By Alex Thatcher
LOGAN—Knowledge and zeal hardly do justice when describing Utah State’s new assistant history professor, Shawn Clybor. A look into the life of the Northwestern University graduate shows his ambition and why many students call him fascinating, unique, challenging, thought-provoking and among their best professors.
Clybor grew up in and around Chicago and was surrounded by many different people and exposed at a very young age to many different cultures and customs. “This made me more curious and tolerant of other groups and people,” he said. “It made me adventurous because I wasn’t afraid of other people.” This adventurous spirit has led Clybor to visit more than 30 states and 23 countries, and to learn a few languages.
He attributes his early interest in history and desire to present it in an honest, unbiased way to his father, who died when he was 17, and to his experiences in punk rock.
His father, a PBS television man and close associate of movie critic Roger Ebert, didn’t get a college degree but took an active role in Clybor’s education, encouraging him to question his teachers and learn the complete story.
When he was 12, Clybor did a school report on John F. Kennedy, which his dad looked at and corrected him for leaving out Kennedy’s affair with Marilyn Monroe. He also encouraged Shawn to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the first published book from the Native-American point of view dealing with U.S. politicians, soldiers, and citizens who colonized the American West. The book reveals that whites used threats, deception and murder in provoking almost all of the conflicts between Indians and white settlers.
“This was a profoundly emotional learning experience for me,” said Clybor. “I realized the schools didn’t teach it and I felt I was being lied to.”
These experiences influenced Clybor’s teaching style, and his students appreciate it.
“His class has been really informative and I’ve liked getting a different perspective,” said Scott Bird, a senior in international studies, who is taking Clybor’s German history class. “It’s been eye-opening. He gives us the full picture of what’s going on and challenges your own views and perspectives.”
Clybor says his punk rock background also contributes to his teaching perspective. Punk is known for being expressive, frank and confrontational toward social and political issues, and Clybor adopted some of those traits.
“Sometimes, instead of talking over issues, we [society] end up screaming at each other,” he said. “We overlook the issue and don’t analyze the issue itself.” Clybor says punk rock gave him an “underlying sense of mission” to present history bluntly and untainted.
And his students say their professor is living up to this mission.
“It’s been one of my favorite classes because of the depth of the material he covers,” said Camille Fehlberg, a history senior who is taking Clybor’s modern Germany class. “He presents the material in a way that makes you think deeper. There isn’t really a right or wrong, there is a lot of gray.
“He lets us discuss the issues and answer the questions for ourselves” she said. “I come out of his class and my head is just spinning, asking myself what’s right and what’s wrong.”
After high school, Clybor took a break from school to focus on art and play in punk rock bands. After a while, he went back to school and he received an associate’s degree from a community college in Gainesville, Fla., where he was greatly influenced by history professor Doug Thompson. Thompson had a funny sense of humor, Clybor said, and made history fun and exciting. It was a life-changing experience, Clybor said. “From him I got into [history]. I decided to put art and music on hold and continue going to college.”
Clybor received his bachelor’s in history at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he won the Gordon Lee Goodman Award for highest distinction in history. A full scholarship to the No. 14-ranked school for history in the nation, Northwestern University, followed in 2003, and he completed his doctorate degree in the spring of 2010.
Between 2003 and 2010, Clybor spent more than four years in the Czech Republic for his dissertation, “Prophets of Revolution,” about links between Czech avant-garde intellectuals and the Czech Communist Party. It discusses how artists and writers of movements such as Constructivism and Surrealism helped build up Communism in Czechoslovakia.
Upon graduation, Clybor began looking for employment. “With the academic job market extra-competitive in economic crisis and budget cuts at many universities, PhD recipients must seek employment anywhere they can find it,” he said. “Last year I joked that I was seeking employment anywhere west of Moscow and East of Hawaii.”
He answered an online ad for a one-year position in USU’s history department. “We had heard of him,” said Norm Jones, head of the history department. “Faculty at Northwestern suggested him, particularly Edward Muir, a very recognized historian and author of a major textbook. We knew he had been well trained at Northwestern and he came across as probably the most enthusiastic teacher we interviewed. He seemed to us a good fit who had a lot of talent as a teacher.”
“So here I am,” said Clybor, “roughly halfway between Moscow and Hawaii.
“Honestly,” he said, “I was very fortunate to receive this one-year position as an assistant professor at Utah State. I think there are really great students here with a high degree of intellectual desire, passion, and curiosity. I have enjoyed it.”
Jones’ impression of Clybor also has been positive. “I’ve observed him and have been very impressed,” he said. “I’m impressed with his attitude toward his job and his students. He works hard, is concerned and spends a lot of time with his students.”
The department is looking for a full-time modern historian. “We will encourage him [Clybor] to apply,” said Jones.
Clybor’s immediate plans are to publish a couple research articles and a book, and he wants to travel to Costa Rica, the Baltic States, Syria and China. “Once I settle into a permanent job,” he said, “I’d love to return to music and art, especially photography. Of course, if I can’t find a job, my immediate plans are unemployment, food stamps and manifesto writing.”
With his knowledge, work ethic, and teaching ability it’s hard to imagine that Clybor will have to live off food stamps.