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Oliver Pollak

In His Own Words: On Summer School

by Oliver B. Pollak

Summer school can be a memorable experience.  I went to summer school to get ahead in junior high (now middle school), high school (including repeating Geometry), as an undergraduate, graduate, and in law school.  Though not particularly studious or a "nerd," a word which according to Wikipedia appeared as early as 1951, I read voraciously.[1]

Three summer school experiences standout in my memory.  At California State University in Los Angeles in summer 1963, during the Barry Goldwater ascendancy, I took an American Studies course, "Ideas in America," from Russell Kirk.  A Republican architect, Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind (1953).[2] Although I earned a B+ for my paper, "San Bernardino, A Study in a Religious Utopian Failure" I got a B in the class.  CSCLA did not have plusses and minuses.  I also took a memorable but less satisfactory course, "The Bible as Literature."

At the other end of the political spectrum, in summer of 1964, I took "Economics of Underdeveloped Areas," in the midst of decolonization, taught by Chilean economist Manfred Max Neff.  In 1993 he ran for president of Chile and came in fourth.  My paper on fertilizer production in India, a Green Revolution subject, received a B+ and a gratifying "Good" along with the initials MMN.  Professor Neff ended the class with a party at his apartment, including a galvanized metal trash can filled with Chilean red wine and strawberries (California drinking age – 18).

During the 1964 session I took "Primitive Religion" (what an archaic term), from Dr. Schwartz, received an A and almost became an anthropologist.  The comfort of libraries won over tents with primitive plumbing.

Following the six week session I took a four week class, "U.S. World Power" and do not remember a thing even though I got an A.

Summer school enabled me to graduate early, but also exposed me to President Johnson's 1965 Vietnam War military surge.  The U.S. Navy offered continued education through USAFI, the U.S. Armed Force Institute, correspondence courses.

While at UCLA, Carl F. Brand, a historian of the British Labour Party visiting from Stanford University, taught "Tudor and Stuart History."  His authoritative article on English History in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and his conceptualization of religious and economic motivation in the early modern period impressed me.

I took family law at Creighton law school, in 1979, from Scott Green then in the late stages of terminal cancer.

Summer is a fringe benefit for teachers, time for research, travel and tending the garden.  Economic necessity may dictate otherwise.  I taught summer school at UNO about thirty times.  With two children I opted for two courses.  When they were out of the house I reduced my load to one.  My repertoire included "History of England," "African History" and, after 1981, "World Civilization." In 1984, 57 students enrolled in my 7:30 a.m. World Civ. course. (A colleague recently observed that we rely on adjuncts as younger faculty are less prone to teach summer school.)

Teaching summer school challenges teacher and student endurance.  Summer school throws out the conventional behavior of the two semester, Fall and Spring teaching pattern.  The marathon five-week day, and six- and seven-week night session, demands compression, rushes preparation, presentation and possibilities for reflection.  The result may be unexpected moments of creativity, reconfigurations of knowledge and the emergence of fresh ideas. (I should allow for student boredom, sleeping, newspaper reading and working on who knows what on their laptops).

At 7:13 am on Friday, July 27, 2007, I conceptualized "Depictions of the British Empire in World Civilization Textbooks." After class I recruited Moshe Gershovich and Pat Kennedy to prepare conference papers on the representation of the Middle East and Native Americans in textbooks, a potential Research Triangle.


The summer school student mix includes students from other universities.  My roll books include the names of future journalists, lawyers, ministers, nurses, physicians, politicians, teachers, and professors.

UNO has at least four summer sessions.  The academic calendar would be somewhat redrafted if we adopt the quarter or trimester program for more efficient utilization of our facilities as suggested for consideration by Chancellor Christensen.

Google reveals "Summer School" as a 1987 film directed by Carl Reiner and featuring Mark Harmon (he graduated UCLA in 1974 where I earned my Ph.D. the same year), a skimpy Wikipedia treatment, but no genuine history.  Omaha University and Creighton University had summer sessions for teacher certification in the early 20th century.

 This essay is a swan song, a last hurrah.  Approaching my mid-60s my summer school teaching is nearing a terminus. I could have spun Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1789) into Reflections on Summer School, but preferred "On Summer School," after an undergraduate political science reading, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859).[3]

[1] Benjamin Nugent, "Who's a Nerd, Anyway," New York Times Magazine, July 29, 2007, 15.

[2] Hilary Clinton a "Goldwater girl" and Young Republican became a Democrat in 1967. See Mark Leibovich, "In the ‘60s, a Future Candidate Poured Her Heart Out in Letters," Sunday New York Times, July 29, 2007, 1.

[3] My Spell check indicates 0% passive sentence, and no "was," bravo; please excuse the personal pronouns.

Dr. Pollak holds the Martin Chair in History and has taught at UNO since 1974.  He and UNO archivist Les Valentine co-authored the recently published photo book University of Nebraska at Omaha.


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