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The Classroom is Where He Wants to Be

10 Questions with Professor Robert Forrant

History Prof. Robert Forrant gets the news that he's the 2016 University Professor. Photo by Edwin Aguirre

Lowell Sun
By Kori Tuitt

LOWELL -- Professor Robert Forrant just received the highest honor a faculty member can get at UMass Lowell. Forrant, a labor and industry historian, has been designated Distinguished University Professor for the next three years.

The Lowell resident has already been recognized by the university for a number of awards, including the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award.

There is plenty Forrant is grateful to UMass Lowell for. The one critique? There are too many meetings.

"Let me be in a class with students, working with students and investigating the history of Lowell," Forrant said.

He said in the classroom is where he is most happy.

Q: What was your initial reaction to receiving this honor?

A: I was surprised and at the same time I was really pleased that the work that I've done over 24 years was recognized in such a way. I thought it was an honor to be so designated.

Q: What work at UMass Lowell are you most proud of?

A: The fact that over 24 years I've taught hundreds of students and remained in touch with a good many of them and seeing them progressing in the world is a great thing. It's something I think many teachers like to see.

Q: You've worked at UMass Lowell for a number of years. What keeps you motivated to do this work?

A: The main thing that keeps me motivated is, I love teaching.

So, going into a classroom four or five times a week, I never quite know what's going to happen. It's always a new adventure even though sometimes I've taught the same course a number of times over the years. You never know how the students will engage in the course. It's never old or repetitive, so that's why I really enjoy teaching.

Q: Some see history as a boring subject. What approaches do you take to make your courses engaging?

A: I think I'm fortunate to be teaching mostly 19th and 20th century U.S. history. I try, when possible, to get students to think about how it influences things today. I don't teach history as memorization of a handful of facts. I want them to be able to tell the story. I try to teach in stories that will engage them.

Q: What do you find most interesting about labor and industrial history?

A: My father worked as a meat cutter in a grocery store for 40 years. He was a hard-working person all his life. By his example, he really taught me the value of hard work and commitment. So, I was always fascinated in learning more about people like him.

Before I came to the university, I had worked as a machinist at a factory in Springfield. After that experience, I went to grad school and knew I wanted to think about and write about the history of the those people and their lives.

Q: Are you currently working on any special projects at the university?

A: I'm working with a bunch of students on different projects. I'm working with one student on what the university calls the Emerging Scholars Program. We're working for the whole academic year looking into the women involved in the anti-slavery movement in Lowell. Lowell has an interesting history because of all the cotton mills.

I'm working with two other students on the history of Portuguese immigration into Lowell. (Both projects) will be public exhibits at the end of the academic year in the spring.

Q: What's the most important thing you've learned from the UMass Lowell community?

A: I think the thing that I've learned the most is how much the university benefits from being in the city of Lowell. Being an urban campus, which it is, puts the entire university in the middle of all the sorts of major social, economic and political issues that the world confronts. I think that makes the university an interesting place and I benefit from that as a history teacher. It makes it a great place to be a history teacher.

Q: What was it like for you to help develop the university's master's degree in history?

A: It's funny that we didn't have a graduate history program since we have a very active and large undergraduate history program. And we're sitting in Lowell, which has such rich history. It was a great experience to work with the faculty in the history department to get it approved.

Q: What is one experience at UMass Lowell that sticks out to you the most?

A: I think two years ago when I was working on a year-long commemoration of the passing of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. The way the campus came together in working on that project, how much students became actively involved in learning about the Civil Rights Movement and participating in the event -- that stands out about what's really great about the university.

Q: When you're not in the classroom, what do you do on your spare time?

A: Cooking Italian food, watching the Red Sox and going to Boston Bruins hockey games.