Flashback Faculty Friday: David McComb

In celebration of CSU’s sesquicentennial, the College of Liberal Arts asked emeriti faculty to share memories of their time at CSU. Their stories will be featured each Friday during the month of February. See all “Faculty Friday” features here.  

Typewriter with text of a letter to the CSU Clark Building

To: Clark Building

From: David McComb, Professor Emeritus, History

Subject: Changes, November 4, 2019

You and I have traveled a long way since we first met in 1969 when I came to Colorado State University as an assistant professor. Your construction had been completed the year before and you had growing pains. As you settled into the shifting soil of Fort Collins your windows on the west side of the B-wing developed long cracks and had to be replaced, pigeons nested in your sunscreen facade, and some of your anchoring rods needed reinforcement to hold the B and C wings together. Still, I used four different offices in the history hallway in B-wing over time. In general, we did well together. I didn’t lose your keys, you kept me warm, I got promoted, and we produced good things as academic faculty and facilities are supposed to do.

I taught large classes of American History Survey at night in your A-wing second floor. It was hard on everyone – three hours of lecture in a single night with a brief break in the middle. I loved it, however, and I always appreciated the round of applause the students gave me at the end of the course. It helped when you provided a microphone to aid my fading voice when I neared the end of my teaching career.

I also taught the history of sports, and the history of technology in your C-wing where I discovered the ideal class size was twenty-two students. Then, everyone had the opportunity to talk, not just me. I handled a teaching load of three classes per semester, totaling about 300 students each year.

One objection to you, the Clark Building, was the institutional, pale yellow color of the walls and the cubical configuration of everything except the lecture rooms of the A-wing. I would ask my students if they would think better in a cathedral setting or even in a classroom brightened with varying colors. However, no one was particularly interested in color dynamics, or cathedrals for that matter.

While Professor William Grizwold and I served as sponsors to Phi Alpha Theta, the history honorary group, in the 1980s we brought some relief to your long, drab history corridor of offices in the B-wing by encouraging the group to create a mural of some thirty great personalities in world history. We had to protect it every year from a zealous maintenance staff that wanted to paint over it. It has endured for over thirty years, nonetheless, but likely will be lost in your “revitalization.” Perhaps, a photograph should be made of it before it is gone.

I also have an apology to make to you, old building. After the big flood on the campus in July 1997, I took a curiosity walk to Eddy Hall across way to see how the reconstruction was going in a basement classroom. To my dismay the maintenance people were putting it back just like it had been before. While deconstructed I saw little sense in that. Why not make it into a “smart” classroom with built-in slide screens, shades, whiteboards, and connections for slide projectors and motion pictures?

I huffed and puffed at the dean. The idea was already in the air and the classroom was converted. I was among the first to use it. About the same time Clark A-wing was rewired to provide “smart” classrooms. So, I am partly to blame for all the rewiring in your walls and the fancy lecterns that popped up. Slides had to be projected from a core control area and I rarely witnessed a presentation without some difficulty with projection. I am sorry about that.

And, I still worry about floods. You know that there was a major flood in 1938 and the big one in 1997 when we lost about a third of our library collection. The big floods seem to hit us every fifty years and they are never the same. We will be visited again of course, and I was grateful that the B-wing was up on pillars like houses on the Gulf Coast that have to be wary of hurricane surges. Colleagues in the Eddy Building lost personal libraries, notes, and irreplaceable slide collections.

Exterior of Eddy Hall after the Flood of 1997
Eddy Hall after the flood of 1997

We could have witnessed a major human loss too. Alert assistants, however, who observed the heavy rainfall on the intramural fields, changed the schedule, and held back the visiting school kids in Moby Gym. The kids were supposed to go to the lower level bowling alleys in the student center. Waist-high storm waters broke open the western doors of the student center and surged into the entire lower area. You can imagine the possible terror of teenagers jamming the stairwells to escape an indoor flood.

I have written about the Galveston hurricane of 1900 that still holds the record for the greatest number of dead from a storm, and also about the Big Thompson flood of 1976, the biggest killer in Colorado history. My oral histories are a part of the CSU archives, and my advice to our leaders who approve the drawings of snippy eastern architects who cannot imagine a western water problem is to be aware of floods. Thank God the B-wing of Clark was up on pillars.

I had an interesting experiment in teaching that did not much involve your classrooms except for methodical test taking. The university brought to the campus for a month a learning psychologist, Fred Keller, and installed him in the basement of the C-wing. In the late 1970s I visited him and we designed an experimental course for history students according to his principles of mastery learning called Personalized System of Instruction (PSI). The number of history majors had declined precipitously here and across the nation. This was a part of our attempt to revitalize history courses.

The basic concept of PSI was that it was unfair to force students into the limited time of a semester to learn a finite amount of information. PSI assumed that if properly motivated a normal college student should be able to perform at “A” level. With this new method students were assigned units of reading and tested over it until they could answer at “A” level, the level of mastery. They could restudy and repeat tests as needed, converse with me, and expect some units with review portions as well as a final exam. Students could take as long as they wished to finish the course at which point they received an “A.” There were no lectures.

Out of a class of about 55 students, 50 received “A” grades, 5 dropped out, one finished the course in three weeks, and most finished by the end of the semester. The participants asked for a test-taking opportunity during Thanksgiving vacation. Imagine that! Older students enjoyed proctoring tests that reinforced their own knowledge. A survey test taken at the beginning of the following semester revealed that the students from the experimental course learned more American history and remembered it better than from a regular lecture course. This was normal for PSI.

Yet, it was not continued. The course depended too much on the motivation of students to read carefully, older faculty did not like the method, and the dean, now dead and gone, thought all classes should fit into a bell curve where the bulk of students fit into a “C” category. I still believe, however, that any college student can obtain mastery level if they really want to do it.

All of this innovation was directed out of my B-wing office. But that is not all. My Clark office served as a place of writing and research at night and on weekends.

I had an active family life and the Clark office was a quiet retreat on weekends. During my time at Colorado State, 1969-2002 (that included a year with an NEH grant and three sabbaticals), I published 12 books with 8 new editions, directed three oral history programs, conducted 171 oral history interviews, wrote various book reviews, gave some talks, organized two national history conferences, and took a five ­year turn as chair.

So, I offer a toast of praise to my old friend the Clark Building: you gave me shelter and space to be a professor, and I made lasting friends in your hallways. Like you, in my old age I have had to undergo deconstruction and patching. I wish you a successful rebirth.

Professor Emeritus David McComb joined CSU’s history department in 1969. He published numerous books and articles, many about Texas, and served as the director of three oral history projects including one chronicling the 1976 Big Thompson flood. Dr. McComb retired from CSU in 2002 after 32 years of teaching and research.