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UND's Gordon Iseminger: A professor of the old school

Gordon Iseminger is starting his 51st year of teaching at UND. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

At the start of Gordon Iseminger's class one morning last week, students received a lecture that had nothing to do with European history.

"Some of you are having difficulty understanding what's in the textbook, and you shouldn't be having any difficulty, because it's written for college and university students," he said as a few stragglers wandered in. "And some of you are having difficulty writing and spelling, and you shouldn't be. Most of you have been handling English all of your life."

It's an example of how much Iseminger says he values the education offered to students and the high standards he sets before them -- 50 years ago, he could expect and get far more from a class at UND.

"Our school system failed people, our families failed them, people have failed themselves," he said. "We have to keep students' attention. They can't handle English, they can't spell, they can't write, because they've never been required to."

Iseminger, 79, would know. After half a century of teaching and observing students at UND, the history professor is making history himself this fall -- he's the longest-serving professor on campus. The Chester Fritz distinguished professor's tenure exceeds the tenure of other longtime professors by a decade or so and has taught more than 100 semesters.

Is he the longest-serving state employee?

"I'm at least approaching it," he said.

Iseminger remains a full-time faculty member, the last of the "old guard" who arrived to the department in the 1960s and 1970s. It's a considerable career for someone who said he had no intention of finishing college.

Old school

Advancing students to their potential has been the most rewarding part of Iseminger's job, and one that keeps him going, he said. He wouldn't be in the classroom today if the same thing hadn't happened to him. His doctoral dissertation adviser at the University of Oklahoma pushed him to finish a semester before he was ready, he said.

"I lost 25 pounds, but I passed the exam," he said.

Iseminger's expectations for his own students are so high that several remarked on the rarity of "As" awarded over the years, one joking that the number could be counted on two hands. Such a grade literally stands for excellence in his class, said Jay Durgin, a doctoral candidate in history at UND.

"They talk about grade inflation these days, and Dr. Iseminger, I can say for sure, has not contributed to this rising trend," said Durgin. "Some students probably want to avoid having to meet those standards, I imagine, but those students who want to go and take his courses, I think, are grateful for having done so."

Dressed in a dark grey suit and red tie, with dark frames perched on his nose, Iseminger looks like he's stepped out of a 1950s private boy's school. His attire, along with his insistence on addressing students as "Mr." and "Miss," reflects his formal attitude.

"We're dealing with something pretty precious in that class, and I want us to show respect for it," said the native of Canton, S.D.

No caps, candy bars, cell phones or drinks are allowed in his class, and he has a list of 20 words students cannot use in papers. It includes several that are nouns people often use as verbs, such as "transitioned."

And although technology has invaded nearly every part of human life, Iseminger has resisted. Potted plants, antique license plates and wall-to-wall books fill his campus office, but no computer lords over his work space. He doesn't own a cell phone, and he warned his three children against getting him an answering machine because he'd "put an axe through it," he said. However, he recently started using an iPad and he and his wife, Trudy, have a computer at home.

Every quiz and exam of his requires writing.

"How can you express yourself? By writing," he said.

Iseminger is known for his sense of humor and he frequently hammers students with several questions at a time, showing an amused impatience if they don't respond as quickly as he'd like. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon," he'll say.

Past and present students of his have described him as demanding, helpful almost to a fault and intensely hard working. Sometimes, his expectations and push for perfection can lead to a lot of red ink.

"There's a joke that if you give him a paper, it's going to bleed red when it gets back to you," said Sonja Hathaway, a doctoral student and one of his advisees. "It's not much of a joke, it's kind of true, but by the time the paper's done, it's well-written."

Infectious passion

Rich Lofthus, a history professor at Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D., said he entered the profession because of Iseminger, whose class preparation and high level of scholarship impressed him. Lofthus took undergraduate classes from Iseminger.

"One of the reasons I did this was because his style of teaching created an interest in the subject matter, and the passion he brought to his teaching was infectious," he said.

Iseminger's enthusiasm was particularly on display last week, when he explained to the class why history is still relevant.

"I know it was difficult for some of us to understand or appreciate how the Protestant Reformation possibly could have any bearing on me," he said. "Without the events discussed in this chapter, we wouldn't be here this morning. Without the events discussed in this chapter, we wouldn't be speaking English. We would be speaking French, or Spanish. Without the events discussed in this chapter, we would not be having a national election this fall, because we wouldn't be under the form of government that we are.

"All of these events lead up to the American Revolution. They lead up to one of the most beautiful passages in the English language -- the Declaration of Independence."

Iseminger said he wants students to take away from his class an appreciation of who they are and how they came to be. He said he can't teach them anything; they have to learn it themselves.

"If they aren't going to make any effort to do that, then they're wasting their time here," he said.

Iseminger himself does not waste time. Every sentence of his is packed with information, and he often referred to a white board scrawled with maybe 100 key words, phrases and years, used less for the benefit of students and more as a place for him to touch base during the lecture.

"I don't like to use notes, I like to look at people's eyes," he said.

Durgin, who has known Iseminger for nearly 10 years, said he once stood outside Iseminger's office door and, before knocking, heard speaking inside. He opened the door, and saw Iseminger was alone but rehearsing the next lecture.

"I think that's pretty remarkable," he said. "He's been teaching for decades, and he still puts that kind of care into his lecturing. Every word of his lecture seems to count."

No quitting yet

With the exception of two students sleeping in the back of the room last week, the rest of the class was awake, some doing their best to spar with him.

He called on about a third of students that day to provide answers, often asking three or four questions each time. This manner might be intimidating to students at first, but after a while, he gets to know everyone's name and starts to build a rapport, Hathaway said.

"That makes a huge difference in class, especially at a university, where many of your undergrad classes have 100 students and (instructors) don't know who you are," she said.

Hathaway, among others, said Iseminger is the reason that she's working on her doctorate in the history department. "He's not afraid to be himself," she said. "He does get a lot of flak for being difficult, but he doesn't let that bother him. He still maintains the standards he believes students should meet, regardless of the criticism he gets for it. I think that's pretty neat."

His habits also amuse students.

The first time Hathaway saw Iseminger, he was riding his one-speed Schwinn bike across campus, wearing a trench coat and a fedora.

Iseminger, who describes himself as "disgustingly healthy," said he's biked to UND every day since 1968 on an "old beater" that's built like a tank.

"I have been here for 50 years, and I have never parked a car on campus," he said.

Good health is one of the reasons he has no interest in retiring. Although he's been working on several articles outside of class, and is involved in the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and the Memorial Park Cemetery Association, he wants to continue teaching. Once he feels he's not being as effective as he should, he'll quit, he said.

"I want this world to be better than when I came into it, and if I have something to offer, I want to keep doing it," he said. "As long as my department is generous enough to allow me to stay in the department, it keeps me young. It keeps my mind open."

Orin Libby, a UND professor often called the father of North Dakota history, may be one of the few to exceed Iseminger's age teaching at the university. Libby retired in his 80s.

"I don't intend to out-do him," Iseminger said.

Matt Dunlevy, a master's degree student in history, ranks Iseminger with Libby and Elwyn Robinson, another celebrated UND historian. "In terms of history professors, he's the last of the 'old greats,'" he said. "A true historian's historian."

Call Johnson at (701) 787-6736; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1736; or send e-mail to jjohnson@gfherald.com.

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 

(701) 787-6736
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