By Alicia Adamczyk, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 1, 2014
Teaching was not History Prof. Victor Lieberman’s first career choice. Lieberman, who has taught at the University since 1984, originally believed his future would be comprised of research and “solving historical and intellectual problems.”
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And though his research chops aren’t in question — in fact, he has been granted countless awards and fellowships and has written dozens of articles and book chapters on various research interests, with research taking up the “bulk” of his time in Ann Arbor — it is as a teacher that Lieberman truly shines; at least according to his students.
Lieberman is the recipient of this year’s Golden Apple Award, an annual award that recognizes excellence in teaching and is determined by University students.
Granted by University of Michigan Hillel, the award honors faculty who “consistently teach each lecture as if it were their last, and strive not only to disseminate knowledge but to inspire and engage students in its pursuit.”
While he didn’t necessarily bleed maize and blue before coming to the University — he said he came to Ann Arbor because the University offered the only job available in his field — Lieberman said the emotional bonds he has created with students changed his perspective on teaching.
“Once I started teaching I found it was a lot of fun,” he said. “I like interacting with students; I like to see their enthusiasm and to kind of inspire them.”
“I find U of M undergraduates very bright, enthusiastic and eager to learn, and working with them is tremendously rewarding,” he added later in a follow-up e-mail. “They're appreciative and intellectually engaged, and their enthusiasm redoubles my own.”
For the past 29 years, Lieberman has risen through the ranks in the history department and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He is currently the Raoul Wallenberg Distinguished University Professor of History, one of the University’s top honors for professors in the field, and teaches one of the University’s largest courses each semester, which focuses on the history of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
Out of more than 300 nominees — the most in the award’s 24-year history — Lieberman stood out to the Golden Apple Award Committee not only because of the number of votes he received, but because the comments accompanying the votes “highlighted the characteristics of a professor truly deserving of the Golden Apple Award,” said LSA senior Amalia Zimmerman, a member of the committee.
“Victor Lieberman has inspired many students to look at the history of different peoples and cultures,” added Business senior Jake Levey, another member of the committee, in a statement. “All of them are enamored by his amazing breadth of knowledge and his passion.”
“It was a very memorable and happy occasion,” Lieberman said of the committee’s announcement of the award in March. “I was very grateful to receive it.”
In class, Lieberman speaks quickly, filling the entirety of the time allotted with fact after historical fact. His lectures are authoritative and students diligently record every word.
It is this perceived unbiased presentation of historical facts that students admire the most, said LSA sophomore Ali Meisel, who took Lieberman’s course last year.
Meisel said she was able to form her own opinion of the controversial subject matter in a well-informed way because of Lieberman’s approach to the class. This teaching style led her to nominate him for the Golden Apple this year.
“Lieberman made a point of telling us that although he was teaching us facts, the ‘truth’ of the situation differed for different groups,” Meisel said. “Some professors are particularly liberal or conservative, and this affects how they present the material in their classes, but Lieberman chose to leave out his personal opinions.”
That’s not to say the professor isn’t without controversy. On March 25, he presented a historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a Central Student Government meeting during a debate regarding a resolution that supports the University’s divestment from certain companies that allegedly support human rights abuses in the region.
Many supporters of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a Palestinian human rights student organization, contended that Lieberman did not present both sides of the conflict adequately, adding that they asked him not to speak at the meeting because it was supposed to represent students’ and not faculty concerns.
Still, Meisel said she nominated Lieberman precisely because he accounts for both sides of the story in the ongoing conflict.
“Lieberman eloquently covered a major world conflict within a single semester,” she said. “Instead of teaching the events as neutral facts, he explained them from both the Palestinian and Israeli narratives.”
As part of the award, Lieberman will give his “last lecture” Wednesday in Rackham Auditorium. The lecture, titled “What I think I know About History,” will give an overview of human history as Lieberman has come to view it.
“It’s very broad,” he said. “I won’t be accused of lack of ambition.”
University President Mary Sue Coleman will also address the attendants at the event Wednesday.
“This is such a wonderful tribute and I want to thank our students for the honor,” Coleman said in a statement to the award committee. “The Golden Apple symbolizes the importance we place on undergraduate teaching at Michigan, and to be associated with the program this way means a great deal to me.”
Lieberman, a self-described “history buff,” said he became interested in history from a young age and took classes on “every part of the world” in college. But as the Vietnam War escalated and the United States became more embroiled in the ongoing conflict during his time in college, he focused his attention and research on Southeast Asia.
After graduating first in his class from Yale University in 1967, Lieberman took a three-year hiatus to teach high school history — and avoid serving in the Vietnam War — before he earned a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian history from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 1976.
“I found it topical, I found it exciting,” he said of his research interests. “I thought I could say something relatively novel.”
He stayed in England until 1985, when he came to the University as an assistant professor in Southeast Asian history and taught a class about the Vietnam War. In the mid-90s, as interest in the war waned, Lieberman knew he needed to change topics in order to keep up with the interests of his students.
He then began teaching the course he is perhaps best known for at the University, “History 244: The History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” With lectures involving more than 400 students each semester, the class is one of the largest the University has to offer.
“I became addicted to the idea of large, topical courses,” he said. “I looked around to see what would be appropriate to replace the Vietnam War course and I thought the Mideast would fit that description … I thought it would be useful for students, to provide them with an overview and to increase understanding and sympathy for different perspectives.”
In addition to his responsibilities at the University, Lieberman is the father of two daughters, Jessica, 33, and Emily, 38 — both of whom graduated from the University — and has six grandchildren. He also has two “lovely” sons-in-law, one of whom took his class about the Vietnam War during his undergraduate years at the University and met his daughter while enrolled in the Law School. His wife of 43 years, Sharon, passed away a few months ago.
In his spare time, the history buff says he likes to spend time with his grandchildren — who live in Ann Arbor and nearby Birmingham — as well as attend Synagogue and exercise.
He also plans to travel more in the coming years and is working on a forthcoming book “Why Was Nationalism European? Political Ethnicity in Southeast Asia and Europe, c. 1400-1850,” which he says will occupy him intellectually for the next two to three years.
“I don’t know what I’ll do after, maybe I’ll start another book project,” he mused. “I don’t know. I’ll just have to wait and see.”