"Teaching That Makes a Difference": Update

January 31, 2006
'Teaching That Makes a Difference' from Duke Magazine, July/August 1989

In 1989, history professor I.B. Holley was chosen to receive the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. A Duke Magazine article described Holley, then seventy years old and forty-two years into a Duke teaching career, as "looking, not at all willingly, to retirement."

Now eighty-six, hands tucked into his belt, he describes a life of teaching, not just his fifty-nine years at Duke, but also in summer lectures and seminars on his specialty, military doctrine, delivered at military officers' colleges. Telling stories about those times he gets excited, often leaning forward in his chair and using his hands for emphasis.

But he is not content to simply revel in the past. Sitting in the East Campus office that he now shares with history professor emeritus Anne Scott, Holley remains defiant. When he quips, "Old age is hell, stay away from it as long as you can," that's more than just an idle phrase.

He's echoing the advice that he continues to give students--advice that he, himself, takes to heart. Despite a mandatory retirement nearly seventeen years ago, Holley remains a presence in the classroom. As a professor emeritus, he teaches a freshman seminar on the history of technological innovation each spring, as well as a short course on research and writing for the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program each semester. Even in the fall, his off-season, he usually puts in a full, five-day work week.

Though he no longer teaches his prized upper-level intellectual history course, the freshman seminar has given him the opportunity to focus on a topic he has long loved. "My father was a highway builder," he says, "and I was always interested in industry growing up." He says he never presents his own research to his class, because "students become skeptical when professors use their own materials as the textbook: 'He's just trying to sell his own product.' " But he has continued to write on the topic, recently publishing a paper on the history of asphalt, and finishing an article on the mechanization of brick making.

The freshman seminar has also challenged him in other ways. "The tragedy is that a lot of these kids don't know why they're here," he says. His remedy? Personal attention of the same sort he has always given his students. He leads his classes on a tour of the library, invites each student to his office for an informal conversation, and tries to take each student to lunch at least once during the semester.

In listening to him speak passionately about teaching, it becomes clear that his hope is to instill in his students the type of curiosity and love of learning that inspires him to this day. Whether he's writing a manuscript on how to conduct a seminar, compiling an anthology of his lectures on doctrine, sifting through historical records as part of a Department of Defense declassification panel, or telling jokes to bedridden patients in a local retirement community, Holley rarely has an idle moment.

"My goal," he says, "is to teach to 100. People are living longer now. I know a [retired] physician who's 104. He's still got all his marbles. I'm enough of a realist to know that I might not make it, but that's the goal."