Dr. Charles McClellan


Professor Emeritus of History

Looking back over an academic career

Growing up:

Like many of my students at Radford, I was a first generation college graduate. My parents were both high school graduates although my mother finished with her GED when she was in her fifties. None of my grandparents had more than an elementary education. Grandparents on my mother's side were immigrants from Germany, arriving in 1923 with barely enough time to get established before the Depression hit in the 1930's. 

I grew up on a farm in north-central Kansas, fundamental to understanding who I am today. Long hours in the fields baling hay and plowing gave me a strong sense of the work ethic and an appreciation of private space and solitude.  When I was not working on the family farm, I was employed by neighbors: $1 an hour for plowing; $1.25 for baling.  I loved reading from an early age: history, biography, travel, historical fiction; that created a world for me beyond central Kansas. I also was early captivated with TV (although I was about 8 before we got our first set). I particularly loved to watch the Lowell Thomas travelogue series and would often imagine myself in the places he visited.   

My parents encouraged education. We both had a sense that my future was not in farming. I saw education as a liberating force. It would not only provide me with a different life, but would get me out into the broader world. I grew up in a small rural town of 800 with a high school graduating class of 21. Some of the teachers were the same ones who taught my father. I also discovered an early rebelliousness--hard to believe, I know. I refused to take all the courses prescribed for freshmen (because of the limited curriculum) and was placed instead in several courses with seniors. In 1963 I went off to Kansas State Teachers College (today Emporia State University), a liberal arts school of about 5000 which was to me big time. I intended to become a teacher. I had chosen this profession early in life--even in grade school I would prepare lessons for my younger brothers who never took my preparations as seriously as I did. I developed great admiration for many of the teachers I had along the way.  

Off to college: 

College was my first real exposure to a more multi-ethnic world. Fortunately I did not have to work while in college. I worked summers and had some modest scholarships. My whole first year of college cost $1000; that included room and board, tuition and books. Needless to say my social life was rather low key--I took college seriously and do not remember ever having missed a class. Some of my college professors were pretty useless. In those days we did not evaluate our professors, and as a student, I would never have presumed that I was qualified to do so. 

I majored in Social Science (I loved the history portion, found the Political Science boring; economics was a loss because the teachers were largely biding time for retirement). I wanted to take some geography but my adviser discouraged it, saying that I could pick up geography mostly by studying history. He was right. In my sophomore year I decided to take on a second major--German--and struggled to finish those requirements along with student teaching before graduation. I remember my student teaching very well--a large metropolitan high school in Topeka. My supervisor took a sink or swim approach; he told me on the first day: "You're in charge; if you need me, I'll be down in the teacher's lounge." 

Out into the world: 

As I approached graduation in 1967, I had some decisions to make regarding my future. I had decided that I wanted a Master's degree (I had developed a strong fascination with German history as a result of the encouragement of one of my professors, a fresh PhD from the University of Wisconsin, who worked me hard but whom I came to appreciate), assuming it would strengthen my teaching credentials. But I also knew that I was mentally tired and needed a break, and so I made application to the Peace Corps. I was inspired by the idealism of JFK and was devastated by his assassination (like many of that time I remember well where and when I heard the news). I was also influenced by the Vietnam War. I initially was supportive of the war (although I am not sure I could have defined why) and my greatest concern as a college student was that I might be drafted (before I graduated my lottery number came close to being called). I was never a political activist, but I did also know that I would not make a particularly good soldier. I did wonder what choice I would make if forced; fortunately I did not have to decide. 

Peace Corps turned out to be a good choice for me. It gave me a chance to serve my country on my own terms and gave me my first international experience. My first airplane flight came in June 1967 when I flew to Boston to begin training. My experience with Peace Corps transformed my life and opened opportunities I had not envisioned. My political views which had been decidedly conservative became much more liberal. I served as an 11th and 12th grade history teacher and school librarian in a provincial school of about 1200 students in Debre Markos, Ethiopia. I taught in English although I did develop some proficiency in the local language, Amharic. The awareness that I had suddenly become a minority (although a privileged minority) was for me eye-opening, but I loved the experience. It truly was "the toughest job [I'd] ever love." In fact, I loved it so much I extended my service for a third year. Teaching was challenging. Classes were overflowing, with three students sitting at a desk meant for two; blackboards had big holes in them or were non existent; some classroom windows were broken so that when it rained, the water blew in; and during the rainy season the rain came down so hard on the tin roofs that one could not be heard while it rained. I'm convinced that Peace Corps teaching spoiled me. I had such wonderfully motivated students. Many were not much younger than I, and like me, they seemed to really understand the importance of education, and appreciate my efforts. I remember those experiences vividly in my mind and look upon them fondly. One of the many highlights of those years was the day when the Emperor Haile Selassie I paid a visit to our school and all the teachers were invited to a huge traditional feast (ghebbr). 

