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UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Schofield Hall 218
Eau Claire, WI 54702-4004
Regents Honor History Prof
for Teaching Excellence,
Students Learn History by Doing It
phone (715) 836-4741
fax (715) 836-2900

MAILED: Aug. 26, 1997

EAU CLAIRE -- For the second time in five years a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire faculty member is the recipient of the UW System Board of Regents Teaching Excellence Award.

Dr. James Oberly, a professor of history known for making his teaching a working example of the "Wisconsin Idea," is one of two UW System faculty members to receive the $5,000 award recognizing outstanding career achievement in teaching in the UW System. He will receive the award at the Regents' September meeting in Madison.

"This award was created to honor outstanding teachers and draw attention to their profound impact on students systemwide," Sheldon Lubar, president of the Board of Regents, said. "This board is pleased to recognize Professor Oberly for his work with students in the classroom and beyond. His zeal for teaching and research and his credentials as an educator and researcher make him an invaluable asset to UW-Eau Claire and the entire UW System."

Oberly joined Eau Claire's history faculty in 1983 after two years as assistant to the college archivist at the College of William and Mary. He holds a doctorate in U.S. history and a master's degree in history from the University of Rochester and a bachelor's degree from Columbia University. His scholarly publications are in the area of mid-nineteenth century U.S. economic and political history. He is the author of "Sixty Million Acres: American Veterans and the Public Lands before the Civil War" and co-compiler of "United States History: A Bibliography of the New Writings on American History."

In nominating Oberly for the Regents Award, Provost Marjorie Smelstor points out that he has taught thousands of students over his 14 years at UW-Eau Claire, "and the outstanding quality of his teaching and the consistency with which he constantly seeks to improve his work is acknowledged by all."

From his freshman level introductory U.S. history course right up to the senior research seminar, Oberly involves students in research projects that enable students to learn history by doing it and at the same time serve the people of the State of Wisconsin.

Students in the introductory course investigate computerized census records of their home counties from the years 1850, 1860 and 1870. They work in small teams and produce a social and economic profile of their counties, and then as a class they map and chart the state.

A regular feature of his "Jacksonian America" course is something Oberly calls "Dial-a-Scholar." After reading the specialized monographic literature, students connect via a conference call to the scholars who are writing today's history.

"This year the students had a class session with a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Andrew Jackson. The experience was immediate, exciting and cheap, costing all of $20," Oberly said.

Oberly twice has asked committees of the State Assembly to work on collaborative projects with history majors and minors enrolled in a two-semester required research seminar. The idea is to turn talented history seniors loose on a topic of public policy importance and ask the students to produce a background history so that lawmakers can make better policy decisions.

In 1993 students prepared a report for the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on the history of capital punishment just as the committee considered a bill restoring the death penalty to Wisconsin. In 1994-95, students worked with the Special Committee on Welfare Reform, again producing a background volume of research and testifying before the committee. A third "Wisconsin Idea" section of the seminar is planned for next year, this time involving a collaboration with the State Supreme Court and Wisconsin Public Radio on the historical background of the 1840s to the Wisconsin Constitution.

"We'll look at the text of the original constitution and try to discover the basis of legislation that once prohibited divorce or why there was no state lottery," he said.

Oberly, who serves as the faculty advisor to the campus history honor society, Phi Alpha Theta, regularly reports on the students' research to audiences at the Chippewa Valley Museum, and he encourages his students to do the same when they visit their historical societies. To give the names and numbers of the old records more meaning, he takes the Civil War class to an Eau Claire cemetery where several dozen Union Army veterans are buried. They solemnly read the names of the deceased from the tombstones and share stories about the units involved. He has future plans to take a class south to Mississippi during spring break to follow the route of the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteers, a unit raised among Eau Claire men in 1861, which fought at Jackson and Vicksburg.

Former student Kristine Havlik, now a law student at the University of Virginia, said Oberly guided her research on the path of an army regiment from her hometown throughout the Civil War, a project which was accepted for presentation at the National Collegiate Honors Conference in 1996. She recalls he challenged her and other history majors in the research seminar "to go further than we thought possible. Whether it was finding sources, writing drafts, or making tables, Dr. Oberly would challenge us to find that one last source, to elaborate just a little more on a certain statement, or to pull out one more item to use as a visual aid."

Oberly's use of the computer in his introductory course is a major breakthrough in history teaching, according to history department chairman Steve Gosch. "He teaches his students how to use the computer as more than a word processor. Under his supervision students use computers to obtain access to historical documents, census records, museum collections and other historical materials."

Recently Oberly has taken the lead in involving faculty and students from other UW System campuses in the Wisconsin Student History network, securing grant support from the Undergraduate Teaching Improvement Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Twenty historians at 12 campuses have their students join with Oberly's through electronic mail to talk U.S. history and also to do active learning projects, like the census analysis, via the World Wide Web. Their work is available at

"My experience has been that if I ask a lot of UW-Eau Claire students, I get a lot," he says.

He also takes a personal interest in serving public school teachers' continuing education by regularly teaching summer workshops in Wisconsin Indian history, in response to the Legislature's 1989 mandate that the subject of Wisconsin Indian history, culture and tribal sovereignty be taught at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

"In running these summer workshops, we've developed some useful partnerships between UW-Eau Claire and tribal communities at Oneida, Menominee, Lac Court Oreilles, Bad River, Lac du Flambeau and the Ho-Chunk Nation."

Other UW-Eau Claire recipients of Regents' teaching awards include the late Dr. Maxwell Schoenfeld, professor of history, in 1992, and the department of chemistry in 1993.


UWEC [Administrative Offices] [News Bureau]

Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Schofield 218
(715) 836-4741

Updated: Aug. 26, 1997