by Pat McSparin // Fall 2010
The Greeks have Homer’s Odyssey. The Romans have Virgil’s Aeneid. UMKC has the career of Jim Falls, Ph.D. After a 43-year journey through academia, the associate professor of history announced his retirement this past spring.
Falls’ travels began at the University of Alabama, where he earned his B.A. in history. He then continued to Mississippi State University, where he completed his M.A. in Ancient Rome studies and his Ph.D. in Medieval Civilization in 1967. His next stop was UMKC’s Department of History, and once he arrived here, he says he never looked back.
Upon arriving at the University, Falls immediately began taking his students to a place far beyond the average college classroom. His lessons were punctuated with disc after disc of photographs related to the subject, all of which he took on his personal travels. “When I first started teaching at UMKC in ’67,” Falls says, “I used to walk across campus carrying maps, slide projectors, slide trays — I mean, I could have gotten a hernia.”
Falls did not launch his career with the over-confidence of Homer’s hero, Odysseus, however. “I was nervous,” he says. “Am I going to be a good teacher? Have I got the information down? And I don’t think in the first two or three years I had it down very well. Every time a hand would shoot up the first couple years, I was just terrified.”
He explains that he quickly developed ways to learn and organize information, and to not be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” What made Falls’ classes special, colleagues say, was the attention he paid his students. Even in the largest class, he left no student unnoticed. His Western Civilization 1600 course usually had about 150 students enrolled, and he says he would learn every face and name in every class. “He’s not only here, accessible and informal, but he’s retained students by showing genuine and sincere concern for them,” says Professor Lou Potts, who has worked in the University’s Department of History with Falls since 1971.
Falls helped pilot the Department of History ship as a mentor to other professors and by encouraging diverse teaching methods. By tying lessons to popular culture, current events and issues, the department makes coursework interesting and accessible to students of every major. His innovative methods and dedication helped earn him the 2010 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. “Education is an odyssey,” he says. “It’s a learning odyssey. I’ve learned a lot, and I still continue to learn.”
Potts describes Falls’ career commitment to teaching with a historic twist: “He came. He saw. He taught.” Falls’ contribution to life at UMKC wasn’t limited to the classroom. He founded the University’s award-winning history honorary, Phi Alpha Theta, as well as the UMKC History Club. He also served as adviser to Delta Chi fraternity and was instrumental in the development of tele-instruction at UMKC.
The University and College of Arts and Sciences took several measures to properly honor Falls’ contributions to UMKC. At a ceremony in mid-April, Royall Hall room 104 — the lecture hall where Falls reached so many students over the years — was renamed Jim Falls Auditorium. Also announced at the celebration was the establishment of the Jim Falls Honorary Scholarship. For information on how to contribute, contact Karen English, advancement director at the College.