GOOD NEWS: Connecting with students in history class

MIDLAND Midland College Professor David Hopkins Jr. has a lot in common with his students.
“When I was younger, I was encouraged to go to the local community college in Michigan where I grew up,” Hopkins said. “I took a few classes, and everything changed after I took some history classes.”
At the time, Hopkins was not sure exactly what he wanted to do with history; however, he knew he wanted to pursue it.
“Learning different stories of people and how they shaped the past really got me thinking,” Hopkins said. “Those classes at the community college really inspired me. After that experience, I transferred to Michigan State University, then got my master’s and doctorate degrees at Wayne State University, and here I am all these years later.”
Being a first-generation college student creates a unique bond between Hopkins and his MC students.
“I have a lot of those moments where students come to my office asking me about transferring to a four-year university,” Hopkins said. “I have many students come by and tell me they know what they want to do in life, like they have decided they want to be a college professor so they want to learn about my grad school experience. I am happy to be writing letters of recommendation for my students. I love seeing a change happen over the course of the semester. At first I can tell some students are thinking, ‘I am not sure about the school thing,’ then by the end I can see they are thinking, ‘I like college, and I want to take it as far as I can.”
However, there are difficult parts of being a history professor.
“The hardest thing I have to do is to get students to read the textbook,” Hopkins said. “Students have to be exposed to the material in different ways. The textbook is not going to talk about everything I include in class lectures, and I am not going to talk about everything that is in the book. So, I have weekly, online quizzes with basic questions about the reading. I have noticed improvements on students’ exams.”
Hopkins says students who attend class and pay attention usually do well in his courses. In return, he tries to make his lectures dynamic.
“A lot of students come to my class with preconceived notions about history being boring,” Hopkins said. “I take those opinions as a challenge. I think of my lectures as a performance. Luckily, I played in a band for a long time. I learned that shows rarely go on without hiccups, so I do not make rigid lessons plans. I know all the material. I show up and just try to make it fun, educational and interesting. I tell stories, or draw parallels to modern times or even sports. I mix in audio, YouTube clips, a documentary or even an episode of a TV show to break up the monotony. Students do not want to hear me talk all the time, nor do I want to talk all the time. I also tell a lot of jokes because we put historical figures on pedestals; we forget they are human. They failed, they had successes, they had a sense of humor. I think my corny history jokes also help get students’ attentions.”
Recently Hopkins was awarded an MC Teaching Excellence Award.
“I was happy just to be nominated,” Hopkins said. “I know how important of an award this is; I have seen so many of my deserving colleagues be both nominated and win. When I heard I was nominated, I was excited, grateful and humbled. Then during the awards ceremony, it was surreal. I was in disbelief. It took a second for it to click that I had won. I just tried to enjoy the moment.”
When he is not teaching the required collegiate U.S. History courses, Hopkins also teaches in the MC College Classics program—specialized courses for people 50+ years of age.
In addition, Hopkins coordinates the West Texas Symposium of History and the “West Texas Journal of History,” an annual event and publication endowed by Paula and Jim Henry where community college faculty, graduates and students present and write articles focusing on a wide array of topics—not just West Texas history. This year’s event was held on Saturday, April 13.
The West Texas Symposium of History and accompanying journal require a lot of hard work, but Hopkins says it does not feel like work, making him a true example of the adage “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
“History and teaching are my callings,” Hopkins said. “I cannot see myself doing anything else. Having the support of my family goes a long way in making teaching so much fun. I am so lucky to have found MC. During my hiring interview I felt like I had a lot in common with my interviewers; I had a connection with them. The faculty and staff at MC are super nice and friendly. They went out of their way to help me as a new employee and make me feel at home. I just try to copy them and make my students feel the same way in my classes.”