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Annie Lennox, Stock Photo, January 15, 2011. Source: http://www.mediabistro.com

Probably the professor that most approximated a teacher in my courses at Carnegie Mellon University (called “CMU” by folks there, in the ‘Burgh) was Katherine Lynch (she usually went by Kate). I took her for two classes in my transfer year to Carnegie Mellon in ’93-’94.


I had Lynch for Historical Methods my first semester because, you know, a student with a master’s degree and a year of doctoral work at the University of Pittsburgh in history would have no idea about historical methodology by his third year of coursework. But the department insisted that I needed to take courses like that in order to earn their stamp of approval — that I was properly prepared for my comprehensive exams and the dissertation stage once this year of hoop-jumping ended (but that’s a blog post for another time). I also took a course with Lynch in Comparative Urban History (read “Western Europe and the US” here).

What I remember most about Professor Lynch was how much of a contradiction she was, and not necessarily in a bad way. She kept her hair short and platinum blond, wore clothes that were professional but fit that near-rocker style. Compared to the tweed jacket, sweater vest and Shaft-suit-wearing crowd of super-stuffy professors in the history department, Kate Lynch reminded me of, well, Annie Lennox in

Annie Lennox, Gaza Protest, January 3, 2009. Source: http://www.topnews.in

Eurythmics and solo (or Sharon Stone, at least in haircut). Even though I was twenty-four years old by my second time in one of her seminars, my mind in class wandered like I was in high school again. I thought of songs like “Would I Lie To You,” “Walking On Broken Glass,” “No More I Love You’s,” and my favorite when it came to Lynch, “Here Comes The Rain Again.”


The contradiction was in Lynch’s teaching style. Cold, dispassionate, and befuddling, a complete opposite of how she presented herself based on her outward appearances. I’m sure the decidedly male history department played a significant role in how she expressed herself in the classroom. I found her off-putting, to say the least. She was moody, happy and energized one class, irritated and impatient another. She’d lecture on a concept in a graduate seminar for an hour, then somehow expect us to have a vigorous discussion for the next two.

All because Lynch’s style was all about us deciphering her cryptic questions, rather than about us debating fine historical points or big historical themes. In many classes, it came down to one of us — and I was fairly good at this — finding a paragraph on page 88 of a 400-page book that addressed one of her cipher questions. My late eleventh-grade AP US History teacher and mentor Harold Meltzer and his weird and meandering stories were easier to figure out. I’ve always said that Humanities prepared me more for grad school than it did for college. In Lynch’s case, I was absolutely right.

Even with all of that, Lynch was undoubtedly the closest thing to a teacher I had in my nine courses at Carnegie Mellon. Joe Trotter was a better professor, but Lynch acted the most like a teacher, reminding me very much of many of my teachers during my Humanities years from seventh grade through high school. On that scale, at least, she was pretty good.

Yet I sensed that Lynch was holding back, not engaging us in ways that would’ve made us better students, better historians, better intellectuals. And I confirmed that sense when I finished my coursework in May ’94. She was a much warmer person and intellectual outside of the classroom, much more interested in discussing ideas — hers and mine — than she showed at any point in the two classes I had with her. In the classroom, most of my classmates felt like they were “walking on broken glass” around her. But for me outside of the classroom, Lynch was easily the most engaging and caring of the professors I took while in the “madhouse asylum” that was Carnegie Mellon’s history department.

If there was anything I learned from Lynch, it was the need to engage students, to be vulnerable (not weak, mind you) to them in order to reach even the ones that might well be unreachable. Because the opposite approach doesn’t work very well, that is, if one wants to teach and not just facilitate a “shape of the river” discussion.