I taught western history, but African and Ethiopian history were integral parts of the curriculum, neither of which I had ever been trained in. I had special responsibilities because 12th grade students were preparing for their national college entrance exams. I had to teach as much English as history and the exams were all essay.  Very few students from Debre Markos ever made it into university, but my last year we had about a dozen who succeeded--not particularly impressive, but a meaningful start. In many ways I have never felt more fulfilled and needed as a teacher. In addition to having to prepare myself to teach African and Ethiopian history, I also had opportunity to travel. I saw much of Ethiopia and also was able to travel to other parts of East Africa.

On to graduate school: 

As I pondered my move into graduate education, I was torn a bit between my interest in German history and my new interests in African history.  The University of Kansas was prepared to offer me an assistantship to continue studies in German history; Michigan State University offered me no money but had a strong program in African history. Since Peace Corps had created a small nest egg for me during my service, I decided to go with what really intrigued me and so I chose the latter. It was a one-year Master's program (without thesis); I had never seen myself as having the capabilities to go beyond that. But during that year (1970) I exceeded my own expectations, was given considerable encouragement, and promised an assistantship if I would continue as a Ph.D. candidate.  Africa had set my fate. 

My Ph.D. program turned into a seven year curriculum. In addition to coursework, I needed to deal with several new languages (Italian and French in addition to Amharic). I was also to do a secondary field in anthropology in which I had never had a single course.  In addition my assistantship kept me busy consulting and grading in a wide variety of courses: Africa survey, US sports history, US business history, American Indian, US constitutional, along with US survey. I learned considerable from my exposure to these courses, content I would otherwise have not acquired and that constantly broadened my historical knowledge.   

1974-75 found me back in Ethiopia on a fieldwork grant gathering information for my dissertation. I was to do a study on how one society (the Gedeo) in southern Ethiopia came to be incorporated into the Ethiopian state in the late 19th century, and on the political, social and economic implications of that incorporation. There was little written literature on these coffee-producing people, so much of the work was gathering oral data. I employed a research assistant and a translator (since I did not know the local language) and for a year was resident in Dilla. Much of the area was inaccessible and so several times each week we would venture into the hills on foot or on donkey to meet with local elders. This was tough work. I think this must have been the period of my life when I was in the greatest physical shape. We would come back from each trip physically exhausted and have to rest up a few days before we could venture out again. In the midst of my research, a coup d'etat overthrew the emperor and replaced him with a military government. My research went on although in somewhat more difficult circumstances.  Having returned to MSU in the fall of 1975, I began to write the dissertation and at the same time took on some full time teaching responsibilities: in the American studies program; in the western Humanities program; and at Lansing Community College. The dissertation was successfully defended in 1978 and I went through December commencement. Still today friends recall their memories of me in that period as I pounded away on the typewriter (what was that?) on the numerous drafts of the dissertation hour after hour after hour. 

A real job, at last: 

In January 1979 I moved into a temporary one-semester position at Murray State University in Kentucky where I taught American survey. The next academic year found me in another temporary job at State University of New York at Plattsburgh. That was the year when the Winter Olympics were held at Saranac Lake (and the US ice hockey team amazed everyone by taking the gold from the Russians), and students had December and January off in order to work at the Olympics. My course load there involved teaching an upper-level African survey and graduate level courses on East and Southern Africa.  

Spring of 1980 I was invited to visit the campus of Radford University (what? where?) to interview for a tenure-track position. I came to understand (later) that I was chosen from a pool of about 200 applicants.  I was to replace an Africanist who had just moved on, and in addition the chair of the department wanted me to take over his course on the Middle East. Bread and butter would be teaching the survey courses, World or US. Although I had never taught a World course per se, I thought that my general background would be sufficient: I had fields in Africa, British Empire and in addition would be developing a new field in Middle East. I liked the department immediately-- some interesting personalities; they seemed generally laid back and were not intent on grilling me too mercilessly. Although I had some doubts about coming to RU, I had no other options at the time, and assumed that I could move on in time if things did not work out. I've stayed for 25 years, being tenured in 1986, serving as Personnel Committee chairman for 11 years, becoming chair of the department in 2001. 

