Teaching World War II


A couple of weeks ago, I began teaching my first course on World War II. And while I have taught World War II history before, it has always been from an American point-of-view. So while I have covered the U. S. landings at Normandy, the naval battles at Guadalcanal, or the race to the Rhine, I have never covered the entire history of the war, or the war from the view of say, the Soviets or the Chinese. For many Americans, we have been taught a very myopic version of the war. It has really only been recently that the West has learned the enormous scale of battles that marked the Eastern Front, and how the Russians bore the brunt of the war against Germany. I believe something like 90% of German soldiers killed during the war were killed by the Soviets. And while it’s not entirely our fault that we think the way we do, as the Russians were notorious about letting scholars into their archives and getting information on their actions out, but many Americans still believe we won the war single-handedly.

My students seem sharp and genuinely interested in the history of the war. I even had a student correct me when I had a major brainfart and stated the French had begun construction on France’s border of the Siegfried Line. I hadn’t even realized I had said it until a student raised his hand and asked, “Don’t you mean the Maginot Line?” “Yes,” I said. “Just trying to see if you were paying attention.” Oh well. I admit, I was pretty embarrassed. It happens I suppose. What I wanted to say was, “Hey! This is a night class, I’ve been working at my full-time job all day, and I’m tired, so cut me some slack!” But I can’t say that to Air Guard military personnel, the people that make up the students in my class. That would be stupid of me, and I really enjoy teaching these men and women. They’re doing the nation a service and I feel it’s an honor to teach them.

So while an entire course could be taught on just the Eastern Front (in fact, I had such a course in grad school), I must also lecture the class on the other Axis and Allied powers. Italy, Japan, Great Britain, France (both Free and Vichy), Poland, the aforementioned China (both communists and nationalists), Australia, New Zealand, Canada; and then there are the other smaller wars and battles: the Winter War, Southeast Asia, the African colonies, the Balkans…and I begin to ask myself: can I even do this, or have I bitten off more than I can chew? So far, I believe it has gone well, despite the recent crapping out of my laptop, necessitating the buying of a new one, and trying to convince Microsoft that I had indeed just installed Office 2010 on the aforementioned crapped out laptop and was not going to spend the money to buy it again for the new one! Microsoft cut me some slack and allowed me to transfer over Office 2010 to my new computer. That very same day, they gave me a free trial of Office 2013, which I haven’t yet played around with. Technology continues to scare me. I honestly believe I was born in the wrong era. But I’m really enjoying teaching the course and getting to talk about the war. I get to do the same in my full-time job as well, and I know what a rare thing it is to enjoy one’s job. I’ve had several jobs that made me absolutely miserable, and I won’t take what I do now for granted. I really feel that I’m living the dream (at least MY dream). So when I do get tired and confuse the Siegfried with the Maginot Line, I’ll just pause, smile, and remember that we can’t always get it right, but it sure is fun to try.

8 comments on “Teaching World War II

  1. Darrell Dvorak says:

    I hope you incorporate the latest scholarship regarding the role of AAF Col. Clifford Heflin in the development of, and logistics for using, the atomic bombs. Any questions, see the Winter, 2012 issue of Air Power History or contact me at d5547k@yahoo.com.
    Best regards,
    Darrell Dvorak

  2. tpartridge1 says:

    Nice post. Gives insight on some things. Bravo!

  3. Shel Cox says:

    I am so jealous! The fact that you have the opportunity to teach any WWII topis at AMU is awesome!

    Being a college instructor myself, I can relate to your experiences. I have provided instruction through the University of Phoenix, Central Texas College, and UMUC. One night, while I was teaching my last night of class for a Basic Foundations Course, I was on a role about proper citing, and utilizing writing tools. My mind was racing, as my wife was (at that exact time) packing a U-haul truck, and preparing for me to drive from Tulsa, OK to Dumfires, VA so I could start my new job at NGA. While I was “in the zone” during class, I went to the white board to wrote down my thoughts to the class. As I was speaking about citations, I wrote down “ERROR’s”, “WRITING TOOLS”, and I finished with “watch your “SITINGS”.

    It wasn’t until about three minutes later, and some giggles from the class, that I realized what I had done. I apologized to them…and they forgave me. Hey, we are instructors. The only perfect person is the one who knew all this was going to happen before we could teach it!!

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Hi Shel,

      I actually don’t teach at AMU. I teach an adult education program to Air Guard members through Marshall University. I’d love to teach at AMU though, but I think they have quite a few PhD’s that are doing very well there! I do not have a PhD, but a Masters (which I received at AMU)! I’ve been enjoying the opportunity Marshall has given to me, especially considering I had very little experience teaching before I started for them. Funny story, during one of my first classes ever, I had a student ask me if I had ever taught before. A bit embarrassed, I asked him, “Does it show?” and he responded (thankfully), “No, it’s because you look a little too young to be teaching.” Good to know there are still some apple polisher’s in the world!

      I just drove through Dumfries yesterday, on my way to a hockey game in Richmond! Small world. So are you still at NGA? Are you enjoying it?

      Well, in my relatively short teaching career so far, I have messed up a few times, but like you said, we aren’t perfect!

  4. cclark100 says:

    I teach at a high school that recently added a significant number of international students, many of them from Asia. The Pacific war is another aspect WWII that gets less focus in the West, but these kids know it well. They are always surprised and encouraged when we turn to Axis atrocities: Manchuria, Nanking, Area 731, etc. It is particularly interesting when I have Japanese students in the classroom, as their own understanding of Japanese conduct during the war is quite different from the Chinese or Korean kids’, and there is a huge difference between the way German students and Japanese students talk about the Axis powers in general.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      That has to be very interesting! I teach to college-aged Americans that have lived most of their lives believing the US won the war single-handedly. I plan on covering the Eastern Front quite a bit, not to mention other theaters, such as the near forgotten CBI and to try and cover the various nations and peoples that had been involved in the war. It’d be nice to have that kind of diversity in class though, especially from those that are only a generation or two removed from the relatives that experienced living under the Axis Powers firsthand.

      • Tom says:

        If I may share an excellent book for reference in teaching/understanding WW2, and one that brutally puts the US (and Britain) in their places, it is John Ellis’ Brute Force. He does not belittle the US, British, Canadian, etc. role, but wow… the presentation of information really makes you realize that until summer 1944, the west was not engaging the Germans on par with the Russians. For three years prior to Normandy, the vast bulk of the German army (not even counting the secondary Axis allies like Finland, Romania, Croatia, Slovakia) was firmly locked in a never-ending battle along a front that stretched up to 1500 miles in length. Think of that – continuous warfare on a massive scale from the sub arctic to the Caucasus. The tables in his book are excellent sources of presentation material to show the Soviet/Russian role in defeating the Axis.

        After reading his book, I came to the view:
        * Germany was the main axis power, defeat Germany and the axis is doomed
        * Germany’s central power source was it’s excellent army
        * The German army was defeated in the EAST, before we ever landed at Normandy


      • navyphoto22 says:

        Thanks for the recommendation Tom!

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