Dr. Joel Blatt, an associate professor of European History at the UConn-Stamford campus, traces his passion for history to historical novels he read as a young boy. That passion deepened during his years as an undergraduate at Cornell University, when two history professors, Edward Whiting Fox, who specialized in European history and Walter LaFeber, who focused on American foreign relations — inspired him to follow in their footsteps. In addition, he was influenced profoundly in Graduate School at the University of Rochester by Professor A. William Salomone, who taught Italian and European history.
He considers teaching a “constant search to understand more” and enjoys the spontaneity of the classroom where he never knows what questions his students will ask and where his interchanges with them will lead the discussion.
A four-time recipient of the UConn Stamford Campus Outstanding Teacher Award, Dr. Blatt teaches Modern Western Traditions and Personality and Power in the 20th Century, which focuses on European leaders Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, noted anti-fascist Carlo Rosselli, and John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also co-teaches a course on the Holocaust.
Passionate about history as well as the eras covered by the courses he teaches, Dr. Blatt passes that passion on to his students by engaging them in the discussion.
“When you’re talking about two world wars, inadequate responses to Hitler’s threat in the 30s, and the devastation of World War II, you’re dealing with events with extraordinary drama and extraordinary tragedy,” he explains. “I put the emphasis on different topics, and why they’re important. My goal is to show not only the destructive aspects of communism and fascism, but that there were people who did not go along with the dominant sentiments for destruction in that period of time.”
Dr. Blatt especially enjoys the life experience and insight that adult Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) students bring to the classroom discussions.
“BGS students tend to be knowledgeable and open to joining in the conversation, particularly the class on Personality and Power in the 20th Century,” he says. “These are daunting figures – how does one deal with Stalin and Hitler who murdered millions? They couldn’t have done it if large numbers of other people hadn’t followed orders to commit heinous crimes.
“Almost all the BGS students bring a range of different life experiences to the classroom. For history, that’s extremely valuable,” he adds. “What I’m particularly interested in is human nature and what history tells us about human behavior. The more experience you bring, the richer thoughts you’re likely to have about it, which greatly enhance the learning experience.”
Dr. Blatt admires the dedication of BGS students who are balancing their studies with other responsibilities.
“All the BGS students I’ve had have made a choice to commit themselves to work hard because they’re doing it with full plates; doing their studies in addition to a range of other responsibilities, including work, family, and other obligations,” he says. “For most BGS students, returning to school to finish their degree is something that they wanted to do very much for a long time, so they have tremendous motivation.”
One of Dr. Blatt’s most memorable students was David Wittner, an auto mechanic who enrolled in the BGS program at around the age of 30. He wanted to take a course in Japanese history, which wasn’t available at the Stamford campus. So Dr. Blatt received approval from the history department to work with Wittner on a reading course, which covered basic periods and themes of Japanese history.
“Not only did he want to take a course, he wanted to teach Japanese history,” recalled Dr. Blatt. “He didn’t know the Japanese language but he had done his homework and knew that Cornell had a total immersion year-long program in the Japanese language. He did the reading course, did the Cornell immersion, and learned enough Japanese to study Japanese history at Ohio State University, where he earned his Ph.D. He is now teaching Japanese history at Utica College.
“David was a remarkable story because he knew what he wanted to do, and becoming fluent in the Japanese language was an extraordinary accomplishment on his part,” Dr. Blatt adds. “I’m a big believer in the BGS program, and that’s a good example of how the BGS program is flexible enough to offer a range of opportunities.”