Student Life

A conversation with retiring History Professor Leonard Moore

On April 11, Professor Leonard Joseph Moore will deliver his final lecture and bid farewell to McGill alongside this year’s cohort of wide-eyed graduating students. Professor Moore was an undergraduate at the University of California (UC) Davis 50 years ago, but in his words, he’s “never really been a graduating student before.” He moved directly from Davis to UCLA, then to Reed College for a year, before arriving at McGill in 1991. He explained that “there was always another university,” so he never truly had to leave behind the “environment that electrified” him. It is only now, in the last year of his nearly half-century-long career, that Moore finally finds himself feeling like a graduating student, having to walk away from the space that he fell in love with as a teenager.

Moore grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco during the postwar baby boom, one of eight children. He lived on a street where all of the men had served in the Second World War. Though a good student in high school, Moore was more concerned with his status on the football team. However, things changed dramatically for Moore at UC Davis.

“It kind of electrified me. I just really loved learning and loved history in particular,” Moore said in an interview with The Tribune. “But I was thinking of law school in the default setting like most people [who] were studying what I was studying.” 

European history had language requirements that Moore considered impossible, and he was resigned to law school until a good friend suggested he take American history. “I thought, oh, I had that in high school; it was boring,” he recalled. But he gave it some thought, and in his last year, he “loaded up on American history courses and realized it was just as exciting as other fields,” and applied to graduate schools for American history.

Moore started his PhD at UCLA in the ’70s, just as the job crisis for historians was emerging. His acceptance letter to UCLA came with a separate letter that said “something to the effect of ‘we here at the university feel morally obligated to let you know there are no jobs in your field. You shouldn’t come here expecting to be a professor; you should only come here if you feel some kind of spiritual calling to study history.’ 

“The realities of the job market hung over my head the entire time I was in graduate school,” Moore said. “The vast majority of people I went to grad school with quit. Those of us who didn’t quit weren’t the most gifted; we were the most stubborn.” He never had a plan B.

While in graduate school, Moore substituted for professors at local universities while he wrote his dissertation. During this time, Moore discovered his love of teaching. 

“I always felt that teaching was undervalued […] and could always tell when I had a professor who was just kind of punching the clock on teaching and not pouring themselves into it,” Moore explained. 

In his last year as an undergraduate, a professor Moore respected pulled him aside after a presentation to tell him he would be a good teacher. 

“That meant an enormous amount to me […] and he in lots of ways was always a model to me. Trying to be positive. Try to encourage people, challenge them and show them when you think they’ve done well. And that was always with me, even when my focus was totally on my research,” he said.

After working non-tenure track jobs at Caltech and Reed College, Moore landed a job at McGill in 1991 and published his dissertation turned book, Citizen Klansmen, a study of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. When Moore started at McGill, there was no cap on class sizes for 300-level classes, and it became evident that there was an immense demand for American history as his classes rose to over 200 seats. 

“Whenever I walk into a classroom here, there’s a kind of intellectual electricity in the air, students are there who really want to learn, who are sincerely interested in what’s going on,” Moore explained.

Moore was struck by the student engagement and interest, which made him feel “a lot of responsibility for trying to do a good job […] in giving people a usable understanding of modern U.S. history.” Students showed overwhelming interest in civil rights, so Moore developed a two-course sequence on civil rights history. “That felt important to do,” Moore explained, “It’s at the heart of U.S. history, issues of citizenship and equality, and all of the injustice and challenges to the notion of equality.”

While at McGill, Moore has worked in voting rights litigation, serving as an expert witness. Moore described it as “some of the most satisfying work.” Voting rights litigation almost always involves historians because establishing a history of discrimination in a jurisdiction is part of the litigation. The fight against voter discrimination and suppression offers historians an opportunity to use history for public consequence.

When asked how the triumph of winning a voting rights case differs from the satisfaction of teaching, Moore replied, “The victories that I’ve been involved in, in litigation, are flickers on the screen compared to the satisfaction of teaching here, day to day, year to year.” Moore has always loved the work he’s done at McGill and considers himself extraordinarily lucky to look back on his career and feel that way.

On the search for pride in American history, Moore explained that the story of American history is the story of trying to live up to the revolutionary ideals of the Declaration of Independence—the idea that there are unalienable human rights and that government should flow from the consent of the governed. 

Moore looks at all the famous and anonymous people who put their lives on the line for those ideals. His first first feeling is not of pride or triumphalism, because he feels “like the battle just continues.” He doesn’t think about it in terms of flag waving and self-congratulations, but rather that he is American, therefore, he has a responsibility to try to live up to the ideals of the United States. 

Moore continued, “I can give you a long list of American heroes and heroines, and some of them were not citizens of the United States at the time or were fighting against the American government.”

“One of my favourite Americans is a former student who is an Indigenous person who has gone on to be a professor of Indigenous history and write an extraordinary book […] about Indigenous people in American history and how you have to understand Indigenous history to understand American history,” Moore said. “He’s writing from a specific perspective that doesn’t really have a lot in common with what maybe a lot of Americans think of when they wave their flag or watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. I’m proud of him as a former student, but also as an American.”

While reflecting on his final lecture, Moore explained that his wife has been encouraging him to retire for a while but that he felt he needed to teach the Civil War and the U.S. History since 1965 classes one more time. 

All semester long he’s had this last lecture on his mind. “Putting Trump and this election in historical perspective is one of the most challenging things, especially when I have students from the ’90s, the ’00s, and the ’10s,” Moore said. To him, navigating this final lecture in the midst of what he considers to be the most dire presidential election since 1860 is the challenge of an American historian and the challenge of someone who cares deeply about the importance of history.

“I’ve spent 40 years teaching about American history and doing it somehow makes you feel like you’re making the world a little bit better. Like you’re contributing something in a positive way,” Moore said. 

“It’s hard to walk away at this particular moment,” he continued. “It feels kind of like leaving the game at halftime. Or leaving the battlefield. And leaving it to others. When I’ve always felt a personal responsibility to be involved and do my part. So, I won’t be playing as active a role, you know. The world will still spin on its axis of course, but I won’t have the same role and that’s a bit of a hard thing to digest.”

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