A Heart for Teaching History
David Vail, assistant professor of history, proves it is possible to know your passions at an early age—and find the job that reminds you daily why you love what you do.
Dr. Vail joined the Department of History at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) in 2016. He specializes in environmental history, history of science and technology, agricultural history, and assists his department with public history. We sat down with Dr. Vail, who teaches courses both on campus and online, to learn more about his story.
What led you to become a history professor?
I've loved history most of my life, and I also really enjoyed teaching. Around grade school, I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life, so I earned my bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. all in history. I'm originally from Oregon, so spending time outdoors and thinking about the history of landscapes, the history of ecosystems, and going to national parks encouraged a sense of the past that I realized informs almost everything that I do now—teaching that and researching it. I also enjoy agricultural history, though I didn't grow up on a farm, which everyone is curious about. I started piecing all these things together when I was younger, and that passion has remained with me.
How can your areas of expertise in history be applied today?
Environmental history or the histories of science and technology have real application in STEM fields and not just in humanities fields. Engineers or people going into the corporate side of life can really draw from a past that gives them a sense of understanding about their field. History enhances critical thinking skills and a sense of civic knowledge. For example, are technologies useful or can they be problematic? What were the roles of early practitioners and pioneers of science, and how did that shape space exploration, for example, or the space program during the 1960s? There is also so much in the history of food and rural communities that matter—not just for people in Nebraska, but all over the country and the world. A daily understanding of where your past is and where things are going, and having a sense of civic engagement and usability of that is important. You see all these histories aligning. So I would say it’s important to be studying history in these contexts, and our department is really good at that.
How would you describe your interaction with students?
There are two things that I discovered about the relationships I have with students. One is they have a similar passion. They can be anywhere in the world, but certainly in the United States, and be part of our program. They have a passion for history, a passion for learning, a passion for critical thinking that is really powerful. I've taught a lot of students in a lot of different places, and they seem to be very passionate about those things here at UNK. Another thing I would say about my relationship with students is that I really have a heart for a teacher-scholar method. So I like to try and learn as much as I can from them, and hopefully they're learning from me.
What’s the most interesting thing in your office?
One of the most interesting things in my office is a first edition and first printing of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Rachel Carson was a biological scientist who wrote this book on the dangers and risks of pesticides, and DDT especially, in 1962. It was a widely acclaimed book and highly controversial book. Just think about the overlap of a woman in a science profession in the 1960s, with the growth of environmentalism and agribusiness overlapping that—being able to write that book in that time, and the power it’s had. Finding a first edition of that book is a very powerful daily reminder of what I’m doing as a historian. Carson is one of my heroes, so that’s one of the things that I look to every day.
Explore your passion through an online M.A. in History or online minor in history at UNK.
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