Catawba's merged Department of History & amp; Politics puts new spin to studies

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 3, 2009

By Tonia Black-Gold

Catawba College News Service

Globalism and localism will be the combined focus of Catawba College’s recently merged Department of History & amp; Politics. Much of the strength of this new department is reflected in its current faculty, most notably through the 40 years of experience of Dr. Bruce Griffith, the William R. Weaver professor of history, who has encouraged his students to reflect on both the local and global aspects of history.

“Over his career, Dr. Griffith’s impact on not only his students, but on Catawba College, is one that is a true rarity in higher education — to return back to one’s alma mater and contribute to the intellectual life of generations of students is something few faculty have the opportunity to do,” said Dr. Michael Bitzer, chair of the new department. And even though Griffith has begun phased retirement and is teaching only two classes a semester, students are still flocking to him to gain historical insight.

Alumni of the history program share the same perspective. In their reflections, Catawba graduates have expressed their gratitude towards Griffith upon receiving word that he begun phased retirement. “It was through a recommendation from Dr. Griffith that I was able to attend UNC-Chapel Hill and receive a master’s in history,” Ben Callahan, a 1969 Catawba graduate remarked, and noted that his experience “at Catawba was invaluable in my being able to complete my studies.”

Michael S. Bradley, a 1976 Catawba alumnus, noted the “caring instruction of Dr. Griffith” that he and his wife, Irene, received from “a man who values scholarship as much as he loves (and excels at) teaching.”

Griffith’s coursework has ranged from a survey of American history since Reconstruction and the Vietnam War to Modern China, Modern Russia, and Modern Germany, and is reflective of his training as a historian.

“When I was in graduate school,” Griffith notes, “the stress was on research and specialization, but that wasn’t my interest. I have what an early French socialist called the ‘butterfly instinct,’ or the desire of human beings to do new and different things.”

Griffith adds that “teaching new courses that meet student interests forces me to broaden my own perspective and share in the learning process. As a teacher, my goal is not only to help students master the “facts” about a particular period, but also to make connections to the world they are living in.”

Griffith’s colleagues recognize his impact as well. “As a teacher, colleague, mentor, and friend, Bruce has had few equals in his long service to Catawba College,” said Dr. Charlie McAllister, a professor of history at Catawba for 20 years. “His legacy of humanity that focuses carefully on the academic experiences of our students will continue to shape the character of our liberal arts college.”

Dr. Gary Freeze, another professor of history, added that “Bruce’s commitment to his students has been the hallmark of his tenure here, and many faculty hope to be able to leave that kind of lasting impact on our students that Bruce has made with his students.”

“Bruce has always been a committed and dedicated academician. He was a great mentor to me when I first arrived at Catawba, some years ago,” said Dr. Sanford Silverburg, professor of political science at Catawba since 1970. “He is an historian of the Renaissance and a true Renaissance man, whose artistic appreciation of his alma mater will last along with the fond memories of his many students.”

This emphasis on making students see connections to their world has become a central focus of the merged programs in history and political science. Both areas draw on the strengths of the other, and are fundamental for students to gain a better understanding of the world they live in.

“Students in the 21st century need to understand the global impact that both history and politics make on their lives,” Bitzer said. “Many of our students gain practical, hands-on experience at the local level, but they come to realize through both coursework and that local experience the need to understand global issues and perspectives. This is what Dr. Griffith emphasized throughout his career, and we will continue that tradition in the new department.”

Bitzer added that Dr. Griffith’s phased retirement allows Catawba to continue to use his wealth of knowledge and experience while preparing to hire a new historian for the department.

“While we recognized that we can never replace Dr. Griffith, we have already begun the search process and plan to have the new faculty member on board in August of 2007,” Bitzer said.

“Overall, we’re looking for a modernist – a post-1900 historian who would provide a global perspective for the students in our department. Specifically, we would like to hire someone with expertise in Asia and/or Latin America. We believe that those two areas are critical for understanding both world history and world politics.”

A modernist with expertise in Asia or Latin America would also complement faculty members already in the Department of History and Politics. Silverburg is widely recognized as an international expert on the Middle East, while McAllister focuses his courses on the ancient world and European history.

“We can envision these internationalists helping the college expand the opportunities for international studies for students in the department and across the campus,” Bitzer noted, “in particular with the College’s Glenn and Addie Ketner Center for International Studies.” The department currently has a history major completing her fall semester in Catawba’s Study Abroad Program at Harlaxton, England.

Alumni such as Robert Van Geons, a 1997 Catawba political science graduate and currently with the Stanly County Economic Development Commission, believe that the new department “will be able to provide students an interdisciplinary understanding of today’s global economy and community and through such, better prepare them for the personal and professional challenges that await them.”

In addition, the department has a focus on the history and politics of the United States through the work of Freeze, a noted expert in public history and author of four books on local history of North Carolina, and Bitzer, whose courses and research focus on American politics, with an interest in campaigns and elections in the American South. He has also served as an election analyst for Charlotte television stations.

With the combination of global and American history and politics, the department seeks to implement what Catawba President Dr. Robert Knott envisions Catawba College as, Bitzer said, “a more selective institution with high academic rigor and quality, and that is dedicated to preparing its graduates for useful and productive careers and lives in the 21st century.”