A history department with a future
UMKC continues professor's legacy
If students signed up for UMKC Professor Jim Falls' 150-person Western Civilization 1600 course, they would not go unnoticed. From the helm of Royall Hall 104, Professor Falls recognized each of his students' faces and has strived to encourage them throughout their academic and professional careers.
The legendary professor plans to retire after 43 years of teaching, but the professors and students he mentored, the encouraging environment he fostered in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of History and the organizations he created - will remain.
A commitment to teaching
To commemorate Professor Falls' contributions, UMKC will host a tent ceremony in mid-April to change the name of Royall Hall 104 to Jim Falls Auditorium.
In that classroom, Falls created several memories that thousands of alumni continue to recount. They laugh about the time he impersonated Mae West. And they remember the way he wore history-related T-shirts to class, cursing the Greek gods when the projector failed to work. And they can't forget the souvenirs and photos he shared from such destinations as Romania, Egypt and Los Angeles film conventions.
"Professor Falls was like a chemically-unstable ball of energy, and a showman," said Daniel Green, who took several courses from Professor Falls. "His classes started on-time, and usually with a bang. He would use political or off-color humor to grab the class' attention and relate to the topics of the day's lecture."
Perhaps more importantly, though, the 2010 Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching recipient provided students with direction and encouragement.
"He's not only here, accessible and informal, but he's retained students by showing genuine and sincere concern for them," said Professor Lou Potts, who has worked with Professor Falls at UMKC since 1971.
As a freshman in 1981, UMKC alumnus Patrick Dobson found the encouragement he needed from Professor Falls.
"I was a pretty dumb kid from a tough home, filled with all kinds of naïve ideas about the world," Dobson said. "Jim was one of those teachers who drew me in and convinced me over time that I could make it through school, and that I didn't have to listen to the people who told me I would amount to nothing."
When Dobson changed majors a few times and took breaks from school to save money and travel, Professor Falls always welcomed him back and asked him how everything was going.
"He counseled me not to worry about finding something and sticking with it, but instead, let the wandering and working take me where I should be going," Dobson said. "That was the first time anyone had said anything like that to me."
Professor Falls enjoyed teaching so much that he declined tenure. Additional research responsibilities could have detracted from his teaching, Professor Falls said.
"I'm really happy they allowed me to stay here without being promoted," Professor Falls said. "It's been very good, and I hope students have left my classes having learned something, and having enjoyed learning."
In honor of Professor Falls' commitment to students, the Department of History is creating a Jim Falls Honorary Scholarship. Undergraduate students who have declared a major in the Department of History, maintain a minimum UMKC cumulative GPA of 3.0 and demonstrate financial need are eligible to apply for the scholarship. For more information, contact Liz Barton, scholarship coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A history department with a future
In addition to encouraging students, Professor Falls has mentored professors in the Department of History and other departments.
When Professor Jeffrey Rydberg-Cox arrived at UMKC in 2000, he wanted to improve his teaching skills. By co-teaching a class with Professor Falls, he gained more confidence.
"Professor Falls is a model of what it means to be a good teacher," Rydberg-Cox said. "He taught a lot of us how to teach and how to be good to students."
This teaching advice has helped build a Department of History that intrigues students who once said they were not interested in history. Instead of just teaching dates or showing videos, the department is known to bring history to life. Professors add interest by tying lectures into current issues, such as gender, ethics, race, sports, medicine and the environment. By recording lectures - an initiative Professor Falls began through the Center for Academic Development in the 1970s - the department also provides distance instruction for high school students seeking college credit and students who could benefit from reviewing lectures.
Outside the classroom, Professor Falls has created two organizations - the UMKC History Club, which hosts a History Bowl that allows students from all majors to compete and the Mid-America Medieval Association, which awards the Jim Falls Paper Prize to the best graduate-student paper delivered at the association's annual conference.
He also is donating his book collection to the College of Arts and Sciences' Classical and Ancient Studies Program, and plans to continue teaching one or two courses per year.
Posted: April 19, 2010