When a student enters Bert Gordon’s office, the first thing she will probably notice are the books. The history professor’s small room in the Vera Long building is crammed with volumes, from the floor almost to the ceiling on all sides, and while they are not numerous enough to require the library-style sliding ladder Gordon once wanted, they do span the duration of his 40-year career at Mills.
After four decades, Gordon is well versed in all things Mills, so much so that he teaches a course about the College’s history every other spring.
However, when he arrived in August 1969, the handsome young scholar with a recently earned PhD and two years of previous teaching experience wasn’t nearly so confident. He was so nervous and distracted as he navigated Richards Road for the first time that he said he almost ran over a colleague with his car.
Now, Gordon looks back on that first day with a smile and a chuckle as he thinks of how far he has come.
“If you were to tell me that that is now almost 40 years ago, I’d believe you, because I know it’s true, but it’s kind of hard to believe,” he said.
When he first heard of an opening in the College’s history department in 1968, Gordon was a professor at Brooklyn College, and having lived and studied all his life on the East Coast, had never heard of Mills nor Oakland. He learned of the opening from his doctoral dissertation advisor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who was acquainted with former Mills history professor and dean of the faculty, Charles Larsen. Gordon’s East Coast colleagues spoke highly of Mills and encouraged him to apply for the position.
“I guess you could say that Mills found me before I found Mills,” Gordon said.
As Gordon made the transition from Brooklyn to Mills, the Vietnam War raged overseas. Toward the end of his first year, the U.S. launched its attack on Cambodia. Colleges and universities across the country shut down. Mills students wanted to do the same thing, but rather than ending courses abruptly two weeks before the end of the semester, the students agreed to continue classes informally.
Gordon remembers other aspects of his first year at Mills. The first class he taught was a German history course comprised of 16 students that met in Lucie Stern 100. Since then, he has taught a multitude of courses, over a dozen of which he continues to offer on a rotating basis. He feels that picking his favorite is impossible.
“I can’t really say that I like one more than another,” he said. “It’s like picking your kids – do you like the brother more than the sister? I enjoy them all.”
Several of Gordon’s colleagues attest to his strengths in the classroom and commitment to his students. Fellow history professor Marianne Sheldon, who has been at Mills for 34 of Gordon’s 40 years, said Gordon is “not someone who comes, teaches his classes, and leaves. He sees being a professor at Mills in terms of service to his community. He truly engages with the intellectual interests of his students. Student interest sparks his interest.”
Anthropology Professor Robert “Dr. Bob” Anderson, another long-time employee of the college,compared Gordon to former Mills President Lynn White, also a historian. “[Gordon] teaches courses that stress the relevance of history for the present.”
Anderson cited “The West and It’s Cultural Traditions,” the only course Gordon taught in 1969 that is still offered today.Anderson said he found it “startling” when Gordon offered a course on “cookery and dining styles that included, as a ‘laboratory’ experience, dining at a gourmet restaurant. What will he do next, I wonder?”
Gordon said he is constantly exploring new ways of sparking student interest as well as his own. He took a sabbatical during the
1989-90 school year, part of which he spent in Spain learning to read and speak conversational Spanish so that he could teach a course on Spanish History. Because of this sabbatical, Gordon missed the co-ed strike in May 1990. He learned of the student protests from the Israeli Ambassador to Spain, whom he had met during his travels.
Gordon is on sabbatical again for the spring 2009 semester. He will spend some of that time in France, where he hopes to make progress on two book manuscripts and possibly begin research on a third manuscript.