June 21, 2024
What happens when you drop a "pure civilian" academic into a visiting professor chair position at the U.S. Army War College? A whole lot of learning and growth—by both the academic and the students. Ian Isherwood was the Harold K. Johnson Professor of Military History for the academic year 2023, and he shares his early trepidations and eventual relief about teaching colonels in the first of this two-part series. He is the 41st of a long line of visiting professors that have served in the position, each of them sharing their expertise and experience with the best of U.S. military senior leaders. Ian reflects on the importance of the interaction between and appreciation for the very different worlds of civilian academia and the military.

Not that I think of myself as distinguished – far from it. In fact, I greeted the plaque outside my office with the names of the other chairs Johnson with hesitancy.

To drive from my house in Gettysburg to Carlisle, Pennsylvania takes about forty-five minutes and is both beautiful and frustrating. The rolling hills and their vast orchards denote the seasons with their springtime blossoms and late summer fruit-bearing boughs. The fruit trucks and tractors can slow the drive, a bad thing if one is in a hurry, but a reminder to look around a bit and absorb the natural beauty of pastoral hills, woods, and creeks full of brown and brook trout. 

I have driven this way many times before in the thirteen years since I began my career at Gettysburg College. Back in 2010, I regularly visited Carlisle to write up my PhD thesis as a Ridgeway Fellow at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, courtesy of the late Dr. Richard Sommers. I had a modest stipend to cover gas while I finished my degree and taught as an adjunct, based in the office I still have at Gettysburg College.

I never expected to make the drive as the Harold K. Johnson Professor of Military History but life has a funny way of completing circles, and at forty-four years of age my first experience with professional military education (PME) would be in a distinguished chair. Not that I think of myself as distinguished – far from it. In fact, I greeted the plaque outside my office with the names of the other chairs Johnson with hesitancy.

Though I have been teaching military history for well over a decade at a good liberal arts college, most of my scholarship is in the interdisciplinary field of memory studies and not strictly or exclusively military history. While I can hold my own on a battlefield pointing out flanks and fusiliers, the stuff that really excites me is the lasting impact of war on societies, the ways that veterans shape narratives of war, and how the past continuously influences the present. Looking through the curriculum at Carlisle Barracks, I assumed that this liberal arts college professor who works in the murky waters of cultural history would be a fish out of water in the highly structured world of professional military education. 

Moreover, I was concerned by the possible subtext of my new descriptor of “pure civilian” and by the maddeningly long list of acronyms that greeted my ignorant ears. It goes without saying, but there are vast cultural differences between a liberal arts college and the United States Army, and I was concerned about teaching adult learners who were my age but whose life experiences were vastly different than my own. Who was I to teach colonels about war?

My many hours of worrying proved unfounded, however. In relatively short order, my students not only welcomed me as a tweedy bow-tied ambassador of the civilian academy, but they stated repeatedly how much they appreciated my perspective on the lessons we were learning (and would kindly whisper what the acronyms meant to me on the side during class when I was lost). Moreover, they personally welcomed me into their lives, their families, and to the big Carlisle family in ways that I did not expect. The Carlisle experience demonstrated to me the value of having civilians teaching in PME, as well as the value that teaching in PME can have for civilian instructors. It was deeply personally rewarding.

Learning by teaching: a civilian learns to teach army

I became a teacher to make a small difference in the world while also finding personal satisfaction in my job. It wasn’t for the prestige of an academic chair, or an elevated title, or for the attention and validation of being a “sage on a stage.” The unpredictability of the classroom is fun, and having a very small part of student success is deeply gratifying.

COVID challenged both of those aspects of the job. Whether remote learning or masked learning, the purgatorial pandemic classroom lacked energy, and students bore the burdens of plague learning deeply. Between the job becoming more difficult and higher education nationally going into a pessimistic tailspin of negativity, I walked into the classroom in Carlisle carrying the baggage of a tired teacher. 

To call the last three years in higher education difficult is a tremendous understatement, of course. I don’t know a single person in higher education who has not felt the pangs of burnout. Although the professorate’s problems began long before the pandemic, the cracks in our system widened. Most of us felt the deepening chasms widen beneath our feet. Though we were certainly dedicated to our students, there was only enough emotional energy a person could put out into the world without feeling sapped. I came to Carlisle in need of a healthy change.

