Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Legendary AP U.S. History Reader Decides to Put Down His Pencil

Fred Jordan with his wife and fellow history teacher, Karen Jordan
I have known Fred Jordan for over twenty years.  When my wife and I arrived at the Stony Brook School in 1994, Fred was on leave in South Bend, Indiana where he was starting his Ph.D coursework at Notre Dame under the direction of George Marsden.  Upon his return to Long Island we overlapped for a year at Stony Brook before Fred and his family left New York for a position at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia.  Fred eventually finished that Ph.D (while working full-time as a boarding school administrator, history teacher, and squash coach) and is currently at work on turning the dissertation project--a history of Christianity in American boarding schools--into what I am sure will be an outstanding book.
I have had some good visits with Fred over the years, but nothing compares to the seven days we would spend together (along with hundreds of other United States history teachers and professors) at the annual US History AP Reading at Trinity University in San Antonio.  When I started grading AP exams I was finishing up my dissertation at SUNY-Stony Brook and working as an AP U.S. history teacher at the Stony Brook School. Fred not only urged me to sign up for the reading, but he also asked me to "room" with him.  (We each had our own room and shared a bathroom).  When I arrived in San Antonio I realized that I was not just rooming with a friend and fellow history teacher, but with a guy who was a long-time veteran of the AP reading.  Fred seemed to know virtually every major player at the event.  It was clear (to me at least) that he was AP royalty.  
Fred introduced me to everyone.  In that first year he really took me under his wing.  I had such a good time at the reading that I started encouraging some of my friends to join us.  Jay Green and Eric Miller were two of those friends. In fact, much of our book, Confessing History, was crafted and organized in dorm room lounges at Trinity University and watering holes along the San Antonio River Walk.  Fred was part of those conversations, but only when we could pull him away from dinners and other events with the AP brass or from strumming with his ad-hoc blue grass band. The conversations we had late into the south Texas night continue to be some of the most stimulating moments of my professional career.  For me the AP reading was an intellectual feast.  We graded all day and talked history all night.  Every day was like a workday and every evening was like a Friday and Saturday night.  Needless to say, by the end of the week we were exhausted.
Fred was reading AP exams well before I showed up and he continued to read AP exams well-before I left.  (I stopped attending after the reading moved from the campus of Trinity University to a sterile convention center in Louisville). He was a table-leader during most of his tenure, but during the Louisville years he rose to a position of authority exceeded only by the "Chief Reader."  I wish I could have seen him in action during those years.
I am sure that there are other history teachers and professors who have had a longer tenure reading exams, but I am incapable of thinking about the AP U.S. History reading, and with it a pivotal period in my professional development, without thinking of Fred Jordan.
Earlier this week Fred turned to Facebook to announce his retirement from grading AP exams.  With his permission, I have posted his moving statement below:

I sent this to the current leadership of the US History AP Reading this afternoon. Food for thought.
My invitation to the Reading arrived in my inbox last week. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself trolling through much of the site, perusing instructions for new readers, lodging, reader policies and procedures (not much time spent on that), the list of participants, and so on. The experience brought back a great many warm memories. In looking through the guide to the new exam (what we used to call “the acorn book”), I was reminded the high idealism and burning energy that the AP program gave me. I felt immense satisfaction in trying to master a demanding curriculum. I was similarly energized in reading the exams in those early years, grateful that I could serve my own students better for having been a part of the process and possessed of a sense that I was also serving the profession. I’ll be forever grateful to Robert Bannister, my Swarthmore professor and a former Chief Reader, for writing to Frank Warren and recommending me for the Reading. Other memories centered on the professional development nights, opportunities to hear some of the best historians in the business: David Kennedy, Leon Litwack, Andrew Bacevich, Lizabeth Cohen, Gary Nash, and so many more. (Walt Rostow, too, though I’m not sure I’d rank him with the others.) That list of notable historians would also have to include our own in-house speakers: Jim Giglio, John Belolahvek, Yanek Mieczkowski, Elliott Barkan, Betty Dessants, Keith Edgerton and – of course – Jonathan Chu. But the best memories, of course, were about the friendships that I developed at the Reading, with evenings of good cheer and lots of laughter shared with people who loved history as much as I did. If the food was mediocre in the dining halls at Trinity and the Convention Center, at least it gave us good reason to go out. If the exams were mediocre or the policies of ETS unfathomable, the seemingly endless supply of good bourbon (“brown water” in Nat Jobe’s lexicon) proved a wonderful palliative.
I’ll miss all of these things, but I do think my time at the Reading has come to an end. Turning 60 this year has been the occasion for much reflection, much of which centers on the very real fact that my years are limited and my list of unmet aspirations lengthy. I simply must finish this book on the history of American boarding schools, if at all possible. Travel beckons. The opportunities to see our grown children occur less often, so I want to take advantage of that when I can. There is also an indefinable sense that even good things run their course, and that somehow it’s time to say good-bye.
If I don’t come to the Reading, I suppose that will open up a slot for someone else. I hope it’s a young high school history teacher, full of enthusiasm and curiosity and idealism and possessed of a fine sense of humor, who can begin a similar experience. There’s no smoking table for him to begin at, as I did in 1988 (Walt Lambert was the TL; I smoked a pipe at the time), and the number of readers has grown from 225 to over 1500. (350 new readers this year for the new exam? Really?) He won’t know that the factory he’s working in was once a group of artisans. But I hope he’ll have a good table and TL, meet some of the high personalities at the Reading, build some relationships, grow some professionally, and be challenged to excellence in his own teaching. Perhaps it will be the start of someone else having as satisfying a time as I’ve had.
And so I’ll decline the invitation, and even go a step further and ask to be taken off the list. Who knows how I’ll feel about this next week or next year, and I could wind up applying all over again. But for now this seems right.