Since he arrived at Clark in 1990, Professor Drew McCoy has taught a wide range of courses on early American history through the Civil War. But recently, his classes have also touched on more current events.
“When I first taught a course on the Civil War at Clark, I think we were all riding the wave of Ken Burns’ documentary film about the war,” which premiered in 1990, says McCoy, who is preparing to retire from the classroom after 32 years. “But as the years, and now decades, have gone by, that course has become increasingly relevant and essential to understanding so many of the challenges Americans are facing today.” Most recently, he adds, it was impossible for students to separate what they were reading about the antebellum and war years from the front-page news of the present day.
This is just one example of why studying unredacted history is so critical, says McCoy, the Jacob and Frances Hiatt Professor of History. The push across the country for governments to censor what can and cannot be taught is “wrongheaded and, ultimately, self-defeating,” he says.
He refutes the argument that college students are somehow being indoctrinated by professors who teach the “wrong” point of view. “The undergraduate years are impressionable years, but at the same time, our students are adults, capable of thinking for themselves, and they’re not about to allow themselves to be indoctrinated into anything,” he says.
McCoy came to Clark after teaching for six years at Harvard University and five at the University of Texas at Austin, which followed his graduate work at the University of Virginia and undergraduate studies at Cornell — all institutions much bigger than Clark.
“What attracted me to Clark was the manageable size of the University, and the opportunity Clark offered to combine a small liberal arts teaching environment with at least some graduate education at the doctoral level,” McCoy says.
“As I went through my Ph.D. years and thought about what kind of career I wanted to have, I had always imagined myself teaching at a small liberal arts college, which was, in a way, kind of strange since I had never attended such a school. But Clark got to me — and I still feel this way.”
McCoy also was interested in Clark’s tradition of faculty governance. “The administrators, as well as prospective colleagues, I met during my interview visit impressed upon me that Clark was a different and much more attractive place to be than some of the very large universities.”
During his tenure at Clark, McCoy has served on a number of faculty committees, including Planning and Budget Review, Faculty Review, Personnel, and Faculty Steering. He also served two terms as chair of the Department of History.
McCoy received the New England Historical Association Book Award and the American Historical Association’s John H. Dunning Prize for his 1989 book, “The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy.” He was nominated by presidents George Bush (October 2003) and Barack Obama (October 2012), and confirmed by United States Senate (February 2004 and April 2013), to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation in Washington, D.C.
While McCoy enjoyed mentoring graduate students in the U.S. and Atlantic World wing of the History Department’s doctoral program, he has devoted the bulk of his attention to undergraduates. “I have had many memorable students over the years,” particularly honors students, he says.
“I’ve taken great pleasure and satisfaction in working closely with my senior honors students as they work on their theses,” he says. “I can’t really remember a disappointing or bad experience I had teaching my honors students, and I will never forget a number of my honors students who wrote theses at what I’d like to call a near-professional level of competence — astonishingly outstanding work for undergraduates.”
Since joining the Clark faculty, McCoy has seen gradual changes in students that he thinks are probably true at every university.
“The internet and social media have had a huge impact on all of us — including old fogey professors like myself — but particularly undergraduates,” he says. “They are able to enjoy all of the wonderful advantages of the internet, particularly for research. I still remember when email came to Clark in the 1990s — I had this little laptop in my office, and though the Clark internet then was very unreliable, I was wired up so I could use email.
“I won’t say I was resistant to it,” he says, “but it took me a while to become fully acclimated to electronic media. It wasn’t too long before that became an essential piece of how I communicated with my students.”
Technology also played a part in weathering the massive challenge of the pandemic. “Students graduating this year were first-year students when we had to abruptly shut down in spring 2020, so that cohort has had a particularly difficult experience,” he says.
When classes abruptly moved online, “I, almost as a matter of principle, refused to meet with my students in real time,” he admits. “I communicated with them via Moodle and email, wrote up lectures and posted them online, and created discussion boards.
“But the longer the pandemic went on, the more comfortable I got with teaching classes remotely,” even learning to use (“and love”) the OWL, a 360-degree camera installed in Clark classrooms for hybrid learning.
“The pandemic posed challenges, but I think the University did a superb job of allowing things to happen safely and responsibly,” he says.
One of the most memorable times of McCoy’s Clark tenure occurred in the last few years, when he taught a new course, The Continental Divide, about U.S. and Canadian history in parallel and comparative terms.
“I did so much reading on Canadian history to prepare for the course, and it attracted a group of extraordinary students, both fifth-years and undergrads who made for a wonderful teaching and learning experience. It was stimulating to develop and teach.
“The course reflects a lot of what I value about Clark. Being in a small department, I had the opportunity to teach things that were outside of my immediate area of expertise, and the class was a group of vintage Clarkies. It epitomized the Clark classroom experience.”
While his retirement plans are still forming — McCoy is looking forward to spending more time on his hobbies, particularly photography — one goal is to complete an article in progress, “Abraham Lincoln’s Revolutionary Inheritance: A Reconsideration.”