By STEVEN NALLEY
Richard Damms had no idea the award was coming.
Damms, a professor in Mississippi State University’s history department since 1995, said his department head Alan Marcus nominated him without his knowledge for the title of Humanities Teacher of the Year. He said he did not find out about the nomination until he had already been chosen by MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Mississippi Humanities Council.
“I was surprised, honored and flattered,” Damms said. “I know several professors who have attained the honor in the past, including colleagues in the history department, and it is humbling to be in their company.”
The university recognized Damms as the 2011 Humanities Teacher of the Year Monday for his work revising the state’s history curriculum, directing education grants and editing the Mississippi Historical Society’s online publication, “Mississippi History Now.”
The title comes with a $500 honorarium and the responsibility to share research in a public setting, which Damms met with a presentation Monday titled “Greeks and Romans: Harold McMillan, Dwight Eisenhower and the Romance and Reality of the Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship.’”
Greg Dunaway, dean of the MSU College of Arts and Sciences, said even though teachers are chosen for the honor on an annual basis, consideration is not limited to a candidate’s accomplishments over the past year. Rather, he said, a candidate’s entire record of efforts in humanities is considered.
“Dr. Damms was chosen from among a number of highly qualified and deserving candidates across a number of humanities fields,” Dunaway said. “However, Dr. Damms’ contributions really stood out, and therefore, he was deemed most deserving.”
In his dossier for Damms’ nomination, Marcus said Damms served as editor-in-chief of “Mississippi History Now” from 2006-2010, reviewing and editing all articles before publication. He said Damms also directed a $1 million Department of Education Grant to help teachers of American history improve their methods.
“Secondary school teachers from the area studied with MSU faculty on weekends and in the summer in an intensive training program that led to participants receiving (master’s) degrees,” Damms said. “Some 26 graduated from this program.”
Marcus also said Damms was appointed to the Mississippi Department of Education’s U.S. history curriculum revision committee in March 2008, working with social studies teachers from public schools across the state.
“The new framework stresses depth over breadth, focusing on big ideas and requiring students to develop critical thinking skills,” Marcus said. “In short, the new framework is designed to elevate the intellectual rigor of the U.S. history course.”
Damms said the renewed intellectual emphasis was long overdue. In the new curriculum, he said, students apply skills from other subjects to explain U.S. history, including language arts, geography and economics.
The old curriculum required students to do little more than memorize a litany of historical facts,” Damms said. “The new curriculum requires students to think in more analytical ways, interpreting data and historical artifacts to reach informed conclusions. I expect that it will take a little while for teachers to adapt to the new curriculum and the types of questions students will be required to master, but at the end of the day, students should emerge with a better understanding of U.S. history and have critical thinking skills that will stand them in good stead for further education and the workplace.”
Damms said he places the same value on critical thinking in his own classroom. He said his students not only read the work of historians, but also the writings of primary sources who experienced history firsthand.
“I am a firm believer in having students engage with the past,” Damms said. “Letters, diaries, reports and so forth provide a window into the mentality of historical actors and humanize students’ understanding of the past. Wrestling with opposing viewpoints about past historical events also encourages students to read sources critically and learn how to construct logical arguments based on evidence. These are skills that hopefully will serve them well beyond the classroom.”
In his own research, Damms specializes in U.S. political history and foreign relations. Growing up in his native Rotherham, United Kingdom, he said, he developed an interest in U.S. history partly because his high school and college curriculum barely discussed it.
“This always seemed to me to be something of an anomaly, given the importance of the United States in world affairs at that time — heightened international tension in Europe following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage crisis, ... the election of Ronald Reagan and what seemed to be the escalation of the Cold War,” Damms said. “I initially became interested in the United States foreign policy as a result of contemporary affairs. When I was fortunate enough to earn a fellowship to study at Ohio State University, I decided to pursue the study of United States history in more depth.”
Coming at U.S. history as an outsider can have its advantages, Damms said. For instance, when Damms teaches South American history, he said, he can see parallels between North American and South American historical experiences of exploration, conquest, colonization, independence and national expansion.
“I think an outside view can sometimes help to clarify the bigger picture of historical developments,” Damms said. “It can sometimes provide a greater degree of objectivity or impartiality, especially when addressing controversial historical topics that still stir current passions.”