How I Came To Be A History Lecturer

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I give history presentations.  At the time of this writing, the topics have been: First Bull Run / Manassas, Causes Of The Civil War, Shiloh, Peninsular Campaign & Seven Days Battles, War Of 1812, Second Bull Run / Manassas, The Atomic Bomb & The End Of War With Japan, and Antietam.  During that time period, I also gave two geocaching-related presentations: one at the library and one at the local annual geocaching event (Cacheapalooza).

As I mentioned in that same post, I am currently attending FAU but it was not my first choice.  I was originally in college a decade ago, completing my general education courses at the local community college (IRCC – now IRSC) before spending two years at UNF in Jacksonville.  I was a computer science major, though I also took a few history courses as electives.  Why I was attempting that degree at that college and why I left college without a degree are a lengthy story of their own which I will save for another day.

Not quite 6 years after I left UNF, my mother died.  Arrangements were made to intern her ashes in her home state of Virginia which was felt to be something she would’ve wanted.  I had not left Florida for 8 years and decided to make the most of the trip: a whole week in May 2009, with visits to several historical sites I had long wanted to visit, especially Gettysburg and Antietam.

I have been reading nonfiction books for fun since I was in elementary school, most commonly military history.  I think I became interested in the American Civil War in particular because of the movie “Gettysburg”, coupled with playing the old computer game Civil War Battleset and reading Shelby Foote’s three volume “The Civil War: A Narrative” in high school.

I think it is safe to say the trip was a life-changing experience.  Not too long after that trip, I decided to take a history course at FAU in the spring.  The main FAU campus is an hour away in Boca Raton, but they have a branch campus in Jupiter a half hour away.   It was a fairly easy, but enjoyable and educational course and I decided I wanted to go back to college and get a history degree.  My trip and this class also ramped up my reading efforts, including many books and authors I was not previously familiar with.

I looked into all the public universities in Florida (and a few of the private ones) and concluded I liked the FSU history program the best.  FSU also offered a Geography degree; since maps have long been another interest of mine and complemented History nicely, I had an obvious choice for a minor or possibly a double major.  After taking another course at FAU, I was also considering Political Science as well and even rather ambitiously seriously contemplated triple majoring.  A visit to FSU itself confirmed my decision.  I was well aware of FSU’s popularity for other reasons, but my interest was purely academic.  I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the degree(s), but I planned to keep my ears and eyes open for “opportunity”.

The whole plan hit a serious snag when FSU rejected my application.   Among the problems was a poor cumulative GPA stemming from my time at UNF.  Immensely frustrated by being penalized this way, I resolved to raise my cumulative GPA and meet the other requirements.  I did try to explore other college options, including looking out of state.  My ideal choice would have been Gettysburg College, which offers a History degree specializing in Civil War Studies, but the cost combined with admissions possibly more difficult than FSU meant I scrapped that idea.  Ultimately, due to several issues relating to my credits, I reluctantly decided to just finish my degree at FAU.

As part of my efforts to boost my cumulative GPA, I took a couple summer courses at IRSC.  The history courses were taught by Professor Farley, who I knew by positive reputation but had not taken any courses with when I was at IRCC a decade earlier.  The classes were again easy, entertaining, and somewhat educational (I knew a lot of the material already), but most important was the extra credit.  Farley offered extra credit to any student that attended a variety of documentaries and lectures outside of normal class time.  One was a lecture at the library by Farley about the life of Abraham Lincoln.

A few weeks after that presentation, I spoke to the library’s program director and inquired if there would be any further Civil War-related presentations since it was the 150th anniversary of the war.  The program director told me she would like to have some presentations, but did not know any military historians.  “I could do it.”

That first presentation was to a full room, but it went very well and I was able to turn it into a reoccurring event with freedom to choose my own topics.  It was only the second PowerPoint presentation I had ever given; the previous was earlier that year and about 5 minutes long.  Due to limitations of work and college, I unfortunately can’t give a presentation every month and it doesn’t pay remotely well enough to make it my main job.

I’ve been complemented by many audience members who really enjoyed the presentations.  The most common question I get is “Where do you teach?” and they are quite surprised to learn I am still a student.  I’ve been praised for my calmness and the effortlessness of my speaking.  I’m also quite pleased that pretty much every presentation I have managed to say a few things that were intended to draw laughs from the audience and succeeding in doing so.  People who knew me as a shy, quiet kid in grade school probably wouldn’t recognize me now.  I’m still trying to work out various details with sound, lightning, and the right way to mix of photos, maps, and text in the PowerPoint slides so it is a perpetual learning process.

So how does one stand in front of an audience for an hour and lecture effectively with no notes beyond a PowerPoint outline?  I think some skills are simply natural abilities that I am blessed to have and if there is a way to learn them I don’t know what it is.  I have a natural encyclopedic memory for certain things, history and trivia being among them.  I have a passion for history which is noticeable in my speaking and I don’t think can be faked.

As for learned skills, I’m fairly well read on the topics I speak on.  I’m not a true academic or expert; I reading a couple major works on the subject for each presentation and building on what I already know.  I have a rapidly growing To Read list and many of the books are ones I got from the public library or FAU library to research one of my presentations and didn’t have time to read.  As for my style of presentation, I owe much to Professor Farley for inspiration.  I also have to credit Dr. Engle, a great history professor at FAU whom I had the great fortune to take a class from in Spring 2012.  He is an outstanding speaker and does so with less outline or notes than I use.  I asked him about his speaking skills; he attributed his law background (which makes sense) but also that he’s an expert on a particular time period (the US from post-Revolution through the Civil War).  I definitely agree that vast knowledge on a subject is invaluable when speaking about it: you sound like you know what you are talking about because you really do.

For practice in extemporizing, I probably owe some credit to a year spent in Debate class high school – a class I did not think I learned much from.   The best practice I’ve had extemporizing is travel photos.  I have some friends and family I’ve shared my photos with and as I go through the photos I explain not only what the photo shows, but to expound upon my experience when I took the photo or some trivia or history related to it.

Geocaching is also good for this: I am somewhat well-known in the SE Florida geocaching community for writing logs which say much more than “Found It!”  I try to relate what I was doing that day when caching, what I experienced, and whatever the cache makes me think of.

Until next time, may these 1500 words remind you to follow your passion.

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