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February 2016


Not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul: Justin Turner
William Burns


Justin Turner
Justin Turner, assistant professor of history at the Eastern Campus, wrote his dissertation about baseball's role in US-Cuba diplomacy. (photo by Cynthia Eaton)

H.G. Wells once remarked that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

Justin Turner, assistant professor of history at the Eastern Campus, is fully engaged in winning this race. He’s been teaching in some capacity since 2004, when he started as a teaching assistant in graduate school at the University of Alabama, where he completed his masters and doctorate degrees. Teaching in big, 250-student survey courses provided valuable classroom experience.

In 2008 after he completed his graduate coursework and moved to Virginia, Justin took on adjunct assignments at a few colleges in and around Richmond. Even with the classroom experience he already had, teaching independently for the first time was an immense challenge. Part of this was taking on five sections of two courses at two institutions that were an hour apart. Justin drove 700 miles each week that semester. This trial by fire honed Justin’s pedagogy and his philosophy of education. He continued teaching as an adjunct until spring 2012, when he took a semester break in order to complete his dissertation.

During that semester he applied for a position at SCCC. Justin feels it is a perfect match for him. Through repetition, practice and incessant tinkering, Justin had ironed out a lot of the kinks in his courses and felt good about taking the next step. He also knew that moving to Long Island would create opportunities for his wife, who has a BFA in theatre performance, to work in New York City. Justin and his wife always dreamed of moving to New York, and coming to SCCC was very fortuitous.

Justin feels that the best part of working at SCCC is getting to do something that he loves, while working with so many people that he admires and respects. He recognizes the great administrative team at the Eastern Campus and their vital support. Justin sees it as a culture of mutual trust as his friends and colleagues from the faculty and the professional staff inspire him to work harder.

Justin also appreciates SCCC students. Justin feels it’s easy to complain about the bad ones, but there are so many more who are bright, hard working, appreciative and just loaded with potential, facing challenges that he didn’t have to deal with when he was in college. As he tells them on the first day of class each semester, they’re real adults, much more so that he was at that point. When he thinks about what so many of our students overcome to make it to class on a daily basis, how can he not give them his best effort?

Justin is dedicated to improving as a professor, and every time he teaches a course students should be getting the best version of it that he’s ever done. He takes the same approach toward all of his professional activities whether it’s teaching, research or college service. For Justin it’s all about growth and getting better at what he does. In teaching a subject like history, about which many students are apprehensive, Justin believes that he has to demonstrate his enthusiasm for the material and how learning this material will help students.

He talks with his students about how studying history benefits them in a number of ways. In terms of their academic goals, almost all of his students are taking a history course to fulfill a general requirement, so it helps them get closer to graduating, which may lead them to the larger life goals that they have (family, career, etc.). Justin also highlights how much of the coursework is designed to foster skills like reading comprehension, writing, communication and critical thinking, which will be useful in whatever professional field they enter.

In terms of civic responsibility, he stresses to his students how an understanding of history makes them more capable citizens, which is crucial in our participatory system. Finally, with regard to philosophical questions of existence, Justin argues that history is designed to provide a sense of perspective and to sharpen our understanding of who we are as people and what is our purpose in life. That’s not to say that history answers those big questions, but hopefully it gets his students thinking about them.

Student response to Justin’s classes has been very positive. He’s happy to hear from a number of students who were dreading history before the semester, but by the end of the semester they ended up really enjoying it. Justin thinks that one of the challenges in the field is to shatter the perception that history is just trivial memorization. Obviously it involves memorization, but the ultimate goal is comprehension, not just recitation. If he can show that approach to the students, Justin finds that they buy in.

Sometimes it can be difficult to separate Justin’s professional and personal lives, as his research reflects his personal interests. Justin has always been a big baseball fan, and his doctoral dissertation is on baseball’s role in US-Cuba diplomacy. On the weekends and during the semester breaks, almost all in his social circle are co-workers. Sometimes this kind of overlap can make it feel like he is never “off the clock,” but Justin believes that’s the nature of an academic life and he thinks that it makes the work that he does much more enjoyable.

For Justin the FA means support and empowerment. When he came to SCCC, the faculty were coming to the end of the two-year salary freeze that the members voted to support in order to protect faculty jobs from being cut. It wasn’t lost on him that without that sacrifice, the position that he arrived to fill may not have existed. Justin was immediately impressed with the New Member Mentor Program. Always having someone that he could go to with questions that first year was comforting.

The FA has also extended a lot of professional opportunities to him, including most recently the chance to work with the new Conflict Mediation Program and to receive intensive training from an expert in negotiation, arbitration and conflict resolution. Justin believes that the FA is so good because of the people in the FA. He’s very appreciative of how much they’ve done for him.

For the future Justin is very excited to be expanding the program at the Eastern Campus by adding the Liberal Arts and Sciences: Social Sciences degree, which includes a history emphasis option. He is hopeful that this will allow the college to better identify and advise our students who want to be history majors and he’s eager to share his own experiences in the field with those students. Justin teaches one history course per semester for the honors program, and this semester he’s teaching an honors version of the Foundations of American History (HIS103) course for the first time. Justin is also filling in as honors coordinator while Adam Penna is on sabbatical.

With his own academic background and research, Justin would someday like to develop and teach a course on American foreign policy and international relations. He’s also interested in creating a course, likely a special topics offering, on baseball and American history. Justin feels that a lot of the major themes in modern American history can be studied through baseball, such as how industrialization and urbanization gave rise to professional teams and organized leagues; how American foreign policy, particularly in the western hemisphere, helped to grow baseball’s appeal in the Caribbean; and how Jim Crow and racism led to segregation and baseball’s color barrier.

As Yogi Berra once observed, baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical; Justin Turner’s knowledge and enthusiasm for teaching will surely correct this equation for SCCC.