Bill Issel’s career has spanned decades and continents, yet San Francisco State remains his most memorable and meaningful school. An expert on ethnicity, race, religion and politics in the U.S., the retired professor of History was a student at SF State in the 1960s before earning his Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania and then teaching at State for 39 years. Issel was recently awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award for Scholarship for his work on the Catholic presence within politics by the American Catholic Historical Association.
In 1960 Issel entered college at UC Berkeley with plans to major in electrical engineering and no interest in studying history. “I had never enjoyed history because I didn’t think it was that interesting and my teachers were terrible in high school,” he says. “But this one U.S. history course was absolutely fascinating and I thought, ‘Gosh, is this [professor] actually making a living doing this?’”
Issel’s deep interest in the diverse ethnic and religious cultures he grew up with in San Francisco provided him the lens that gave history its engaging context. He transferred from Berkeley to SF State to work with professors who were researching and writing about labor, race and politics in the 20th century. He was the first in his family to graduate from college.
Distinguished Achievement Award
The American Catholic Historical Association comprises historians who research Catholic history and publish an academic journal four times a year. Issel says it is “the gold standard for specialized historical research about the history of Catholicism from the ancient world to the present, all over the world.” ACHA bestows the Distinguished Achievement Award for Scholarship on the scholar who has created a significant impact on the understanding of Catholic history, not for one piece of work, but for a series of contributions over a long career which has influenced the research of others.
Issel (B.A., History, ’63; M.A., History, ’64) was honored for his extensive body of articles and books including For Both Cross and Flag (2010) and Church and State in the City: Catholics and Politics in 20th-Century San Francisco (2013), both published by Temple University.
“In his research and writing, Bill Issel has demonstrated the importance of examining the role that religion has had on American political discourse,” the ACHA states in a news article announcing the award.
Teaching PhilosophyIssel explains that his teaching philosophy is the Discovery Method of Learning, which he learned as a graduate teaching assistant at State. The method puts students in the role of using history to address current problems; students are encouraged to become actively involved in exploring the historical root of the issues.
“Students learn best if they can see the relevance of what they’re studying to their own life,” Issel stresses, and he emphasizes engaging the students by participation in problem solving, even when attending a lecture. Even in a lecture class, students can be engaged along with the professor if the lecture is done right. “The key,” says Issel, “is that the students are actually doing history, not just sitting passively listening to some pontifical professorial monologue.”
History’s Relevance to Today’s Politics
Issel posits the Trump administration as an example issue: “Why is Donald Trump able to, 1) be elected and, 2) issue this kind of order about immigration in 2017? Why is this happening [now] and why didn’t it happen after the first presidential election after 9/11?” He would then ask the class to work in groups for researching answers. Issel suggests involving students in contemporary politics because “all the students know what’s happening right now and they’re thinking ‘How is this going to affect me? What’s my life going to be like because Trump is doing this stuff?’”
While exploring historical factors of today’s politics, his students encounter the question “Has this sort of thing ever happened before?” In his own response, Issel says yes and is disturbed by the parallels between the Trump campaign rhetoric and action with authoritarianism and fascism.
“This kind of narrow, parochial, fear-based, racial, ethnic, nationalist, ‘America-first’ attitude is so destructive for our future,” Issel says. “If we give in as a society to this temptation — to build walls around ourselves on the deeply misguided notion that we are so vulnerable and we need to be so hypervigilant or we won’t survive — we are going to put ourselves on a road to nowhere.”
Influences and Future Work
Issel credits his commitment to social justice to Sister Bernadette Giles, a nun who was one of the first members of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, and his most influential childhood teacher. Giles’ stance was one of universal love and acceptance. She told him, “We should always be proud of the fact that in our neighborhood we are like a little United Nations in the city where the United Nations was started.” Over time, Issel has written work on Catholic history through shifting lenses of his own relationship with the religion, but Giles’ remembrance has been an unwavering influence on his worldview.
In the future, Issel plans to write a book about Catholics and politics in urban America in the 20th century, a biography about a California politician, and a memoir. This year he was invited to apply for a Fulbright award to teach in Romania.
Issel has been awarded multiple Fulbright scholarships and other praise for his work, but says his most satisfying achievements have come from his work as a professor.
‘I’m so fortunate to have had so many wonderful students’
Maziar Behrooz (M.A., History, ‘86), an associate professor of History at State, keeps in touch with Issel and speaks warmly about the days as his pupil. “I was his student,” Behrooz reminisces. “[He has a] great intellectual mind.” He cites Issel as a major inspiration for his pathway to becoming a professor himself.
“That’s the great thing about teaching at San Francisco State. I’m so fortunate to have had so many wonderful students,” says Issel, who retired in 2007. “I would never have accomplished what I did if it hadn’t been for San Francisco State.”
“The single most rewarding thing about my career so far is that I have been very fortunate to meet, teach and then become friends and colleagues with nearly three dozen men and women who are teaching at universities and writing wonderful books today,” he says.
He hopes that students who are inspired by him to teach continue fostering a welcoming, empathetic perspective in their own classes, especially in today’s political environment.
“We are all human beings and we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity,” he says. “I’ve always approached teaching with an understanding that it is my duty to foster good citizenship, especially defending human rights, ending poverty, and global justice. More than ever, we need to remember that we are citizens of the United States but also citizens of the world.”
— Gospel Cruz
- William Issel Receives 2017 Distinguished Scholar Award, American Catholic Historical Association, February 21
- Bill Issel
- History Department
Photo by Gospel Cruz