Donna Bohanan's retirement reflections
It hardly seems possible, but Dr. Donna Bohanan, one of Auburn's most beloved history professors, is retiring in May. In light of her impending departure, we asked her to take a look back at the last thirty-five years and to share her thoughts and experiences with us all. She graciously agreed, and we know you will enjoy her engaging and endearing remarks.
BY DONNA BOHANAN, PhD, professor of history and guest contributor
I blinked, and it was over. May 2017 will mark the end of my thirty-fifth year at Auburn, at which point I will retire. Only with difficulty the comprehension of the passage of so long a time, and I struggle to realize it is soon coming to an end. It's been, as they say, quite a ride, and the sensation of time flown by belies all that has transpired during my tenure here.
The fall of 1982 was my first quarter. I had graduated in June from Emory University, spent the summer in France, and headed to Auburn in September. And a whirlwind of change it was—from the archives in Aix-en-Provence to Haley Center 3195, where I taught enormous World History classes. It marked my first time teaching anything other than European history or Western Civ., and the anxiety and challenges of writing lectures on ancient India and China and the rapid, overnight retooling in subjects for which I had no formal instruction, remain vivid. Then, the utter terror I experienced facing a class comprised of more than 200 students! Eventually I, like all new professors, became accustomed to the volume and pace, the terror eased, and I settled into the classroom. I soon came to love Auburn, to regard this job as the perfect one for me. I now reflect on this unimagined good fortune.
Since that first quarter, Auburn has grown and evolved into a finer institution in many defining ways. Technology has played an obvious role in its evolution. In 1982, as a measure of fiscal necessity, we didn't even have phones in our offices, and we used the phone in the hallway of the history department. Now we teach with all the advantages and opportunities that typify an exceptionally “wired” university. My arrival signaled demographic shifts in my department; I was the second woman ever hired for a tenure track position in a department of about twenty-three. Today we approach gender balance. As the faculty of my department, and the university, became significantly more diverse, so too did the student body. And with these fundamental changes in demographics came important additions and alterations to our curriculum. Every generation of historians puts its mark on the curriculum, and mine was no exception. My junior colleagues, who have introduced already a range of exciting new approaches and courses, will do the same, and that is as it should be.
What made Auburn work for me? First and foremost I credit my remarkable classroom experiences; teaching and working with Auburn students has been a great privilege. Auburn undergraduate composition has undergone a remarkable change evolution that has improved the university in myriad ways and has truly made the classroom more stimulating. But, no matter their gender or ethnicity, the Auburn undergrads are defined in my estimation by their hearts, character, and compassion. I perceive this everyday on campus. Through their involvement in philanthropic work, their general awareness of others and its expression in courtesy, and by their warmth and friendliness, Auburn students have made this a special institution. I always ask first semester students who visit my office what they think of Auburn and how they are adjusting. I am struck by how many instantly reply that they love the place because they feel so welcome and at home here. This kind of emotional attachment and investment in the institution simply makes it work better for all.
Auburn has given me the opportunity to teach at all levels, from freshman core classes to doctoral students, which is a range that faculty at many other schools never experience. I've always said the perfect teaching schedule includes freshman history and a graduate seminar—a combination that broadens intellectually, challenges pedagogically, and provides the opportunity to draw at a more advanced level on one's expertise. Teaching freshmen is about the joy of first awareness, teaching juniors and seniors brings the pleasure of observing more critical awareness, and teaching graduate students offers an important opportunity for self- awareness. All three experiences made me a better historian.
In the end, Auburn was the perfect place for me because of my harmonious environment of my department. I found my home here. As only the second woman in Auburn's Department of History, I entered a male-dominated society, but one that sought diversity. I benefited enormously and routinely from their support and encouragement. Among the truly great guys whose support for my career holds special significance are a series of department heads and chairs. In particular, Wayne Flynt did his utmost to design a schedule that would launch a career by affording me the opportunity to develop as a teacher and to succeed as a scholar. He was always my champion. Gordon Bond introduced me to and promoted my involvement in professional societies of French historians. Then, as Graduate Program Officer, I had the privilege and the pleasure of working closely with Larry Gerber and Bill Trimble, both of whom valued my efforts and supported me throughout. Later, as I became part of a shrinking older cohort in the department, Charles Israel sought my perspectives and clearly valued my presence. I can never thank them enough. Ultimately, the colleague whose impact was greatest was Joseph Kicklighter, my beloved friend and mentor. His sage advice, enthusiastic support, unfailing loyalty, and exemplary conduct were central to my experience. Overall, my history department colleagues, men and women, provided me great intellectual stimulation, emotional support, humor, and friendship. They, like Auburn University, remain truly special, and I shall always treasure the time with them. It was my good fortune.
Last Updated: May 17, 2017