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Spotlight - Jan Jenkins

1. Tell us about your early days in BC. My parents moved us to Bridge City in April or May of 1963, which meant that my mom had to drive us to school in Port Arthur every day until that school year ended. I don’t know whether the deciding factor was the school district’s good reputation or that fact that I was nearly eleven and was promising to die a tragic and dramatic death unless I could have a horse. Santa Claus brought the horse, Dixie, that Christmas. I could ride her wherever I liked around B.C., as long as I took our two Labrador Retrievers, Kippy and Columbus, with me. I had long pigtails, so kids at school frequently called me “Annie Oakley.” Bridge City had a tiny post office, only two grocery stores that I remember, and lots of gas stations. Hatton Elementary School was not air-conditioned, so the classrooms had big fans that made a droning noise and made everyone sleepy.

2. You have pursued a career in history including earning your PhD. Who (or what) had the most influence on your decision? I have loved history as long as I can remember. I taught high-school biology for a time, but it didn’t take long to realize that I would never have Moe Litton’s aptitude for the subject. I took history courses my first semester in graduate school at the University of North Texas, mostly to see if it was a good fit. I knew immediately that I had found what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. History is infinitely rich and colorful, and college life is so rich and colorful, that by the time I had completed a couple of semesters of the Master’s program, I knew that I wanted to continue through the doctoral program, too. I always tell my students that it took me four hundred years to get a Ph.D. and that I started out as a much taller woman. The truth is that every minute was a joy, and the whole process was infinitely worthwhile. And it gave me plenty of good excuses to spend time in England, since I had to do a lot of research there.

3. What historical events most interest you? Why? I’m an English Social historian, which means that my teaching interests focus upon what life was like for normal people, rather than the famous or the influential. My favorite periods in English and European history are the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, and those, as well as the World History surveys, are the subjects I teach at Arkansas Tech University. My research specialties are in the same eras, but my major love is the Edwardian/World War I era (approximately 1901-1918), and I have done a lot of research on World War I munitions procurement and propaganda. The historical use of propaganda to shape public opinion is especially fascinating, whether it’s the invasion literature of the nineteenth century or modern political ads.

4. You’ve had several works published. What are some of them? I started with a small book of English history published in 1981, collaborating with Dr. John M. Fletcher of Oxford University. That was well received, and since then, I have done a lot of research and writing, including essays, articles, academic papers, book reviews, etc. I’m currently editing a reference book on eighteenth-century British historians for The Dictionary of Literary Biography, and that should go to print sometime this year.

5. You’ve worked in England. Tell us about that. One of my dearest friends for many years was John Fletcher, who was a pioneer in the field of dendrochronology, or using tree-ring measurements to date medieval buildings, paintings done on wooden panels, wooden structures, etc. He was a truly brilliant person with the most incredible mind—he started every day with at least ten new ideas, so we spent a lot of time exploring various archival collections, doing field research at old churches and building sites, and investigating centuries-old villages, and we had a lot of pub lunches along the way. In 1984, I went to Oxford to spend several months as his research assistant in the Dendrochronology Unit of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art. It was the most amazing place—incredible scientific and historical research going on in a Victorian building. The dendrochronology lab held samples from most of the important historical buildings in Great Britain, and I used to eat my lunch sitting on a section of beam from the Tower of London. Using three thousand years of growth patterns for the forests of Northern and Western Europe, we worked on dating paintings from various museums and collections in Europe, including paintings from Queen Elizabeth’s collection; we also dated old buildings and items of furniture, especially from the Middle Ages. Since John Fletcher had a Ph.D. in Extraction Metallurgy and had worked for the Atomic Energy Research Establishment for years before establishing dendrochronology at Oxford, he had quite an intellectual range, as you can imagine. Oxford is still one of my favorite places—it’s the most magical combination of historical catch-all and time warp, populated by a collection of strange and wonderful people. While I was there, the Research Laboratory gained permission to do radiocarbon dating on a tiny piece of the Shroud of Turin, and even though it turned out to be a medieval forgery, that was exciting.

6. You now reside and teach in Arkansas. What lead you there? Work. I taught at the University of Arkansas at Monticello for several years and then took a teaching job at Arkansas Tech University. Arkansas is a beautiful place, and the people are very warm and down-to-earth, so I have loved living here. When I first moved to Arkansas from Dallas, where I had lived for many years, my colleagues used to say, “You can always tell a Texan, but you can’t tell him much.” I loved that.

7. As an educator and an historian can you share any advise on how schools can better inspire students to study history? History holds something fascinating for everyone, so the trick is to find what that “something” is. The best history teachers don’t focus upon dates but teach their students how to follow a trail of evidence, like untangling a mystery. I think the most important thing, though, starts much earlier than public school. Children who are read to from the time they are small are more likely to develop a love of reading, and after that, all things are possible. When my siblings and I were little kids, a favorite treat was for our parents to take us to the Gates Memorial Library in Port Arthur. We would spend hours picking out our own books in that wonderful place—I can still remember the echoes, as well as the delicious papery fragrance of all those books. I wanted to live there. After we all had our books, we would go to Rettigs Ice Cream Parlor, so the whole event was quite special. I could hardly wait until I turned eight years old and could have my own library card. I also used to fantasize that my family would forget me at the library, so I could stay there alone and read all night.

8. How will today’s technology affect the way history is taught in the coming years? Access to computers and the Internet have already made a huge difference—for instance, there are fabulous databases as well as archival and bibliographical resources readily available, so research can be continued late at night and at home. There is a negative side to this, too, though—it has become harder to convince students that they MUST learn to use a library first and that it isn’t a good idea to do all their research on the Internet. The absolute heart of any university is the library collection. Not everything is on the Internet—nor are all things that are on the Internet reliable, so it’s crucial that every student learns to find his way around a library. Any teacher or professor who allows students to lean too heavily on predigested websites, especially those created by enthusiastic amateurs, is doing his students an enormous disservice.

9. What historical events in your lifetime are the most monumental? Why? That’s a hard one—I always tell my students that I am not responsible for anything that happened after 1939—but I think that the most important social development in my lifetime has been the Civil Rights Movement. It’s not easy to know which events are genuinely watersheds and which are going to be historical footnotes after fifty or a hundred years, but that one is truly monumental, because it changed lives and laws and Society.

10. What are you up to these days? I have a wonderful life—all things are possible on a college campus, so every day is different. My students may not always be prepared for class, but they are always creative and funny. I love teaching. Last summer, I bought a house on several acres of land, so I am a novice gardener, which is a huge pleasure. I plant something and then run outside every ten minutes to see whether it has grown. My house is full of books, so I read a lot, and I usually take a batch of students to some part of Europe every year. I have two yellow Labrador Retrievers, Sadie and Sophie, who are my babies. My favorite person is my delightful, irreverent, talented son, Barry Whittaker. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a graphics designer at the L.A. County Museum of Art by day and a working musician by night. Barry apparently inherited his artistic talent from my late mother, Melissa Jenkins, and his musical talent from his paternal grandmother, Pat Whittaker, since neither his father (W.E. Whittaker, B.C. Class of 1969) nor I ever showed any evidence of those abilities.

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