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E. Taylor Atkins: The curiosity carpenter

April 16, 2013
E. Taylor Atkins

E. Taylor Atkins

Sometimes, E. Taylor Atkins becomes frustrated and cynical when confronted with students who aren’t academically well prepared or who have little interest in what he has to offer.

Yet whether they fail to bring intellectual curiosity, the willingness to tackle challenging material or goals beyond good jobs after graduation, Atkins is not deterred.

“I inform students on the first day that I will not apologize for making them work hard, do things they don’t yet know they can do, ponder things they’d rather not think about or otherwise hold them high standards of performance,” Atkins says.

“The best compliments I have received are from students who did not get A’s in my classes but who thought I was fair, appreciated my making them work hard and who left the class still interested in the subject matter.”

Atkins, who came to NIU in 1997 as an assistant professor in the NIU Department of History and served as director of undergraduate studies in history from 2005 to 2012, teaches general education surveys in modern Asian and world history, and a three-semester, 300-level sequence in Japanese history.

At the graduate level, he has taught reading seminars in Japanese history and modern colonial empires, and a research seminar on using popular culture in historical investigation.

He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. He since has authored a book titled “Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan,” which won the 2003 John Whitney Hall Prize, and edited the collection “Jazz Planet.” Another book, “Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945,” was published in 2010.

Primitive Selves book cover“By bringing into the classroom textual, visual and musical materials from my own research projects, I have tried to involved students in the interpretive process,” Atkins said. “I have encouraged history students to explore music as a source for understanding the past, and – at the invitation of music faculty – have instructed ethnomusicology students on historical perspectives and research.”

Valerie Garver, an associate professor in history who team-taught a course with Atkins last spring on “Knights and Samurai,” praises her colleague for making it possible for students to rise to his high expectations and for his ability to make his own intellectual curiosities theirs.

“Some students who took our course assumed it would focus solely on military history,” Garver said. “Although we approached knights and samurai from a cultural and social perspective, something new for our students, Taylor was able to make even the students more ardently focused on military history deeply interested in the cultural milieu of the samurai.”

Colleagues also praise his teaching innovation; when students in the “Knights and Samurai” course asked to write and perform a play for local school children, Atkins was their strongest supporter.

He not only brings recordings of Japanese jazz to his classroom but performs the music for students on his bass guitar and percussion instruments. When he taught an honors seminar on “Rebel Music,” his students conducted original research on the topic and presented their work at a mini-conference open to the public.

Nathan LaForte, a graduate student in the NIU College of Education who studied Japanese history with Atkins in the fall of 2009, considers the semester a “privilege” and one that altered his worldview.

“I was not particularly interested in any subject matter in this area; just a course to fit into my schedule. However, Dr. Atkins did not have the same outlook as I did,” LaForte said. “To say that his enthusiasm for the subject matter – and for molding young minds – is infectious would be an extreme understatement. Dr. Atkins involved the class the way a late-night talk show host might engage a guest and the studio audience.”