Some young readers today may find heroes they admire in novels and comic books. Dr. Benjamin Patrick, a visiting assistant professor of history at Morehead State University, found compelling characters in a different type of literature.
“As a kid, I loved to read biographies of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, etc.,” he said. “Although I could not articulate it at the time, what I extracted from those stories was what historians call a ‘usable past:’ a history that provides lessons for understanding current events. History wasn’t just something that happened in the past, but history also provided insight on the present.”
While Fitzpatrick had an early appreciation for history, he would take a slightly different path to earn his college degrees in the subject. The Somerset native attended Somerset High School, where he played football all four years. After graduating in 1991, he enlisted in the United States Army a year later, spending three years as an infantryman stationed at Fort Ord, California, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky. After completing his service in 1995, he enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) as a history major. He thought he would simply earn a bachelor’s degree in history, which he did in 1999.
“Although I knew I wanted to major in history, honestly, I didn’t really know what I was going to do with my degree. I thought about teaching high school. In fact, one of my former high school history teachers had asked if I wanted to teach at the high school where he was currently the principal,” Fitzpatrick said. “But then, the chair of the history department at EKU, Professor David Sefton, planted the bug in my ear about attending graduate school. I hadn’t really thought about graduate school or even teaching at the college level. But after consulting with other faculty members, I applied to some graduate programs.”
Fitzpatrick continued his education, earning a Master of Arts in History in 2004 and a Ph.D. in History in 2009, both from the University of Notre Dame. There, he discovered a passion for teaching as a teaching assistant and leading his own breakout sessions with students. That being said, his newfound love for teaching was refined by a self-described “baptism by fire.”
“I was learning how to teach on the job. As a matter of fact, I think I gave my first lecture to an auditorium-sized class before I took the teaching practicum course,” Fitzpatrick said.
However, the hard work and perseverance he gained from his military experience paid off. In 2003, Fitzpatrick was awarded the Graduate Teaching Award from the University of Notre Dame’s Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning. He was even teaching classes in 2004 as a visiting assistant professor back at EKU while working on his dissertation.
Years later, while teaching at a community college in Jacksonville, Florida, Fitzpatrick learned of an open teaching position at MSU.
“Being from Kentucky and with my dissertation research focused on slavery and the slave trade in Kentucky, it seemed like a natural fit,” he said.
Fitzpatrick was hired by MSU in 2010 as an instructor of history before becoming a visiting assistant professor of history. His particular focus is “basically anything American” and includes classes ranging from The Civil War and Reconstruction to Colonial America and African American History. He said students’ interest in history varies from person to person. Fitzpatrick likes to emphasize class writing assignments while incorporating field trips to analyze the history of various sites and locations. Several years ago, he and fellow MSU history professor Dr. Adrian Mandzy took a group of students to excavate the Petersburg battlefield in Virginia. There, they dug up artifacts ranging from Confederate uniform buttons to pieces of cannonballs and students assisted in cataloging each artifact, creating an electronic database for the Camden-Carroll Library’s special collections.
Fitzpatrick said his interest in history is evident, apparent and, hopefully, infectious.
“I try to get students interested in history through my own enthusiasm for the subject. In my lectures, I try to connect the past with the present to give students some insight on current political and social events. Furthermore, I encourage my students to ask questions about the past by using lots of primary sources in exercises and assignments throughout the semester,” he said. “Also, I explain that history is about more than just memorizing a bunch of dates and the names of dead people. It’s about honing your analytical skills, learning to communicate effectively and understanding how to research effectively. These are skills that are portable and can be valuable in any profession.”
In addition to his work at MSU, Fitzpatrick has worked with the Kentucky Educational Development Corporation (KEDC) and the National Council for History Education for the past several years to provide professional development for primarily middle school history and civics teachers, many of whom teach in Eastern Kentucky. In this role, he conducts workshops and produces a podcast each semester. He has lectured on subjects ranging from the Civil War in Kentucky to the life of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion.
“This endeavor is dear to me since my teachers and coaches were significant influences in my life,” he said. “Anything that I can add to further the study of history is a win.”
Fitzpatrick said today, the internet makes it an exciting and potentially troubling time for the field of history thanks to increased politicization and clickable access to possible misinformation on historical events, figures and movements. Fitzpatrick’s belief in an honest historical examination of America has helped drive recent initiatives and projects, whether it is working to develop a KEDC curriculum on slavery reparations to collaborating with MSU Art Professor Julia Finch on a Caudill Conversation on Confederate statues.
“Too many misinformed people have become their own ‘experts’ armed with ‘alternative facts,’ that fit their existing biases,” he said. “Put simply, as a nation, we have to grow up! We have to collectively acknowledge both the rights and the wrongs America has done. We have to overcome this pathological desire to create a myth of the past rooted in American exceptionalism.”
Regardless of the type of history he teaches or the variety of methods he uses to teach it, Fitzpatrick still has one primary goal for his students at MSU: to find lessons in the past to help students create a better future for themselves.
“I think one of my favorite parts of being a college professor is watching students mature intellectually in the history program and then leave Morehead State for the next step in their careers,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, I have had some great students at Morehead State who have gone on to perform outstanding achievements. When past students email to say thanks for my classes and what they learned, I know that I am exactly where I should be.”
For more information on history programs at MSU, visit www.moreheadstate.edu/study/history.