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Oliver B. Pollak
photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Zero to 65 in 80 Semesters

by Oliver B. Pollak *

I am approaching my 65th birthday, with nearly 80 semesters of teaching, not including summer school. My 34 years at UNO comprise one-third of our campus's 100 year existence. We can only imagine the excitement and anticipation of our first day of kindergarten or the opening of Omaha University in 1908 at 24th and Reddick. The immense popularity of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Last Lecture attest to the great stock we place in education and influential teachers.

Much has changed, but the essentials endure. Scratchy chalk black boards gave way to erasable felt markers on white boards, and electronic Blackboard.

The traditional lecture is refashioned by Elmo, Power Point and smart classrooms. My predecessor, A. Stanley Trickett, taught history at OU and UNO from 1957 to 1974, delivered a paper at the 1959 Missouri Valley His-tory Conference, "The Uses of the Overhead Projector in College History Teaching."

Faculty once initialed memos circulated in the department. We progressed from manual to electric typewriters, IBM Selectrics, daisy wheels, dot matrix, ink jet and laser printers. The words Gestetner, mimeo, ditto, Friden, Marchant and Burroughs have gone to the landfill.

Now memos are sent by email to appropriate faculty. Larry McMurtry apparently still uses a typewriter, where does he find a repair person? Of course gender-neutral language has become the norm.

The library moved from the 1956 Eppley Building to the western edge of campus, which is now sort of mid-campus. Genysis, the online catalog, eclipsed the lunky wooden card catalogue. Print books and journals are joined by Google Scholar, Kindle and untolled electronic sources. Ease of access may foster laziness for pursuing the out of the way, the obscure, the unique, and the undiscovered.

Nostalgia has its place. Getting used to change, and utilizing innovative technology, notwithstanding the ill conceived MyMAPP dragnet, faculty do enjoy continuous learning. Ironically parking space at UNO appears to be almost solved, just when rising gasoline prices may have curbed the need for new spaces. Our environment is inestimably cleaner for "No Smoking" in buildings.

Teaching students, transferring knowledge, creating a platform for greater knowledge, is at the heart of our mission. Our student constituency has changed--they are much younger. Thankfully the G.I. Bill is not yet such a major producer of returning students. Criticism of high school preparation for college in reading, writing, and mathematics skills is chronic.

I have taught undergraduate students taking classes required for graduation, history majors and graduate students. Relationship ranges from possible anonymity in a class of 60, to close up individual mentoring. In my early teaching career less than 10 years separated me from my students. Now almost half a century of culture may separate us.

History happens. Historians have a habit of mind - observe, interpret, relate. My teachers were World War II veterans. The youngest Vietnam Vet is 52 years old, most are in their 60s. Our contemporary society suggests re-understanding the past.

How do we bridge the potentially semi-arid half-century divide between student and teacher? Do we listen to the same radio station, see the same movies, watch the same television programs, read the same books, and newspapers (hardcopy or on line), and perhaps most trenchant, enjoy the same music. Blogs, YouTube, MySpace, Ipods, texting are still almost a foreign country.

Four decades of roll books reveal students who became journalists, lawyers, librarians, ministers, physicians, politicians, teachers, or went into the military service. Some earned doctorates becoming professional historians. Many became mothers and fathers and their children attended UNO. I recently met an adult grandchild of a student I taught in the 1970s. Sadly I recognize obituaries of students who preceded their teacher to the grave.

Nothing improves self worth and life opportunities more than education and reading. The institutional education life cycle includes pre-school through terminal degree, returning mature students, and elder hostels. UNO faculty and expanding facilities perform admirably providing students with state of the art quality education responding to the challenge of balancing continuity and innovation.

* This sketch is inspired by Manil Suri, "X = 50 Semesters," New York Times Magazine, Sunday, September 21, 2008.

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