History professor levels with students
Jason Opal's first book, Beyond
the Farm, appropriately discusses
ambition, a quality that he possesses.
At age 32, he has already been
the recipient of numerous awards
and accolades, and was most
recently named one of twenty Top
Young Historians by the History
News Network. The Top Young
Historian prizes are awarded to
individuals who have made exceptional
contributions to the field
through research and teaching.
In response to the award, Opal, Assistant Professor of History and George C. Wiswell Jr. research fellow, said that he felt "lucky to get to explain the history that I do to a whole new audience." His favorite audiences, however, are still the students in his classes. That feeling is reciprocated, as Opal is one of the most popular professors on campus.
A self-proclaimed "army brat," Opal spent much of his childhood moving around the United States, and grew accustomed to being the new kid in school. The scenery may have changed, but his dream remained constant. While other kids envisioned being firefighters or astronauts, Opal had other plans. "I wanted to be a history professor for a long, long time," he said.
After graduating from high school, Opal majored in history at Cornell University. Once he completed his undergraduate work, he immediately entered a Ph.D program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. After acquiring his doctorate, Opal came to Colby, where he has been a professor ever since. "I like to say that ever since the first grade, I've always been in school," Opal said. For Opal, teaching and research go hand-in-hand. "I try to maintain not a balance, but a synergy between the two," he said. By incorporating his research into his lectures, he is not only able to improve his teaching, but also to use his students' reactions as a barometer. "There's no better way to try to figure something out than to try to explain it in a lecture class. If you can give a good lecture about your research then you've done good research. If you can't, then you need to do more."
Students who find themselves in Opal's history classes may be surprised to learn of the impact that they have on this professor's work. "I learn from my students, and they are great here. They teach me as I teach them." Many of his students feel that the mutual respect Opal expresses for his students is what makes him so successful in the classroom. "It is this respect for his students as scholars which has made him such a well-received professor," said Anthony Jenkins '12, adding that "his classes strike the perfect balance between lecture and discussion."
For those who are ready to sign up for one of his classes in the Fall, Opal cautions that he may not be teaching much because he and his wife, Holly--a coach at Bowdoin C o l l e g e--a r e expecting their first child. In addition to the arrival of the baby, Opal also has two more books in the works. The first, to be released next year, is entitled Common Sense and Other Writings by Thomas Paine. To follow will be Avenging the People, which traces vengeance through American history. "When I write," Opal said, "I try to give a historical understanding of things that are with us today...mat te r s like ambition and vengeance, things that are intangible, I try to make them historically explicable." Despite a full course load and his research, Opal still finds time to be actively engaged on campus. He founded the Iraqi Refugee Awareness Movement (IRAM) at the College in 2007. The organization works to raise money for the nearly 1.5 million Iraqi refugees attempting to relocate after being forced from their homes. "I'm very personally, emotionally involved with refugees," Opal said of his inspiration for founding IRAM. Through his passion for teaching, his outstanding research, and campus involvement, Opal has proven himself to be a valuable asset to the College's community. When asked if there was anything he would change about the culture on Mayflower Hill, he said that he wished there was more discussion of ideas outside of class. "Colby students have always struck me as being very, very smart and very, very hardworking. But we're all so busy here; and if we're not busy for ideas, then what are we busy for?"