by Don Ratzlaff
The Free Press
Given the tight job market for college-level history professors these day, Bob Elder and his family are particularly grateful this Thanks??giving season.
?We?re really happy to be here,? said Elder, who is in his first semester as assistant professor of history at Tabor College.
?I?ve been telling people it?s really surreal?in a good way?because we had come to peace with the fact that we wouldn?t be able to get back this close to family, let alone living right next door to my family.?
Yes. Next door.
Elder happily makes the daily commute from Tabor College to the home he and wife Catherine acquired in Elder?s hometown of Valley Center.
And they?re happy for the privilege.
?We?re living right around the corner from the place I grew up,? Elder said. ?We live right across the street from one of my brothers, and right next door to another brother.?
That?s a very different destination than the one his career path seemed to be taking them.
Born into a family with six siblings, Elder attended North?field School for the Liberal Arts in Wichita, a school limited to 100 students. His mother, Becky Elder, is the school administrator.
Elder?s father, Phillip, is a South Carolina native. Because of his father?s background and influence, Bob and several of his siblings left Kansas to attend Clem?son University.
While a student there, he met his wife, Catherine, also a South Carolina native.
Elder earned bachelor and master?s degrees in history at Clemson, then went to Emory Uni?versity in Atlanta, Ga., to pursue a doctorate. He completed it six years later in 2011.
?We had a fantastic experience there,? Elder said of their time in Atlanta. ?We had our first two kids there, and just had our third kid Oct. 2.?
From there, the Elder family moved to Chicago, where Bob had received a post-doctorate position at Valparaiso University.
?We were there for two years,? he said. ?Especially because of the kids, we always talked about living closer to family, but with what I do, you usually don?t get to choose where you live. There aren?t that many jobs.
?We even said we?d take either side of the family, whatever develops.?
That?s when the position at Tabor College surfaced.
?I kind of grabbed at it at the last minute,? Elder said. ?It all worked out, amazingly and providentially.
?I feel like right now I?m not even learning the lay of the land yet. I?m just barely sitting in my seat.?
Being at Tabor
This semester, Elder is teaching World Civilizations, U.S. History Survey, 20th Century U.S. History and Historiography, a capstone course for history majors.
Like his predecessor at Tabor, Richard Kyle, Elder?s area of concentration is in American religious history.
?That was one of the draws for (Tabor), is that I can teach a lot of the Ameri?can religious history,? Elder said.
He?ll be teaching Menno?nite history classes in the future; Tabor College was founded by the Mennonite Brethren denomination.
Ironically, Elder has a connection with Tabor through that unique faith lineage: His grandmother was raised in a Menno?nite community.
?She did not maintain any ties to the community, but I certainly grew up hearing the stories how the Russian Mennonites had come to central Kansas, and how Turkey red wheat was a big thing,? he said.
?My grandmother is very unique,? he added. ?Up here, with some of the speech patterns, I feel I?m almost being haunted by her. I keep having this experience: ?Oh my gosh, that?s exactly how she talked.?
?She passed away a couple of years ago,? he said, ?but she would have been so pleased that I ended up here. To be honest, she would have been insufferable.?
Making the case
Elder is well-aware why history jobs have declined in the academic community in recent years. With the skyrocketing cost of a college degree, the emphasis is increasingly on vocational majors.
?I think the perception is that history is one of those luxury disciplines?you can major in that, but make sure you have something you can eventually do,? Elder said with a chuckle
But the ability to synthesize and communicate the ideas of others is only going to be in higher demand in this new economy, he added.
?Those abilities are in high demand because they?re so rare,? Elder said. ?History is one of several humanities disciplines that really help you do that.?
Elder said most people are surprised how useful the study of history can be in the current economic environment.
?One of the really true things is that it?s almost more risky to be a vocational major these days,? he said. ?You very literally could be training for a job that?s not going to be there in two years.
?An argument for the liberal arts is that they?re really teaching you how to learn,? he added. ?I think we?re going to see an emphasis on lifelong learning in this new economy because things are changing so fast.
?I think that?s basically what the humanities and liberal arts are all about?teaching you how to do that on your own.?
Beyond the classroom
As for his interests outside of the classroom, Elder said starting a new job and helping to raise a young family leaves little time for avocations.
?At one point I did have hobbies?before work and kids,? he joked. ?Growing up?and I?m really looking forward to doing this again at some point?I would go to New Mexico and Colorado and fly-fish.?
Even during his academic sojourn, Elder would make a point of returning to Kansas once a year to go pheasant hunting with his brothers.
?Other than that, I pretty much just read?for work and for pleasure,? he said. Even so, you won?t find many books in Elder?s personal library. As a ?digital native,? almost all of his resources are digital or online.
Bob and Catherine?s oldest son, Philip, will be 5 years old next month. Daughter Dalton is 3 years old and son Henry is now about 11?2 months along.
?We?re really happy to be here,? Elder said.