Hanging out with Dr. Jim Knight at the University of Arizona for an afternoon is like turning the treadmill up to its highest speed. Though Dr. Knight is teaching his final semester before retiring, there is no indication that he plans to slow down. His energy and passion are engaging and infectious.
James Knight holds a PhD in Agricultural Instruction. “I teach teachers how to teach,” is the simple way to put it, he says. He got his BS and MS at Colorado State, then taught at Ohio State while he was working on his PhD. He remained on the faculty there until 1988, when he opted to pursue consulting. The University of Arizona (UA) came calling in 1996.
Dr. Knight is a born teacher. His office is a treasure trove of awards for excellence in his art. He received four new awards just last year. So when he was asked to construct a class that would allow students to learn about the history of the school—to help them understand the great traditions that have led the university to be the force that it is today—he took on the challenge with enthusiasm and created “Heritage and Traditions of the University of Arizona.”
Jim Knight is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At one point he was a bishop’s counselor for a student ward, and later bishop of a family ward. That experience comes through in the way he relates to people. He also says that his involvement with the history class parallels his interest in the stories of Mormon pioneers. “When you know the history, you have a connection. It’s the same with Church history.”
Dr. Knight’s eyes twinkle when he talks about how much fun the class is for him and how it helps him bond with students; and it doesn’t seem to matter how many there are. The fall semester of 1998, “we started with 28 students. That number doubled the next semester, and the next. Now we have to cut off enrollment at 300 per semester.”
A large part of that bonding with people is his own doing. He interviews every single student, every semester. He learns their names and something about their lives, studying their faces and recalling memories before he goes to class. He really learns and cares about each person.
As a matter of fact, he cannot walk from his office to the lecture hall without several students stopping to greet him. If they don’t see him, he sees them and takes time to say hello, shake hands, ask them specific questions, and offer words of encouragement. And these are students from previous semesters.
He makes sure he gets to the lecture hall early so he can greet as many people as possible. He works the room like a seasoned politician, only this guy has no hidden agenda; he just loves his students.
The feeling is apparently mutual. This UA history class is #18 on a Buzzfeed list about the U of A, and his students made sure to let him know how they feel about him. It also says that “Dr. Knight is the best teacher at the U of A.” And on RateMyProfessor.com, he gets 4.9 out of 5 points.
Knight says that he teaches “the basics” of UA history in the course. But if his continual narrative on the walk to class is any example, the lessons are a lot more than basic. For example, passing the Student Union, he’ll explain that the building is a memorial to the USS Arizona that was sunk at Pearl Harbor. The ship’s bell hangs there. The architecture mirrors the lines of the ship. High in the courtyard is a glittering sculpture made up of the dog tags of all the men who were killed on that vessel. And below the sculpture is another, smaller tribute created from the dog tags of many survivors who wanted to add their IDs to those of their fallen comrades. That is just the beginning of what Dr. Knight can tell you about that one building. And there are many that are rich with history!
So, “basics” aside, Knight invites the A-list of UA celebrity speakers to come and share history and current UA events from their own perspectives. Students hear from the president of the university, the provost, and the general manager of the Marshall Foundation, which is instrumental in making large donations to the university and its students. Students quickly realize the history taught in his class is full of murder and intrigue! Coaches from several sports come in. Athletic directors, too. Then there is the director of the longest running national arboretum in Arizona. And the story of how dendrochronology started at UA. Add to that astronomy and NASA-related programs.
It seems a little unusual to think that all this could be packed into one course. But semester after semester for 16 years, Jim Knight has pulled it off. The evolution and popularity of the course reveal the secret of its success: his love of people, of teaching and of history. Plus the fact that he is probably one of the biggest all-around UA sports fans on campus. The Buzzfeed list quotes him on one of his most endearing statements: “GO CATS!”
Fear not. Spring 2014 is not the swan song of “Heritage and Traditions of the University of Arizona.” Dr. Knight is leaving it in the capable hands of Dr. Ryan Foor. As with many UA traditions, it will continue.