New research directions: 

With the publication of my dissertation in 1988, I began to turn attention to a second research project. There had not been much reaction to my earlier work, so I was determined to define a project that would allow me to broaden myself as a professional. I decided to focus on the Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-41). Much had been written from the diplomatic and military standpoints, but much less in terms of its domestic impact. The time seemed ripe since the 50th anniversary of the event was fast approaching and many of the individuals who had first-hand knowledge of the event were beginning to die off. I was also interested in the degree to which the "individual" memory of the event differed from or complemented the "collective" or "national" memory. Did people really remember what they thought they remembered, or had they been programmed in intervening years by the nationalist interpretation of the event? 

As I began to define the project, I submitted a proposal to work in the national archives in Great Britain which was funded for six weeks during the summer of 1989. This was my first occasion in working in the Public Record Office in London and gave me a good taste of what archival research was like. I had been told by my major professor that research was 90% boredom and 10% exhilaration. I found that to be true. I put in 10 hour days, pouring through file after file, finding that much of it was totally useless for my project, but fearing that if I skipped one file I might miss a "hidden gem of information." When I did uncover those gems (which seemed to happen several times each day) it was truly exhilarating. 

In 1990 my proposal for a Fulbright research award was funded. That in addition to Faculty Professional Development Leave allowed me to spend nine months back in Ethiopia doing the field research necessary for the project. The funding of the project took me by surprise and in some ways I was not really ready to undertake it, but I certainly was not going to pass up the opportunity. I was excited (also a bit apprehensive) about returning to Ethiopia after a 15-year hiatus. How different would things be? Would anyone remember me? My language skills had also deteriorated considerably. 

Back to Ethiopia: 

My first afternoon after returning, I remember walking the streets of Addis Ababa to get the feel of the city again.  It was much more crowded than I remembered--people everywhere. It was difficult to maneuver along the sidewalks and streets and keep out of people's paths. The city was more ramshackle and run-down. Ethiopia had been through much under the Socialist government. I remembered people I knew who were victims of that period; one student of mine had been killed in the Somali War; my landlord's son had died in the student campaign or zemecha; I knew many who were already abroad or trying to get there. 

My return to Addis Ababa was met shortly with a tap on my door one afternoon from a young Gedeo man who was employed at the university. He had come to sing my praises (not a bad thing, I think), but more specifically to praise my research. A number of Gedeo had become university graduates since the time I was there and some were now in positions of importance. They had all read my work and reported on it to the elders, and they all seemed so proud of the fact that I had given the Gedeo a presence in Ethiopian history they had never before had. He thanked me exuberantly for my efforts to make that history known and encouraged me to do more. The recognition was unexpected but appreciated and helped fulfill me professionally as a researcher. Until this point I had truly thought no one cared. 

I intended that Gedeo would play a role in my new project and this young man soon became a research assistant of mine (part time). We were able to return to Dilla and to interview a good number of elders on their role in or memories of the Italo-Ethiopian War. Under the military government, travel had become more difficult. One needed to have travel permits and to show them to the proper authorities at each stop. Getting in to see such authorities often took hours and public transport (upon which we were heavily dependent) had become absurdly overcrowded. The political situation in the country was also fast deteriorating. Rebel movements in the north of the country were challenging the government, making visits to the north nearly impossible, an area that was vital to my research. Fortunately, Addis Ababa was such a diverse city that one could find there individuals from almost every part of the country. That fact allowed me to interview a broad base of people even if I could not travel everywhere I would have liked. 

I was intent on returning also to Debre Markos before I left. I had run into many former students in Addis, but wanted to reconnect with the "old stomping grounds." I was afraid that permission would never come, but at the last minute it inexplicably did. A bus trip that would normally take 8 hours took 12 because of the tight security. The trip for me was extremely sentimental. People did remember me. There had been no Peace Corps volunteers in the town since I left; I found what had been a new school when I left already run down, although the library appeared to be in much the same condition as when I left it. I also intended this to be a working trip, so we did as many interviews as we could while there. I was glad to have had the opportunity to return. One wonders what impact leaves behind in such cases, and what I found was that the change was not often apparent. It was more in the hearts & minds of individuals than in concrete legacies.

Around the world: 

I left Addis in November and spent about six weeks traveling before returning to teach at RU in Spring 1991. I had traveled through Europe a number of times on such adventures, but this time I decided to travel east. I explored India for about ten days visiting Delhi, Agra, Mumbai, Aurangabad, Trivandrum and Bangalore.  I was a week in Indonesia visiting Medan & Lake Toba, Jakarta and Yogyakarta. Fortunately I was able to stay part time with families that I knew. I was also able to make stops in Hong Kong (while still under British governance), Australia and New Zealand. Although I had never done it in one stretch, I could now say that I had been around the world.

