The small liberal arts community at Albion College allows for close connections inside and outside of the classroom. One of the many Albion advantages is the small student-to-professor ratio that allows students to build strong relationships with their professors.
This Between Classes article features Marcy Sacks, professor of History at Albion College. Sacks received a B.S. from Cornell University and an M.A. and Ph. D. from the University of California- Berkeley. Her areas of expertise include United States History and African American History.
Sacks was appointed to her position in 1999. Currently, she is teaching two history classes: “US History to Civil War” as well as “The Civil War in Myth and Memory.”
I met Sacks in her office on the second floor of Robinson Hall. With shelves filled with books, plenty of plants lining the windowsill and sunlight brightening the room, Sacks’ welcoming office was a great place for an easy conversation.
The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
The Pleiad: Did you always know that you wanted to teach after your experiences in college?
Sacks: Yeah. I loved doing the research, so I had an opportunity as an undergrad to do an honors thesis and discover that research was really wonderful. I knew that I believed in what a classroom could be, though I hadn’t experienced teaching. I certainly didn’t start out as a good teacher. I had no idea what I was doing. But I absolutely love teaching. Which is not to say there aren’t days that drive me nuts and students drive me nuts, but I feel so certain of the importance of the work I do.
I am so inspired by my students, by young people – you are all the future. I’m halfway done. Being with young people who remind me how little I know about the current world keeps me younger, it keeps me energized. I love getting up and struggling to wake young minds up. Absolutely love it.
P: Did you ever take a break from school or did you just continue through undergrad and then onto your Ph.D.?
S: A little break –an unexpected break. So I unexpectedly graduated early in three and a half years, so I was done in December. And then I decided to travel. I’d planned to go to Africa and then Israel for a semester of just traveling. Again, this is a long time ago, but war tensions were rising. The first Gulf War was just about to happen and Israel was not a part of the world to go to with that happening. So I ended up in Latin America, and I did not speak Spanish. I went to Ecuador with a backpack and spent two months traveling around, and then went to Costa Rica. So, two very safe countries, which is why I chose them, but I didn’t speak Spanish. When I got to Costa Rica I’d been traveling alone for two months, which is lonely and hard, so I volunteered in their National Park system. And in the second park, I met my husband. I brought him home and he’s my souvenir, we’ve been married for 30 years.
P: So how did you get into being a park ranger from being interested in history?
S: I’ve always been really interested in conservation. I’m really concerned about the environment, but volunteering in their national parks had a lot to do with just, I wanted to see the natural beauty. And I was tired of traveling alone because it’s hard, and so it seemed like a way to do both. Once I got to, you know, spend time in their national parks and they’re really well known for their conservation in Costa Rica. But that way I’m anchored to a place for a couple weeks at a time as opposed to just randomly traveling. And then once I met (my husband) that was it. We went on the back of his motorcycle all over the country. It was great and I wasn’t alone anymore because I had him.
P: You have a lot of books here, are there any books that really stood out to you over the years or that had a life-changing impact on you?
S: Yes, so there is a book. It’s called “American Slavery, American Freedom,” and the reason I’m thinking of that one… So many books have been so important, but that one reshaped all of us who studied it, the way we understood how racism came to be in the colonies and what becomes the United States. It’s mind-blowing and so I tried to help students see this too. But this idea, like learning that the things we know right now, and specifically on issues of race, were not always that way.
There was a time before racism existed. There was a time in our colonies when we were first, when the British are first starting to settle, and they’re interacting with indigenous people. And then even when Africans are starting to arrive through – never of their own choice– but before the British are involved in the slave trade but Africans are being brought by others. There is a time when what was going to happen wasn’t clear, and it was possible to have something different, and that book helped me really see that. And I think it’s very hard for us to get our heads around a time before racism because it is so deeply ingrained in our society.
But there genuinely were decades when it was possible we could have been something else. And then, how does it come to be that this division between those who see themselves as this thing called white and then between those people and those they then call Black, because of course white is not white and Black is not Black. It’s just kind of a mind-blowing idea of how that comes to be.
P: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? After Albion?
S: Right here. It’s funny because people talk about retirement. I mean, it’ll happen someday, but I don’t aspire to a time beyond this. I mean, I don’t want to say this as if I feel like I’m great at teaching. I scare students to death. If you ask any students about me, I think I’m very intimidating.
I don’t mean to be. I’m from New York and it just exudes all of my intensity and Midwesterners are so easy going and so I scare everybody, which I don’t mean to do. So, I don’t mean to suggest that I’m a great professor. I don’t have that kind of ego, but at whatever point I don’t feel energized by it, that I don’t feel like I have creative energy, I should stop.
But at this moment, I can’t imagine not getting up and doing this every day. So, it’s very hard for me to see beyond my career because I do this as a thing I love and not as a job with a paycheck. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the paycheck, I do, but I wanna do this forever. For now.
P: Do you have any advice for students here at Albion?
S: Be curious. Just be curious about anything and everything. Being curious is a really good thing. You guys have had a hard go.
I guess the other thing, and I’m learning this and I’ve learned to say it out loud, is just to be good to ourselves, and you know mental health is as real and legitimate as physical health issues and you guys have had a tough go. You’ve been through a lot, like your whole lives there’s been this crisis after crisis and I think too many folks of my age don’t appreciate how hard you’ve all had it. I respect you all.
P: Do you have anything else that you’d like to add for readers to know?
S: What readers should know is that the worst part about living in Michigan is that there are no real bagels. That is the hardest part about living in Michigan is the bagels. There aren’t real bagels here. What they think they’re eating are not bagels and it is tragic.
P: The real bagels are in New York?
S: Oh yes, oh yes. And we should all go to New York and experience true bagels and then somebody needs to learn how to make them here so that I don’t have to feel like I have to always be in New York.