Today I was going to write about how I took my students on a field trip last week (it went well). But I don’t want to write about that. My dear colleague and friend, David Bailey, passed away this past weekend. It feels like there is a hole in our department now, and we’re all reeling. Aside from being the sort of person who would read your entire book manuscript and then take you out to lunch to talk about it, David was the person who I would talk to most about my teaching. He was a gifted and dedicated teacher.
I loved to talk to David about teaching because it never slipped into “let’s-complain-about-our-students-to-each-other.” There is a time and a place for that, but David wasn’t the kind of guy who talked like that (at least never in my hearing). There was the one time when, seeing me carry a pile of blue books back from giving a midterm, he gave me a mournful look and asked what I had done to deserve such punishments. But issues of academic dishonesty were met with sadness instead of anger. His focus was on the students and how to get through to them. When we talked about our classes, which we did often, he’d want to hear about what you were doing in the classroom. What was new? What did your students get out of those readings? And he’d talk about his own classes, too.
When I visited him in the hospital the other week, it was a Friday. He was the only one of us who taught on Mondays, Wednesdays, AND Fridays, with three 50 minute sessions instead of the two 1:20 sessions that the rest of us do. So as he was sitting in the hospital, trying to get comfortable, not sure yet what his diagnosis was, he was supposed to be in class. He looked at me and said, “Today we’re supposed to be doing the Bible Society.” And he gave me a look. That would have been a fun class. And one that he wanted to get right. In the midst of everything else, he was still thinking about his teaching and worrying about how the class would get on for the rest of the term without him.
That was his intellectual history class, one that he taught over two semesters every year. Last year, the class spent an entire hour talking about the first clause of the Constitution. He positively glowed as he told me about it. I couldn’t believe it—I teach the Revolution class here and we rather zoom through the Constitution. Even with a room full of pre-laws assisted by readings from the amazing Pauline Maier, I haven’t been able to get much enthusiasm for the Constitution. So, how did David get them to talk like that? His students engaged deeply with their readings and so much of it had to do with who David was as a scholar and as a teacher and as a person. He was the sort of person you wanted to do well for. And he brought great things out of his students. (I know, because I felt the same way about him.)
He would have the students write responses to their brief readings for the sessions and then he would write back. I do this, too, but not like David did. These were extensive responses. Before class had even begun, he’d have engaged deeply with each of his students’ reflections and he clearly took great pleasure in doing so. He would frequently be at work on this when I’d stop by after refilling my mug of tea in the office downstairs. “How’s it going?” and he’d spin his chair, give me a broad smile, and tell me who they were reading that week. On his screen would be those endless responses, and he’d be getting ready for class. When we talked about assignments, we would nod together about what a good structure this is. I’m a big believer, too, in frequent short reading responses as an assignment. The students are more likely to do the reading, you have a good sense going in to class of what it is that they’re thinking about, and low-stakes writing is just great practice. But he put a level of care into his responses to his students that deeply impressed me. It was time consuming. It paid off. Because he cared, they really did, too. Their responses were thoughtful, and more than once I stopped by to say hello, only to have him tell me about some particularly insightful thing one of his students had just said.
I’ve written here about my interdisciplinary gen ed course and the particular challenges that it could create. David taught a large course in that program that talked about Modern America and social theory through music. Because it met in the auditorium at the center of the history building, if you worked with your office door open on the days he was teaching, your room would suddenly be flooded with the sounds of Motown or whatever he was playing that day. He apparently demonstrated one of the dances from Gladys Knight and the Pips one day. I loved stopping by his office those afternoons and asking him what they’d been up to in class. Did I hear Aretha Franklin this morning? What are you guys talking about now? I will miss those conversations. His eyes would twinkle when he talked about his classes.
More than anyone else I can think of, he delighted in his students. And I think (and I hope) that they could tell. He thought teaching was important. He thought his students were important. That’s a special thing.
Among the many things I will miss about David (and there are very many), I will miss that. I will miss the way that talking to someone who clearly enjoyed teaching—even when there was too much to grade or things don’t go as you hope—just those talks could help me to remember how important teaching is. And how important my students are. And just remembering that makes us all better teachers. Like David.
David’s family has established a scholarship in his name to support underprivileged Michigan undergraduates majoring in history. Please consider donating to the David T. Bailey Undergraduate Scholarship Fund here.