DOBSON — Surry Community College Social Science Division Chairman Dr. Cory Stewart prefers an examination of history from the bottom up, or through the prism of grass roots common experience. He makes the case history may repeat itself but not for the same reasons.
“History repeats itself but it’s like an echo instead of repeating,” said Stewart. “Part of the answer lies in psychology, religion and folklore. History allows you to play with all those things and bridge it together.”
Stewart said he started with the college as an adjunct professor in 2006 shortly after earning his doctorate at The University of Carolina Greensboro.
“I started as a substitute for an instructor and was living in Greensboro,” recalled Stewart. He said in the fall of 2008 he was hired full time on the faculty after another instructor retired. In January he was named to the social sciences chair. He is quick to answer any supposition history is best approached by knowing dates and time lines.
“That is the most common thing I hear when people tell me why they are not interested in history,” said Stewart. “I love history but I can’t remember dates. After all, dates are numbers and numbers are math and that’s in a separate building.” The scholar insists truly understanding why something has happened in history is best approached by knowing what most people in that society at that time liked or disliked. He readily admits one of the biggest things to advance history in the public mind is movies.
“Unfortunately from the standpoint of accuracy movies can be used as a starting point for discussion or as a good adaptation of a novel but they are seldom accurate historically,” said Stewart, who attributes his interest in history to his father, Clyde. He said everything from bedtime stories to moral lessons involved historic persons or people his father admired.
Stewart characterized himself as “a particularly bad student” early on in his career. He said his interest in teaching history was sparked by eighth grade teacher J.D. Willard, who taught a class on North Carolina history.
“He (Willard) brought the past to the present,” said Stewart. “There was a specific point to it.” He also credits North Surry teachers including Tim Creed with getting him interested in other things in high school, other than getting out of class. He admits to this day he can spot similar stagnation in students and he is frustrated they are doing what he did in high school.
Another watershed moment for the educator came on an assignment where teacher Lawanda Badgett required him to go and watch a teacher. He went to Surry Community and watch the late Conrad Holcomb interact with his class.
“In just a few minutes of watching him I knew this was what I wanted to do,” commented Stewart. “I loved to learn and how he delivered the curriculum by actually questioning students was awesome.” Stewart said his one of the first classes he signed up for at SCC brought him into contact with the late English instructor Chris Yopp.
“He (Yopp) changed my world view. This was not just neat it was what I wanted to do,” remembered Stewart. “Then I started liking school. By the time I had my undergraduate and masters I couldn’t study enough. I liked learning but I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. My lack of focus drew me to history where I could play with it all at a different level.”
Now Stewart finds himself in the midst of professors of a variety of disciplines under one roof at the college.
“It’s a neat environment to be in. There are experts in a variety of different fields,” said Stewart. “There’s not a lot of jobs I can think of where you can do that. In big schools the only others you can consult are other historians. Where is the fun in that?” He said he tries to get his students to use their interest as a way to understand history as well and gear their projects accordingly. One method he feels strongly about is to not interpret history by using figureheads.
“If I asked many people who the Speaker of the House many wouldn’t know,” said Stewart. “More people know of Lady Ga Ga than John Boehner. That’s a major part of what happens historically. As a cultural historian I’m looking more from the bottom up. It’s a culture that builds the ideas and students are a part of this culture.”
He also chafes a bit at the suggestion that so much in culture and history is viewed as set. He likes the opportunity to tell his students what they study is all up to them and the challenge of getting them to actually use their minds. He said some thrive and some panic and agreed that being obsessive with something for just a while is the key to being successful at it.
“From the first moment I walked into a classroom I admitted to my students I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Stewart. “I saw it as we’re doing this together. The first group I had was wonderful. They just took me in. To this day I still get jitters every time before I walk into class on that first day. I love how everything changes every four months.”
Stewart says he has always felt he has a rapport with groups that makes teaching easy. He says content, making assignments and grading them is what is the hard part. He admits he still feels apprehensive at times knowing he will probably not cover everything he plans to because students are learning a process as well as information. He also finds himself changing courses as new things happen.
“Western civilization changed after 9/11. I had to educate myself about what culturally affected the terrorists because my students wanted to know,” said Stewart. “That class now has more of what contributed to 9/11 and less about the Cold War. I think of what my students need to know and change. Recently I have been including more about Korea.”
He said he feels students are burdened with information and being able to process it is something they need to learn. Stewart feels history is a great avenue for this type of learning.
“Often there is not one set side to these things,” commented Stewart. “You can come up with different interpretations looking at the same facts. I feel this approach causes enthusiasm because they feel this is why they need to know things.”
The area that is near and dear to Stewart’s heart and the repository of much of his enthusiasm is Revolutionary War History with a focus on this period in Western North Carolina. Much of this, no doubt, fell into place for Stewart as he served as a living history re-enactor at the Hickory Ridge Living History Museum. The first question to his mind was why would the supposedly disconnected backwoods people participate in the Revolutionary War. Hadn’t they moved to the frontier to drop out from society?
Work on his master’s thesis yielded his answer. The backwoods was not as disconnected as it was portrayed and their participation was not hitched solely to the ideology of freedom. Their participation was not shaped by the opinions of the elite.
Much of their interest stemmed from the British enforcing boundaries where they would have lost their land and a local government so dysfunctional land transactions couldn’t be transported and recorded reliably. They were fighting for the land they worked. The land that was their life as well as the idea of no taxation without representation.
“My goal is to always show people in the past as though they live in modern times,” said Stewart.”They are part of this now as well because they set the stage for where we are. Understanding the background can lead to understanding its conclusion. It is not how it’s always been. It is the way we created it and we can change it. That’s empowering. Education is the cure to any society’s ills. No society I know of has ever said we have too much education.”
He said he feels the road to economic recovery is through the community college system and understanding is power and that students seeing themselves as active participants and not just passive players makes all the difference.
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.