My First Mentor

I am a Habsburg historian today because of something that happened on my first day as an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia back in the mid-1970s. Like many students brand new to higher education, I had no idea what courses I ought to choose for that first semester of college and UVa offered next to no advising assistance for new freshmen. So, I asked my Resident Advisor what he might recommend. He told me that under no circumstances should I take Western Civilization because it was too boring for words. Instead, he suggested taking an “upper level” history course. I saw European Diplomatic History in the course list and the fact that it had a 500-level number meant only that it was one of those upper-level courses he’d recommended.

Imagine my surprise when all of the students in that classroom seemed so much older than I was. I was planning to bolt out the door, but Professor Kraehe (1921-2008) arrived before I could and I couldn’t leave without walking in front of the lectern, so I decided to sit tight and hope he didn’t notice me. To my consternation, as soon as the class ended he asked me to follow him to his office. Because this was my first class as a college student, I naturally thought I was in serious trouble, especially because by then I knew I was in a graduate class.

Instead of telling me to drop the course immediately, Professor Kraehe sat me down, asked me to tell him about books I’d already read in the subject (two, I think) and then quizzed me on my knowledge of European history. At the end of our interview, he told me that I could stay in the class, but only if I came to his office hours every week without fail to discuss the readings and his lectures. Too scared to argue, I agreed. A week before the midterm he showed me a sample examination from a previous semester, a gift that saved me from a certain failing grade. Then he patiently suggested ways to study for an essay exam, the like of which I had never taken in high school. The “B+” grade I earned in that class and the “A” I earned in the second semester of the course are still my two proudest achievements as an undergraduate…even more so than the senior seminar paper I wrote under his guidance.

Imagine my surprise when I read his obituary and found out that he and I both were in our first classes at UVa that fall of 1977!

Somewhere along the way I became infected with Professor Kraehe’s enthusiasm for all things Habsburg and when I enrolled in my doctoral program it was in part because I wanted to reconnect with the issues he had raised in those lectures more than fifteen years before.

Ever since I became the professor I have tried to live up to the standard that Enno Kraehe set for me that first day of college in 1977, treating my students with dignity and respect. In that way I honor his memory every day.

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3 Responses to My First Mentor

  1. Sterling says:

    I can tell. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Trisha says:

    I’m really glad that there are instructors like you. I listened to the podcast on Wikipedia and really appreciated your take on dealing with it – it sounded like a great assignment. I’m in training as a librarian and have the same view, we have to teach it, not restrict its usage. Thanks.

  3. Carolyn says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your first professor. Thanks for sharing this.

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