focus on faculty
History with a Spin
Arturo Bagley has an unusual hobby: Visiting presidential libraries. It’s not just because the history department faculty member enjoys traveling to such off-the-beaten path locations as College Station, Texas (George H.W. Bush), or Hyde Park, N.Y. (Franklin D. Roosevelt).
“I like to see the museums,” says Bagley, “because they give a spin to history, an interpretation of what went on. It’s interesting to see how they spin it.”
That history always has a spin is an article of faith with Bagley—one that informs his approach to teaching. In U.S. History, AP U.S. Government and Politics, and in the three semester-long electives he introduced this year—two on race and the Supreme Court and one on the evolving presidency—Bagley stresses the message that “the interpretive part is what makes history interesting. It’s not just a bunch of facts; it’s important to see the complexity.”
Bagley is not shy about making his own opinions known. “I know there are a lot of teachers who do not express their political opinions,” he says. “And I respect that. But my approach is different. I tell students up front and at the beginning where I’m coming from. They’ll figure it out anyway, so you might as well be honest.”
Bagley’s path to teaching led him down some byroads initially. He earned a law degree after college but quickly discovered that the practice of law was not a fit for him. After exploring other directions—including working at a magazine and as a researcher on a documentary film— he realized that the through line that engaged him was history. He went back to school to pursue a doctorate in the subject, only to reach the insight that what he really wanted to do was teach history. A product of an independent school himself, he knew that such a setting would offer the opportunity to teach at a high level without the “publish-or-perish” pressure of a college professorship. After teaching for 11 years at an independent school near his hometown of Philadelphia, he joined the Rivers faculty in 2017.
For all his professional detours, Bagley’s background and interests make him especially suited to the new electives he’s leading. A fan of primary sources, Bagley has students in “Race and the Supreme Court” read such key decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which the court ruled that the Constitution was not intended to extend citizenship to Black people. It’s not enough to read about Dred Scott, says Bagley. “I like having students at this age read that language and see how they react to it. You have to read the opinion and immerse yourself in the language”— language, he says, that “hit him like a cold slap in the face” when he first encountered it in law school.
The case, and others like it, opens the door to conversations that sometimes reveal a range of opinions in the classroom. In keeping with his position that history is about interpretation, Bagley treats those whose opinions differ respectfully—as long as those opinions can be backed up by facts. “It’s not my job to tell students what to think, or to disagree with them. The only thing I expect is for them to support their positions,” he says. “I’m not going to grade you based on what you think; I’m going to grade you based on what you can support.” — Jane Dornbusch