Change came in the form of challenge. I have never taught in PME before and the system seemed pretty rigid. When I got the course directive for Theory of War and Strategy (TWS)—the core course I was teaching—I was amazed by the level of detail and intense work that went into each lesson plan. By contrast, I had a look over some of my own lesson plans from civilian life, which could be anything from many pages of detailed reading notes or a one-page list of indecipherable bullet points on a legal pad. I was concerned that the TWS lessons would prove too prescriptive for spontaneous conversation and that my method of teaching wouldn’t fit the army; however, I was given good advice by a close War College colleague who said, “we know you can teach—so teach the way you know how.”

In the end, I found a balance between the army’s sense of order and my professor’s hope for a little chaos.

The two approaches—the highly structured lesson plans and the role of the facilitator to manage an open conversation to bring out the best in students—went together better than I thought, especially with adult learners. In the end I found a balance between the army’s sense of order and my professor’s hope for a little chaos. Over time, I felt like my class was both directed and often spontaneously meaningful. By the time we were halfway through Thucydides, I was more comfortable in diverting from Power Point and my students were more comfortable with pushing the conversation into unexpectedly provocative directions.

The students in Seminar 6 reminded me daily how much I love my job. I was fully invested in improving my teaching and creating a classroom where they could learn new material with me. Knowing that most of them would never take another class like this again, I wanted each lesson to be the best it could be so that students could not only grasp the concepts but realize how invigorating this material is to study. My students’ dedication to the material—more importantly their dedication to help one another learn it—was inspiring, and they generously welcomed me, a socially awkward career academic with a nerdy penchant for Tolkien references, into their small seminar family.

When it came time to design my own course elective, The Long Shadow: How Wars are Remembered and Why it Matters, the army’s approach to teaching forced me to think deeply about the learning goals of each lesson, the readings, and how each of my lessons fit together. I was suspicious that such a structured approach would work for the subject of memory studies; again, I was happy when proven wrong. Students used the directive (army-speak for “syllabus”) as a general guide to get their thoughts going before class. By the time we got into the classroom, we made short work of my key questions and usually superseded the learning goals. Each conversation got us engaging with history and memory in increasingly relevant ways.

This course was the most enjoyable small seminar I have ever taught because the students were so invested and brought so much of their life experience into each class. It is one thing to teach a course on war memory as a safely abstract concept to civilians; it is quite another to teach it to the people who know our recent wars intimately. I learned as much from them as they did from me. We were all teammates helping to move the ball forward down the field.

I did not expect to become a better teacher but being immersed in a completely new educational system—and the challenge of teaching highly accomplished adult learners—made me appreciate the level of dedication that instructors have in PME towards their curriculum. It certainly made me realize the value of seeing how other educators outside of the civilian academy approach their craft.

The real war college is the friends we made along the way …

From my first day in Root Hall, I felt like a welcomed teammate in the Department of National Security and Strategy. I will miss the random conversations and congenial office pop-ins that are so much a part of Army War College culture. Additionally, I had an excellent teaching team committed to rowing in the same direction for the benefit of our students. Like all jobs, it is easy in higher education to lose track of the bigger picture and focus on small irritations, but the value of team teaching is its focus on the idea that our job is to support one another for the same purpose and goals to the benefit of our students.

What makes the Carlisle experience special is the sense of mission, duty to the institution, and sense of community formed by the students and their teaching teams. I am sure that there are some who are cynical about team-building as part of an educational experience, but as we recover from the years of distance imposed upon all of us by the pandemic, the military’s sense of a team is one that students and faculty in the civilian world can learn from.

I emerged from this year a deeply humbled teacher by the generosity of my seminar and my life much richer for having met so many good colleagues and students. Positions like the Harold K. Johnson Chair are incredibly important for bringing together the two very different spheres of the civilian academy and the military and I am overwhelmingly grateful to the Army War College, the Department of National Security and Strategy, my colleagues, and my students for such a formative year of thinking strategically. I miss you all already and even miss the drive.

Ian Isherwood is Associate Professor of War & Memory Studies at Gettysburg College and is a summer 2023 Fellow-in-Residence at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University. In academic year 2023, he was the Harold K. Johnson Chair at the U.S. Army War College. All views expressed are his own and not affiliated with any institution.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: A selfie of the author in front of the plaque outside his office displaying the long and distinguished list of his predecessors in the Harold K. Johnson Chair in Military History

Photo Credit: Ian Isherwood


  1. Great reflection! Glad you had a fulfilling time here. I am sure if you had more space, you would have described what it was like to teach with international officers in the room and how you were able to teach and learn from them as well – always very rewarding. Thanks again for your year here. Best wishes back at Gettysburg!

  2. Really enjoyed reading this, and learning from your experience! It is SO rewarding to teach these AWC students.

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