Professor Bob Johnson’s office is empty, with the exception of a stack of books on topics ranging from vector calculus to the making of Ireland left by him for the office’s newest occupant, visiting Professor of History Brendan Goff. Before coming to New College of Florida, Goff served as a lecturer in the Honors Program at the University of Michigan. He spent his own undergraduate years studying philosophy at Hamilton College, a small liberal arts college in Clinton, N.Y.
“Classes were very small,” Goff said. “I had a few upper-level classes where there only three, four students. If I had gone to a large public university, I very likely would have just not finished but because I’ve had the kind of connection I was able to really get into it, I kind of came alive intellectually. I don’t know if that would have happened in a large impersonal institution.”
He was readily drawn to New College for that very reason. “Having been on the other side at a big university like Eastern Michigan University (EMU), at least for a year, where for example, you say a student’s name and they’re just shocked that you learned their name in the first week of class … well, how else am I going to convey right away that I take you seriously?” Goff said. “It’s just worth the mental energy to learn students’ names on day one.”
Before deciding to earn a Ph.D in History from the University of Michigan, Goff continued his studies in philosophy at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. “I wanted to go somewhere where I’d be surrounded by Europeans and that is exactly what happened there,” Goff said. “I used to think of the first four or five months of being there as de-Americanizing myself. I came back to the States and worked at a bank in New York City for a year, but I decided I wanted to go abroad again. But I wanted to go to a non-English speaking environment.”
He soon found himself in Madrid, Spain where he taught English for the next four years. “That’s when I rethought about getting a Ph.D in philosophy,” he said. “I realized I wanted to get a Ph.D in something I wanted to teach. That was the first time I formally taught anything. I taught different students – some kids, mostly corporate executives, college students, a lot of blind students. Every day was kind of different which kept things very interesting. Because of those classes, living in Madrid and dealing with my European colleagues, I got to thinking more and more on what it meant to be an American, their impressions and what they thought what the United States was all about based on the media, images, etc. So it got me thinking about U.S. influences abroad and what they were, what they mean. When I started looking at Ph.D programs, I kept gravitating towards history departments and said this is what I want to do.”
Goff is currently working on his first book, The Heartland Abroad: Rotary International and the Globalizing of Main Street, which is based on his dissertation. The forthcoming project attempts to capture the expansion of U.S. cultural and economic influence during the first half of the 20th century around the world. “Initially what triggered it was looking at service clubs and civic clubs and thinking of the racial boundaries between them,” he said. “I looked at the clubs across the country and then I realized they were all over the world by the Great Depression, particularly Rotary Clubs. It got me thinking what are these clubs? Are these just outposts of Americans living abroad? And when I looked into it, it was not at all like that. These were non-U.S. members of local elites, service elites, business elites who were voluntarily signing up with an organization that they saw as an ideal conduit into U.S. corporations, U.S. culture. The idea is to capture this project of attempting to export a U.S. model of civil society abroad and then those abroad who moved to the U.S. or do business a lot in the U.S. [explore] how they were perceiving these encounters.”
Meanwhile, Goff, who grew up in Pittsburgh, has been preoccupied settling in Sarasota currently on the quest to find the best local sushi. He is also, of course, teaching two classes this semester – American History Survey and U.S. in the World. “I hope to find that New College students have a stronger sense of ownership of what they’re learning than the average college student and there is real genuine engagement with the community and with the daily news,” Goff said, reflecting on what he expects from the Novocollegian. “I don’t want my students coming in oblivious to what’s going on in the world. They are lucky and privileged to be getting an education like this. It’s a rare resource.”