Election monitor: 

Just a few months after I left Ethiopia in 1990, the rebel forces there prevailed and the military government was overthrown. Although the rebel forces, like the military government, were also socialist in orientation, there was a growing realization of the new world unfolding--Marxist-Leninism was supposedly discredited and any new regime would not be able to play Cold War politics. The new regime promoted ethnic-federalism and moved in the direction of free elections.

In the summer of 1992 I was invited to join an international team to observe the Ethiopian election process. This was a team put together hastily at the last moment with intent that we would be on the ground during the last few weeks before the elections. I was assigned to Gemu Gofa, a province in the remote southwest, a region that I had visited, but never worked in. My team consisted of two American academics, two Dutch professionals, a German journalist, and several others from Nigeria and Uganda. We worked in pairs with each team given a Landrover and driver. We began with the assumption that the process was likely to be flawed (after all this was the first time) but the real question would be: was the election flawed sufficiently to invalidate the whole process? We were greatly undermanned for the area we needed to cover, but tried to use the element of surprise; only we knew where we would show up the next day. It was fascinating work; I must admit that I had never given much thought before to the democratic process. We did find problems: voter registration offices that were closed, petitions from would-be candidates claiming that they had been intimidated, threatened, or denied access to resources. But we also found a general excitement among many people who seemed genuinely pleased with being asked to decide who would represent them in government. It brought forth in me emotions very different from those evidenced by a largely lethargic and uninterested American voting public. It was somewhat exciting to be involved in this process, flawed as it inevitably was.

International efforts at RU: 

My international training and travel has been an integral part of my tenure at RU. After having taught the World History survey for 23 years, I am still in love with it. Even as a young boy growing up on the Great Plains I found the world fascinating; my travels have reinforced that intensity, and every time I teach the survey, I learn something new. Many of my questions have been answered over the course of my professional career, but for every question that is answered I find a new one emerges. Education can be a lot like Sisyphus trying to push his immense rock to the top of the hill. I have tried in some small way to impart what I think I have learned through my international experiences to my students. 

I have endeavored over the years to create a climate of international interest on campus and this has been broad ranging. Some progress has been made. When I first arrived on campus I began working with the International Club although I was certainly not the main driving force there. I found that experience fulfilling. I have also helped a number of international students earn their ways to diplomas at Radford University and have now established an endowment to fund a scholarship for an international student. I've worked to try to bring international speakers to campus. Through the Honors Program we were able to invite a Venezuelan embassy official to talk about that country's role in OPEC; through my sponsorship of Pi Gamma Mu, we have over the years been able to bring to campus a representative of the ANC in South Africa (while the struggle against apartheid was still ongoing); a representative of the PLO to talk about the struggle of the Palestinians; a college professor from Uganda to talk about democracy and development in his country.  More recently I have worked to help make the African Cultures Festival a success: this included bringing to campus a representative from the Zambian Embassy to speak about issues in his country; a Kenyan employee of the American Red Cross to discuss health issues in East Africa; a visiting Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence from South Africa who was able to teach in the programs in international studies, women's studies, and political science. I have worked with other RU faculty to help design and promote an academic program in international studies that currently exists as a minor. I have tried to be fully supportive of the Office of International Education and in particular to use every opportunity I can to promote Study Abroad among students. I'd like to see my students as fascinated by the world as I have been, and to see the world not so much as a place of danger, but of wonderment. 

Family history: 

The other "love of my life" in recent years has been genealogy and family history. Actually I've been working with it for twenty years or more. What it has done for me personally is to help set me within the broader context of American and world history. It has demonstrated to me how "typically" American I am. Genealogy has gotten in some people's minds a bad rap, viewed as sort of the spurned stepchild of the true historian. It has been seen as the purview of little white-haired ladies intent on proving their ancestry to a Mayflower passenger or to Robert E. Lee. Instead it helps make history more personal. I won't bore anyone with all the details, but my explorations have helped to give me a better understanding of who I am. My father's side goes back to the time of the American Revolution while my mother's side is recent immigration. Although I bear a Scottish-Irish surname, I am more German than anything else. I've identified interesting ancestors in my family tree although I make no claim to "royalty": a knight who invaded England with William the Conqueror in 1066; the family that founded Pomeroy, Ohio; ancestors from Indiana and Iowa, North Carolina and Georgia who fought on different sides in the Civil War; and Elihu Root (Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of War).  As I now begin to look seriously towards retirement, the continued exploration of family history gives me something to look forward to.

Contact: cmcclell@radford.edu