Understand the Past | Dr. Matthew Downs

Grace Thornton Fall 2019, Learning

Matthew Downs says the first thing he asks every new class is simply this — “Do you like history?”

“They can tell me ‘no’ — that’s totally fine,” he said. “But what I want them to know and take away is that we all have a past — I do, you do, Mobile does, and Alabama does. If we don’t understand the story of who we are, we miss something.”

Downs’ own story is this — he’s loved history all the way from when he was really young. He’s loved it so much that, for a long time, he didn’t realize he was allowed to choose it as a career — it felt more like a hobby.

“My grandfather and dad loved it and encouraged us to think of history as something you investigate,” Downs said. They took field trips to the library, battlefields, anywhere that had a story to uncover.

And when it came time to choose a career path in school, Downs went pre-med.

“I thought there was a difference between what you liked to do and what you did as a career,” he said. “But as I got into it, I didn’t really like biology, math and science all that much, so I decided to take history classes for fun.”

The rest, as they say, is history. The magnetic pull of the past broke his pre-med plans. Now three history degrees later, he’s an associate professor of history and associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Mobile, a place where he can teach his students to understand God’s plan better by understanding the past.

“I want my students to get a sense that their past is important and that it’s essential to understand it to move into the future,” Downs said. “I try to really stress empathy, to understand someone’s point of view. You may have experiences completely alien to people in history, but try to put yourself in their situation and ask, ‘Why did they make the decisions they made?’”

To open those conversations, his classes watch movies and documentaries, read documents and have discussions and debates. They take field trips like Downs used to take with his family. And

they engage the community with projects such as organizing the historical archives for the Spring Hill Avenue Temple and, with colleague Michael Robinson, associate professor of history, cleaning the Africatown graveyard, which is the resting place of some of the survivors of Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship.

Whether you’re planning to be a history teacher, a nurse or a CEO, learning to put yourself in other people’s shoes is important, Downs said.

Heather Williamson, a UM junior history major, said Downs’ classes have helped her feel more prepared for work and life.

“I know one day I will take each and every skill he has given me in the classroom and apply it to my future,” she said. “He is an inspiration to me and the future work I want to give the world.”

Cody Floyd, a UM junior public history major, said Downs’ teaching style has made him think differently about history.

“The thing that makes Dr. Downs so phenomenal is that he takes that raw interest that we history geeks possess and he molds it into something refined and professional,” Floyd said.

“He doesn’t just explain to his students what happened — history deserves much more emphasis than that. Instead, Dr. Downs provokes his students into asking questions and putting ourselves within the context of what we’re studying so that we might understand why things happened

and what it means for the greater world.”

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Grace Thornton