A Q&A with Gerry Unks

Photo of Gerry Unks

Gerry Unks

Honoring Unks,
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The School of Education has established the Gerald Unks Graduate Student Development Fund to honor Unks’s work and to assist graduate students. The fund will provide support for graduate students to help them travel to conduct research or to attend scholarly meetings.

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More about Gerry Unks

Gerry Unks has retired from the School of Education, and is preparing to move to the Carolina Meadows retirement community near Chapel Hill. He recently sat for an interview, talking about his inspirational teachers, how he leads a class, among other topics. Following is an edited transcript.

When did you decide to become a teacher?
The earliest that I can remember my wanting to be a teacher was when I was in the eighth grade, and it was a social studies or history teacher. This surprises people, but with very few exceptions, almost all the way through for the rest of my life, I've wanted to be a teacher. I did not jump around from activity to activity.

I can remember when I was maybe a junior or senior in high school I considered being an undertaker.  There was a time when I thought of being a child psychologist. But that didn't last more than a semester. I seriously entertained being a lawyer, and after I was done with my teacher training and got my degree, I went into law school for one semester. I hated it. And I was offered a job teaching at the high school where I had done my student teaching. It had been a bad day at law school. Screw law school. And so I took the job teaching high school and started the following year.

You must have had a particularly inspirational teacher. Who was it?
The most inspirational teacher I had was a social studies teacher. It was a small school and he taught several different courses. I took every course that he taught. His name was William Furkin. He was a very popular teacher. Everybody liked Mr. Furkin and I just thought the world of him. He was my teacher for all sorts of things.

What was it about him?
He was amusing. I won't say funny. But he was amusing. You enjoyed his class. You liked his class, and you liked him. I guess there was some funniness to him, but he wasn't a standup comic or something like that. Maybe I'm also reacting to what people have accused me of being in the past.

Particularly when I came to UNC, the first few years I got a reputation of being funny. And, not that I really wanted to shake that. But I never did. There are still people in Peabody if you said, "What about this guy Unks?" The person will say, even though they have never seen me teach or anything like that, "Oh, yeah, he's a standup comic. Kids like him because he's funny."

I'd like to think that the kids like me for being pleasant to listen to but maybe more than funny.

What's the trick to being such a great teacher?
One thing is to tell the truth. I've always tried to be genuine. I know from looking at my course evaluations and the scuttlebutt that there is a small group that hates my guts, and there is no question about it. And then there is the great middle, which is pretty big. And then we get to the other end of the curve, which is the adoration crowd. I'm glad that the adoration crowd greatly outnumbers the “hate him” crowd.

But people have always been, and this is from the very beginning, even when I was teaching high school, people have been split on Unks. The majority, very, very positive. But there have always been those 'Oh, he's a clown.” Or, “He's dangerous.” Dangerous ideas and stuff like that.

What's the trick? Being genuine. Treating people as you would want to be treated. That sounds trite and hackneyed, but I think there's some of that.

Sometimes I have said it's as simple a thing like walking around the room. Not just standing there like a corn stalk in the front of the room. Be interesting. Be excited. If you aren't excited about what you're teaching, for God's sake why should the students be excited about it? Be excited about it. 

The first class that I teach begins with a sort of standup comedy routine. Now, that's my method. I have seen other professors. I think of one who was at UNC who went on to become provost at Auburn, but I still keep in contact with him. His name is Jack Blackburn. Jack would come in, drape himself over the front of that lectern in 104 and say, "Hi. I'm Jack Blackburn and I want to be your friend," and the class would melt. If I were to do the same thing, the class would laugh. I don't know whether I'm funny looking or what, but they would laugh.

So, I walk in and proceed to give them about five minutes or six or seven minutes of funny stuff. And they begin to laugh. And that just sort of breaks down a barrier.

The course that you are known for is Education in American Society. What was the primary thing you wanted to convey in that course?
In a nutshell what we're up to is talking about equality of educational opportunity. That's what I'm looking for: Equality of educational opportunity. We begin by talking about the importance of early childhood education. Every child should have good nutrition, in utero. And right on. The most important years of a child's life are the first six. That's when he learns to think. Then we transition into neighborhoods. What's the housing like and all that sort of thing. We talk about social class, and we talk about race.

You've said that being a professor is one of the great jobs.
It is, if you're good at it. Now that doesn't mean you have to be a great teacher and a great researcher and a great server and all that sort of thing. But at least if you're good in one of those things, it really is a wonderful job. First of all, you get to interact with interesting people. Even bad professors usually have a grain of interest about them. But you get to be with interesting people.

You get to create your own schedule, more or less. Somebody has got to teach the 8 o'clock classes and that sort thing, but generally speaking you can create your own schedule.

You're usually talking about and interacting about something in which you're interested. Your fellow professors are usually fairly interesting characters, or very interesting characters. You get to work on something, if you choose, on something that you're really passionate about. I see the people around Peabody who are real researchers. I'm not one. But they are really interested in something I may find pretty dull. But the fact is they're working on something that they're interested in and that's not true for many people.

It’s a very rewarding profession too.

I tell the kids if they really want to do something nice over their vacations sit down and write a short note to a teacher, some teacher that you've had. Now, I wish I had done it, and I didn't. All my teachers are now dead.

I mentioned Mr. Furkin. But there was also Miss Melvin. She taught me to type. She taught me to type well. I've used that all my life. I think of Mr. Rein who taught a course called The Enjoyment of Music. There were only eight or nine of us in the class. We started with the Gregorian chants and went all the way through during the whole year. We went to Chicago for an opera and stuff like that. Classical music. Musical theatre remains to this day one of my most interesting things. And I owe that to Mr. Rein. Did I write him? No. And I regret it.

You took many, many students for foreign study trips, particularly to London. Why does travel matter?
All of us are ethnocentric and narrow minded to some degree. And there's no better way to break down that ethnocentrism and widen those blinders than to encounter another culture. That's why travel matters. We're increasingly a world that's growing smaller. It's important that people know about that world.

That's also a way of knowing about oneself.

What were the highlights of your career?
It quickly comes to mind. The absolute happiest highlight of my career was in 1971 when I received my first teaching award. Wow! They gave only five of them then. No one from the School of Education had ever received one. I was absolutely in heaven.

What’s next for you?
Now, I'm one of those many who didn't prepare for retirement. At the moment I've got books to read. I have people to meet. Carolina Meadows has all sorts of activities that I can participate in, and I'm looking forward to that. The only reason I'm moving out of this house and to Carolina Meadows is to have more stimulation. To be around other people my own age and that sort of stuff.

At this point there isn't a lot of 'next.'

I’d like to finish a research project I’ve been working on. It’s called “Heritage: Chronicles of Emeritus Professors in the School of Education.” We’re making audio-visual recordings of most of the retired faculty from the School of Education. But as far as “next” goes, it’s sort of blurry.

During your 45-year career teaching, what did you learn about yourself?
I learned that I was capable of doing something. I wasn't a good musician. And I wasn't a terribly good actor by any means. I wasn’t strong. I couldn't climb a rope. But there's one thing I could do. And people told me I could do it well. People told me. I didn't presume, but people told me I could do it well.  I could teach.

So I learned that about myself.

I learned that when I was standing in front of a group of people, as a teacher or as a speaker, I felt good. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it more than just about anything I've ever done.