Professor of History Dr. Brian Dirck earned his bachelor’s at the University of Central Arkansas, his master’s at Rice University in Texas and his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. He is trained as a Legal Constitutional Historian of the Civil War Era. Dirck wrote his dissertation as a comparison of the two Civil War presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.
How did you end up in Anderson, Indiana?
You know, it was a very practical move. The job market for history is horrible, and we honestly produce way more students who come out with a history degree than there are jobs. But I wanted to pursue a professorship. So during the job search out of college, I had barely heard about Anderson but saw they were hiring and applied. Many of my colleagues actually had asked me after I interviewed what it was like being with “them.”
I, at first, was like, “What do you mean?”
They just said, “You know, since they’re Christians?”
And I just thought, “Well, so am I.” But I guess this just meant I beat out some of the competition since I was applying and they weren’t.
What courses do you teach, and which is your favorite?
I joke with my students because I teach the first half of American history, basically to when Lincoln stops, and then I’m done. I teach the first half of the U.S. history survey, an upper division class on the Civil War, and one of my favorite classes I’m teaching right now is under Global Studies, which is slavery and freedom in the modern world. I love that class because, while the topic may be dark, it’s really interesting. I teach a national security class as well called the issues of law and war, so basically, a little bit of everything.
You like to dress up and teach some of your classes outside in a uniform? Please elaborate.
I started as a Civil War military guy and one of my professors at Arkansas was a reenactor and got me into Civil War reenacting. It’s kind of nice that I did because it helps me teach better, kind of like an inside-looking-out sort of deal. After graduate school though, I got so busy that I had to stop participating in them. But I kept the uniform stuff, which is expensive, and actually really hard to come by these days. So, I started coming into class wearing the uniform and it got my students’ attention.
Why the fascination with Abraham Lincoln? What fascinates you about him so much?
He’s endlessly interesting because he is a complex person. My book on his law practice focuses on how he was an active trial lawyer most of his life and how that led to his presidency. I focused on questions that people didn’t look at or really even ask. He is alive at the most crucial time in U.S. history, because after all he pretty much saves the United States, and frees 5 million some slaves on the way.
He’s not a simple person. There’s a lot of depth going on here and there’s endless interest. More words have been written in the English language about Abraham Lincoln than anybody else except Jesus. The last count I read was 160,000 books and articles about him, so many people wonder, “Well, why write another one?”
But there is so much more. I have a new book coming out in February called “The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death.” No one ever thought to look at this guy, who led the nation through utter bloodbath and ask, “Well, what did he think about death, dying, or did he believe in an afterlife, heaven?” So, I keep finding these little holes of new discovery on Lincoln. That has become my niche.
Tell me a little bit about how you decided to write your first book about Lincoln and Davis.
When I was at Kansas, I had a conversation with my professor about what Lincoln and Davis would do or act and how they’d differ from one another. Next thing you know, I had my dissertation topic from these conversations, and I thought, why not just compare the two guys? Then this led to the practical end of things, which was to write the book.
And you’ve written another book discussing Lincoln’s legal career, correct?
This is the book that most people read. I don’t sell many, but of the ones sold on Amazon, this is the one people buy most. The second book is also one that people invite me to talk about the most. For instance, I just went to a Knoxville, Tennessee, law school to discuss Lincoln’s law practice. So, it’s just the gift that keeps on giving.
Looking back on your journey of writing all these topics on Lincoln, what do you take away the most?
He is a complicated person, and what I take away the most is that if you’re going to do history, you need to pay attention to the gray areas—because Lincoln’s not simple to summarize. If he were, we wouldn’t have written over a million books on the guy.
The thing I try to pass onto my students in class is you got to look at the shades of gray. For instance, was Lincoln a racist? And the answer is, well no, he wasn’t perfect, there are some shades of gray. I really want my students to see that there is more to him than just a cartoon figure they grew up learning about.
Tell me about the opportunities you’ve had from writing the books to editing articles to public speaking at prestigious universities?
In 20 years I have spoken at Harvard, the National Archives in D.C. three times now; there is a program at Gettysburg College called The Civil War Institute, and they have a Civil War seminar where I’ve spoken twice. I’ve spoken at the Lincoln Forum in Springfield, Illinois, and have done plenty of discussion topics in Indianapolis as well.
What was your favorite experience?
The talks at the National Archives were fun because it was a very engaged audience and held quite a few people. It was also cool because I was in the room next to the Declaration of Independence.
What is your favorite part about teaching at AU for so many years?
I’ve had this job for 21 years, and I love it. I love the students, and it’s great to go to a school that’s small. We all know each other. I know what’s going on with my students, they know me, and we have meaningful conversations. I enjoy the atmosphere, the Christian environment, and it’s not narrow or oppressive. We are all people of faith but we respect and understand each other.
In my opinion, this is one of the best-kept secrets in Indiana. We just have this wonderful jewel of a campus here in central Indiana with awesome students. I get up and am excited that I get to come here to do my thing because I truly enjoy it.
If you could give one piece of advice for your students majoring in history, what would it be?
Versatility. Make sure to take as many different types of history classes as possible.
Get diversity in your resume because what future employers will want to see is that you have an inquiring mind, critical thinking skills, and that you are curious enough to look into the history, not just of the United States, but of the middle east and China, and all of what we offer in the department. Get as much of that on your record as you can, because that is what people are wanting to see.
You never know where you’re going to end up. We have history majors working in business and technology, pre-law, in everything. Employers have this uniformed thing where they want to see that you have the kind of mind where you’re going to be able to go and figure stuff out. So, get some diversity in your portfolio.