - the way Jim pushed me to articulate how I was using the web in the classroom, my philosophy of teaching, the ways I worked with students to engage challenging texts and topics, and much more. I remember the chicken I ate for lunch. I remember sitting on in the middle of the shockingly beautiful campus, thinking, "This. This is what I want."

I got the job.

Over the next year and a half, I wrote my dissertation and began the slow process of making the transition from graduate student to faculty member.  Along the way, Jim was there, always ready to talk about teaching. It quickly became apparent that when Jim spoke about teaching, you should listen. He believed, and made you believe, that the classroom was a shared community in which everyone could function as teacher and learner. He was both relaxed and restless, thinking about ways to make the class work better, but also trusting in himself and his students.


Jim built communities in his classroom, but also in the department. Even as a lowly grad-student adjunct, Jim always made sure that I felt like a member of the department. He knew I was raw and pushed me to develop a better world history curriculum and to keep thinking about my classes from the student point of view. He also wanted me to see the unity between the scholar-teacher I was trying to become, in which my classes would serve my dissertation writing, and vice versa. I remember one day I was trying to figure out how to improve a class, and I said, in my jaded 8th-year grad student way, "I just keep working on it." He laughed and replied, "So do I."

When I went on the job market, Jim wrote for me. I was always confident that whatever else was in my file, I had Jim speaking eloquently about my teaching, and that could only help me.

I've hit some milestones lately in my career, and have been introspective, thinking about my stops along the way, thinking about St. Olaf, the mistakes I made and the opportunities I was given.

Today, I found out that Jim died after a struggle with Leukemia.

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