History instructor exemplifies professionalism in teaching
David Riggs, a history instructor at Inver Hills Community College, has been selected by his fellow instructors at the college as the 2017 Faculty of the Year. The award is administered by the Faculty Development Committee at Inver Hills.
Originally from Pontiac, Illinois, Dave began teaching at Inver Hills in 2007. Besides working as a college instructor, he is a U.S. Coast Guard-credentialed captain for vessels up to 100 tons. His pastimes and hobbies include sailing, traveling, reading, research and writing. Dave is a resident of St. Paul, Minnesota.
“It is an honor to be recognized by my peers,” he said, regarding his selection as Faculty of the Year. “I also believe there are dozens of faculty at Inver more deserving of this award.”
Dave Riggs Q & A
What do you like best about the college?
The commitment the faculty demonstrate to our students.
What do you like best about history as a field?
Without history we have no identity, without history we have no community, without history we have no memory, without history we have no inspiration, without history we have no present, and without history we have no future.
What is your teaching philosophy?
One primary goal that I have, regardless of the specific content I teach, is to demonstrate to students that all people are connected; all are part of an immense tapestry of human experience. I view it as my job to bring history to the student and to point out the relevance of the past to today’s students. In practice, I do this by developing curricula around broad interdisciplinary themes.
One such theme that I have found to be useful is that of power, its use, its abuse, and its disuse. For example, in discussions of colonization I explore the power inherent in small groups deciding to leave their homes for new lands. I deal with motivations, risks, and fears in addition to the historical facts of these migrations. I remind my students that the indigenous people Europeans and Africans encountered also acted with their own interests in mind and used power in ways not always understood by Old World emigrants.
Of course, understanding power relationships has proved a useful tool when applied to revolutions and so-called “great” historical events, but I also stress the power of the individual in making a difference. The stories of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and César Chávez clearly demonstrate this point. Students young and old, new and returning relate very well to this theme as they connect the past to their lives.
“I believe it is useful here to return to the metaphor of history as a tapestry. Many students have spent much of their lives standing in front of an immense, intricate tapestry hanging on a wall in a museum. As I see it, these students are standing six inches from the tapestry and staring straight ahead. It is my job then to get them to step back and take a look around. Historians are the caretakers of this malleable tapestry. It is our responsibility to change the characters and adjust perspectives.”
— David Riggs, History Faculty, Inver Hills Community College
The narrative I provide students, even when the organizing theme is power, is not a history filled with “doom and gloom,” abstract academic concepts, or a history only focused on a struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed. On the contrary, I prefer to use documentary evidence in class to point out the positive and human aspects of history. In my course on the origins of civilizations, we read ancient Egyptian love letters to show the connections between people from 4,000 years ago and today’s students. The basic emotions and desires of love speak volumes to contemporary students.
Likewise, I find it very useful to spend time comparing the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Sentiments to open up discussions of social and cultural changes over time. No matter what the topical focus, I encourage my students to gain an appreciation of the various shades of gray in historical interpretation and balance the content of my courses accordingly.
Finally, I try to make it clear that part of my task is to expand students’ knowledge and understanding of people different from themselves or their ancestors. I believe it is useful here to return to the metaphor of history as a tapestry. Many students have spent much of their lives standing in front of an immense, intricate tapestry hanging on a wall in a museum. As I see it, these students are standing six inches from the tapestry and staring straight ahead. It is my job then to get them to step back and take a look around. Historians are the caretakers of this malleable tapestry. It is our responsibility to change the characters and adjust perspectives.
Three words that describe you as a teacher:
PASSIONATE. IRREVERENT. COMMITTED.
What is your toughest challenge as a teacher?
The devaluing and de-professionalization of the teaching profession.
What are the attributes of a top history student?
Curious and open-minded—also a good reader and writer.
What do you like best about life on the water?
What has been your most memorable adventure at sea?
Sailed around the world in one continuous trip.
Your top five historical events of the 21st century:
Ask me again in the 22nd century (My consciousness will be uploaded to the cloud by then). Historical judgment requires the passage of time. There is very little agreement on the five top historical events of the 18th century, let alone current events.