Trustees Award recipient Cumbler relishes role of teacher
The adage “out of sight, out of mind” doesn’t apply to University of Louisville history professor John Cumbler.
Although he has been away from campus on sabbatical this semester, that didn’t stop students from nominating him for the 2011 Trustees Award for the impact he has had on their lives.
Cumbler will receive the award at the May 14 commencement ceremony; he’ll address students and their guests at both ceremonies.
One of the things he said he’ll talk about is what makes UofL a special institution: its students.
“A lot of our students don’t come from elite, privileged backgrounds. They don’t realize how smart they are,” Cumbler said. “As a teacher, I’m in a position where I can introduce students to this large, intellectual, scholarly world of ideas.
“At Louisville, you get the chance to change these students’ lives,” he said.
How he does that came through in student nomination letters:
“Dr. Cumbler’s careful building of a supportive classroom community, always open office door, and lecture pit-stops for emergency skill-building helped transform me from an unconfident back-row student into a learner eager to lead and teach,” one former student noted.
Others said that Cumbler encouraged them to push past what they perceived as their own weaknesses — learning disabilities or being a first-generation college student.
“Starting in elementary school, educators always said, ‘You can be anything that you put your mind to,’ but I never believed that until Dr. Cumbler became my adviser,” one student wrote.
Some said that Cumbler helped pay for graduate school applications when they couldn’t pay the costs, and that he became an active partner in their education.
“I was struck immediately by his use of the word ‘we.’ He wasn’t suggesting a course of action I should take alone, but one that he and I would carry out together. As the course of the semester went on, it was clear that these were not empty words,” one student wrote.
For Cumbler, it is a responsibility to be there for students — even after they leave UofL.
“A lot of these students don’t come from academic backgrounds,” he said. “Once you have sort of introduced them to this world, you have a responsibility to help them negotiate that world. If you’re lucky, you’ve made a relationship with these students, you’re a person they can come back to. I don’t see that end when the semester’s over.“
Cumbler has been on the faculty at UofL since 1975. The Trustees Award isn’t his first. He has received two UofL Distinguished Faculty Awards — one for teaching and another for scholarship, research and creative activity. He also was a Fulbright professor to the Netherlands.
But receiving the Trustees Award may be the most treasured of his accomplishments.
“At heart, I’m a teacher, and recognition of that is very important to me,” Cumbler said. “This award is about the impact you’ve had on your students, about being a force in students’ lives. This goes beyond the classroom.”