“Go west, young man,” is a phrase Horace Greeley popularized with an 1865 editorial in the Terre Haute Express (he hijacked the phrase from John Babsone Lane Soule (which involves a story nearly as long as Soule’s name)). A century and a half later, minus two years, Matthew Mingus finished his dissertation at UF, defended it, and went west with his partner and wife, Lindsey, a grade-school teacher. Dr. Mingus is now teaching at the Gallup campus of the University of New Mexico. He has kindly shared with us a few observations of work and new home to go along with a couple of scenic photographs.
I am currently a tenure-track assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico’s branch campus in Gallup. While I enjoy most of the benefits of being a faculty member within the University of New Mexico system, the branch campus places a higher premium on teaching effectiveness than on my own research agenda. Funding is always available for research trips and conferences, but those are hard to schedule around my 5/5 teaching load. Fortunately, I only have two regular “preps”: a Western Civilization survey up to 1648, and a Western Civilization survey from 1648 to the present. Occasionally I have the opportunity to teach an upper-level course on the history of the Holocaust, and I am hoping to teach a topics course on oral history next semester. Because I am employed at the branch campus, my field of European history is meant to help bolster the credits of students planning on transferring to the main campus in Albuquerque. In this sense, the branch functions very much like a two-year community college.
Gallup is a unique community. As the only major population center between Albuquerque and Flagstaff (Arizona), Gallup provides commercial, educational, and health services to all of the small rural communities near the New Mexico-Arizona border. Gallup is another sort of “border town” as well. The city’s primary source of revenue is the nearby Navajo reservation (the largest American Indian reservation in the United States). Natives not only shop, eat, and sell their goods in Gallup, but they are also the city’s primary tourist attraction. Over 75% of McKinley County residents (of which Gallup serves as the county seat of government) are Native American. Roughly 15% of the population is white (or, in the local vernacular, “Anglo”). It is one of only three counties in the United States where neither English nor Spanish is the primary language spoken at home; here, it is Navajo.
Over 90% of my students are Native American. Most are registered tribal members of the Navajo Nation or the nearby Zuni pueblo. The vast majority of my students are also first-generation college students who require college remediation and rely heavily on Pell Grants and tribal financial aid to cover the costs of their education. Despite the low sticker price of roughly $850 per semester, most of my students cannot afford to attend the university without some sort of assistance. The poverty of this region is extraordinary, particularly on the reservation. The median per capita income of McKinley County is under $10,000, with over one-third of the population (and over 40% of children) subsisting below the poverty line.
When my wife and I moved to Gallup, we were aware of all of its problems (quick side note: my wife, Lindsey, is a middle-school math teacher whose job is roughly 1000 times harder than mine). We were unprepared, though, for the enormous sense of purpose we now draw from our work. I don’t mean that in the colonial sense, where the white saviors swoop in and try to bring ‘real culture’ or ‘real education’ to an indigenous population (although there’s plenty of that here). Instead, we have helped students who have been perennially underserved find their own voices, work their own traditions into their educational environment, and recognize the value of Western education as a tool that can be exploited for potential economic opportunity or as a possible weapon with which to subvert and manipulate Anglo-American hegemony.
I can’t pretend that the University of Florida’s graduate program in history prepared me for this particular student demographic. But, undeniably, my faculty mentors–Geoffrey Giles, Steven Noll, Sheryl Kroen, Peter Bergmann, Alice Freifeld, and Norman Goda–served as incredible examples of teachers worth emulating. While my research on modern European cartographies may always be secondary to my obligations as an instructor, I now work in a place that desperately needs good teachers. I want to be one of those good teachers; my standards are high, but my students enjoy my classes. I have students who drive more than an hour each way, or who walk miles from their job-site, to attend my lectures. The effort I put into my courses needs to (at least!) equal the effort my students put into coming to class. A sizeable chunk of them fail each semester, but they do it with a smile on their face and more knowledge of Western Civilization than they had before (which they will hopefully use when they re-take the class!).
I love this place. I live five minutes from a massive mountain that my wife and I regularly hike with our dogs. We live within a few hours of dozens of national and state parks (including the Grand Canyon). I love the students. At Florida, students (rightly) expected their instructors to be amazing lecturers. In Gallup, students expect burn-outs and temporary educators (like their “Teach For America” middle- and high-school teachers). Great teachers are at a premium here, and students recognize that by constantly exchanging genuine appreciation for excellent education.
While I continue to pursue my research, I will never be the next great historian of modern Germany. I will probably never mentor graduate students, or work at a liberal arts college, or even have an undergraduate student be so inspired by my teaching that they go on to major in history. But I have an opportunity to help my students become better writers, readers, and thinkers, so that they can forge better lives for themselves and their respective nations/communities. I owe this opportunity, in part, to my education as a graduate student at UF, and I am very grateful. In fact, I’m really excited about it.