Living and teaching history


David Noble has watched the world change for more than a half a century and has turned around and taught the changes to students at the University of Minnesota.

Noble, an American studies and history professor, came to the University in 1952 . Now, 56 years later, he is retiring from his first and only job.

On Saturday, friends, former students and family gathered to celebrate Noble, who has helped make the American studies program one of the top departments in the country, according to the University News Service. The event, hosted by the College of Liberal Arts, featured a panel discussion with four of his former students.

Noble considered becoming a lawyer when he began college at Princeton University in 1945 , but after a year he discovered history was his passion and decided to teach. He was hired at the University after he received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin .

Noble knows he made the right decision by teaching and many of his students are grateful they have been able to sit in his classroom.

“It’s so easy when you are learning about history to not think about it as experienced by anyone, but you do get this kind of personal context [with Noble],” said American studies graduate student Doug Jensen . “It doesn’t necessarily come across as dryly as it would in a history book.”

Noble said he can recall presidential elections dating all the way back to 1932, and he can talk about his experience with the Great Depression and World War II. He briefly served in the army, but was honorably discharged after being injured.

“I think I’m an unusual resource for students,” Noble said.

Students are motivated by Noble because he encourages discussion in classes and seems genuinely interested in what students have to say, Jensen said.

“[Noble] is actually, strangely enough, a rather shy person,” said his colleague of about 30 years, American studies professor Lary May.

Retired Professor John Howe , who worked with Noble in the history and the American studies departments, said Noble has always been able to connect with students, whether it was by taking an interest in their thoughts or by dressing up as historical figures during intro-level classes.

It has been about seven years since Noble last put on a costume and used a fake accent, but many students and colleagues still remember Noble for the antics.

Noble, who got the idea from one of his undergraduate professors, said his repertoire included Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon.

“I always got a lot of enthusiastic applause at the end of those lectures,” Noble said. “So I felt pretty strongly that they were successful.”

Noble was somewhat of a “historical guru” around that time, May said.

“He had a devoted following of students,” May said. “As the years have gone by it has been a little less, but I still come across them.”

Lisa Arrastia is one of the more recent of Noble’s students who may fall under that category.

Arrastia, who met Noble in 2005 when she took his graduate intro class, brings her husband to breakfast with Noble and his wife once a month. Arrastia said she has been enamored with Noble since they met.

“I took his class and we both fell in love with each other,” she said. “He really loves his students.”

Noble, who is known to leave his scholarly writings in his colleagues’ mailboxes, pursues his own ideas but also wants to know about his students’ and colleagues’ thoughts, Arrastia said.

Noble’s legacy does not only include being a popular teacher. He is also a respected academic, having written more than 250 academic and book reviews and 10 books. He has advised more than 100 Ph.D. students.

Multiculturalism has been at the center of Noble’s research since the beginning of his career.

“He really is one of the co-founders of American studies as it exists today,” Arrastia said.

From 1988 to 1991 Noble served as the chair of the department of American studies, and in 1996 the University of Minnesota began the David Noble Lecture Series, which features a history professor every April. Noble gave the first lecture himself.

The lecture series started around the time Noble was expected to retire. The law formerly required professors to retire at 70, but when the law changed in the mid-90s , Noble took advantage of it and will be 84 years old when he retires this May.

“The remarkable thing about him is he is quite along in years, but the mind is still quite active,” said May.

Though much has changed since Noble came to the University — the campus has doubled in size and generations have come and gone — Noble has not changed much.

He is still personable and a great storyteller. The only thing that has changed is that his health has slowed him down, said May.

So what is next for the man who has been teaching for well-over half his life?

“I’m going to hang out with my wife and try and write a book,” he said.

Fifty-four years of experience — more than a third of the University’s total history — will walk out the door when Noble leaves at the end of this semester, teaching history, living history.

Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.