UGC 112: World Civilization Since 1500
It's a Tuesday in late April, almost lunchtime. The sun has made a long-awaited appearance and is shining brilliantly over UB's North Campus. There was a quiz last class ... so chances are, today's session of the undergraduate requirement "World Civilizations Since 1500" will be fairly routine. If you were a less-than-devout arts or sciences major, you might just be tempted to sleep in or spend the morning catching some rays.
Not so if you're a student of Professor Claude E. Welch, whose 11:30 World Civ class is anything but routine.
"Shalom!" he greets his approximately 150 pupils as he enters the cavernous lecture hall. His greeting is appropriate because today's discussion centers around Israel and the formation of a Jewish homeland there in 1948. As UB joins in the observance of Passover, Welch has prepared and timed this lecture perfectly. His words lend interest and pertinence to his topic, and he proceeds to spend 50 minutes bringing world civilization to life. Using a captivating menu of colorful stories and vivid audio-visual tools, he is successful in reaching students who range from freshman physics majors to seniors about to graduate with degrees in foreign languages.
A SUNY Distinguished Service Professor, Welch bases much of his lecture material on personal experience. Students rave about his approach to teaching because, in the words of sophomore environmental studies major Umunyana Rugege, "It's so global." Indeed, Welch has traveled the world, visiting and working in 20 African countries and presenting lectures at venues from Beijing University to Nigeria's Centre for Democratic Studies to the Sun Yat-sen Institute in Taiwan.
"When he lectures on various nations, I like the idea that he actually lived there. This brings it to life," notes sophomore illustration major Christopher Leda.
Welch earned his undergraduate degree in government from Harvard College in 1961. He completed his doctoral degree at Oxford University in 1964 and came directly to Buffalo. In December 1995, he published his 12th book, Protecting Human Rights in Africa: Roles and Strategies of Non-Governmental Organizations. He has written chapters for more than 35 other books and authored 40 articles for various academic journals.
It was as a student at Harvard that Welch first became particularly interested in Africa. "1960 and 1961," he notes, "was a time when 17 African countries became independent; this piqued my interest." While studying at Oxford, he rounded out his expertise with an academic focus on the French- and English-speaking states in West Africa and the impact of pan-Africanism on their foreign policies.
Welch has taught with an emphasis on comparative politics since coming to UB, examining political systems around the world and investigating similarities and differences between them.
"I also focus on the politics of developing countries. I use personal recollections, as well as my own slides. And every day I say good morning in a different language," he says.
Welch began teaching UGC 112 World Civilizations Since 1500 during the Spring 1996 semester when, he recalls, "I was at an appropriate point in my career. I was able to reflect from having traveled and studied a wide variety of cultures."
That he conveys this understanding to those he teaches is evident. According to students in the two lectures and one recitation session that compose the weekly schedule for his course, Welch often leaves them wanting more when class comes to an end.
"Often, it seems like there isn't enough time to hear all he has to say," comments senior Spanish major Erin Rourke. "You want him to go on and on.
"I took the first half of World Civ my first year at UB, then I waited till my last semester to take this course, which is the second half. I was not looking forward to it, because I don't like history. But this course has really turned my thoughts around. Professor Welch is the reason for that."
Ten rows up from the podium in 104 Knox, Welch's clear voice projects as he discusses European colonialism in the Middle East, the impact of the Holocaust, and contemporary politics in Israel, Iran and Turkey. An outline of his lecture is displayed via Power Point on a large screen, creating the atmosphere of a movie theater. His knowledge is as natural as his enthusiasm is genuine. Just at the point where you think he may lose his students after 35 minutes of listening and taking notes, he interjects an 11-minute videotape on the life and work of Golda Meir. It works, as he carries his Tuesday morning class to the conclusion: "You can have revolutionary change that is linked to religion." It's a fitting theme on a day that celebrates an ancient tradition.
As Claude Welch teaches, he ties cultures together. Listening to him, it seems the world is a smaller place-and our knowledge of it is based on an understanding of the mosaic of civilizations that have brought us to the close of the 20th century.
"We live in an interdependent world, but many undergraduates have not had the opportunity to experience this," Welch says. "We are deeply influenced by the assumptions of our own culture. We need to know that other people are similarly driven by their cultures.
"It's really very fundamental," he concludes.
Diane Zwirecki, a Buffalo-based freelance writer, is assistant director of public relations at Sisters of Charity Hospital.