Alumni Spotlight: David Rainbow, Historian and Professor


Dr. David Rainbow (’97), Professor of History at University of Houstoninterviewed by Marissa Carpenter, Director of Marketing and Enrollment

Marissa: How long have you taught at University of Houston?

David: Since 2015.

M: Why did you choose to teach there? You’ve received an award for your work there, so it seems to be going mutually well–

D: I love the students here. They are hard-working and interested in big ideas, especially in the Honors College, where I teach. Out of 40,000 undergraduates at the University of Houston, the Honors college admits the best 400 freshmen, or so, every year. So my students are talented and ambitious. But they’re also fun, unpretentious, and adventurous—which isn’t true of students everywhere I’ve taught.

You’ve called many places home. Would you consider Texas home? Or do you still have a bit of wanderlust?

Texas is great in many ways. We really like it here. When I go back to California, though, and see the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I still get nostalgic. I probably still think of California as home, most of the time. As for wanderlust, I’m not as bad as I used to be. Plus, I still get to travel for work and for fun, which I like.


Are your academic pursuits part of the tamping down of that wanderlust–would you say exploring other countries’ ideologies gives you a bit of a time and space travel that you can’t get otherwise? 

I think that might be right. After high school, I began studying engineering at a place called the California Maritime Academy—I wanted to work on a ship. The next summer, I sailed around the Pacific Rim. It was amazing. We visited Hawaii, Fiji, Australia, Japan, Alaska and Seattle before returning back to the San Francisco Bay. Although I loved it—the work, the ocean, the adventure—I eventually realized I didn’t really know much about the places I was visiting, which left me frustrated. I wasn’t interested in perpetually touring the world, but in understanding it better. So I ended up studying history.

Being an historian is a bit like time travel. For nerds, I guess. It is possible to feel like you know what it was like in another time and place, if you learn enough about it. I also get to travel using my actual body, once in a while. Since you can’t run experiments on human societies—well, you can, but it’s usually a bad idea—the past is the best laboratory for figuring out how things work, why things happen, and what happens if…The way we know the past is through the artifacts that were created then, “primary sources,” as we say. In most cases, the artifacts I need to answer the questions I have are primary sources housed in (sometimes huge) historical archives. They’re one of a kind; there are no copies. The things I’ve written about have taken me to archives in St. Petersburg, Moscow, several places in Siberia, New York City, and Palo Alto.


Walk me through the process of publishing your Ideologies of Race book — I saw there were a number of essayists and/or contributors. Are these academic contributors your colleagues? How did you meet them?

I had come across some interesting stories in my own research about what people thought about race in Siberia over the past couple hundred years. Siberia is a bit like the American West, in some ways. In both places, for instance, European settlers moved in and encountered native populations that had been there for a really long time. But the Russian treatment of native Siberians differed in a lot of ways from the American treatment of Native Americans, partly because of the way Russians historically have thought about race. So the book is an attempt to understand how and why Russians have thought about race the way they have, and how that compares to other parts of the world—the U.S., Western Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean—where race has been an important concept.

Anyway, that’s how I got interested in the topic. A few years ago while I was a postdoctoral 

fellow at a Russian studies institute at Columbia University, I was able to bring a bunch of scholars from across the U.S. and Europe to New York City for a few days to share our research and try to sort out what we thought was important to say about it. Once I had the idea for the workshop, I sat down a

nd made a list of sixteen scholars around the world whose work on the topic I admired. That’s pretty much who I invited, and who came. More nerd travel. That was the beginning of the book project. 

There were several academic presses that were interested in publishing the book. I signed a contract with one of them, and from there it was a long process of reading chapters, giving feedback to authors, reading revisions, corresponding with the publisher, fixing mistakes, and a bunch of other time-consuming things. I also wrote an introduction and one of the chapters. It seemed like it took forever. But we’re historians. We play the long game. 


Is it true that Soviet means Union, making the term “Soviet Union” repetitive? Should we instead say Soviet…Russia when referencing historical Russia?

Soviet means “council” in Russian. Soviets were workers’ councils in the Russian Empire (before the Soviet Union existed). They served to organize workers in different industries. During the revolution in 1917 that crushed the tsarist empire, and ushered in communist rule, soviets—these worker councils—played a big role in organizing strikes and eventually a full-blown revolution. Their central role in the revolution is why the Soviet Union, when it was created a few years later, took the name “soviet.”

Yes, “Soviet Russia” would be an accurate way to refer to Russia between 1922 (when it was founded) and 1991 (when it fell apart). However, “Soviet Russia” refers to only one of the republics that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR). So there was also “Soviet Ukraine,” “Soviet Kazakhstan,” and so on. There were fifteen Soviet republics in all, including Soviet Russia. It’s a mess, I know. But that’s not even the worst of it. 


Have you spent some amount of time in Russia?

I lived in Russia for a semester when I was in college in 2001. That was shortly after Putin became president, meaning, before he had become president-for-life. It was a lot different in the country back then. I’ve been back several times since. I lived in St. Petersburg for a year in graduate school so I could learn Russian. Then I spent another year doing research in archives around the country for my PhD dissertation, including six months in Siberia. You should go sometime. January is nice. I’ve been a couple other times for shorter visits, including most recently with a group of my University of Houston students on a study trip.


I read Crime and Punishment in your late father (Dr. Jon Rainbow)’s honors English class. He later wrote an opera based on the same Dostoevsky novel — did his interest in Russia impact yours? Or is this interest just something that happened to overlap in some ways?

That’s a fun memory, my dad’s opera. Thanks for bringing it up. My mom recently gave me my dad’s copy of Crime and Punishment, the one he used in class to teach all of you (notice I still don’t say “y’all”). He certainly read Crime and Punishment before I did. But when he wrote the opera, I was already a PhD student at NYU studying Russian history. So our interests in Russia probably existed in parallel. But I don’t know, maybe I can take a tiny bit of credit for his inspiration. He and my mom visited my family and me when we lived in St. Petersburg a couple years before he wrote his opera. I took him to see the neighborhood where the events of Crime and Punishment took place, where Dostoevsky lived, and all that. And he and I got mugged by some Russians while he was visiting. So, I mean, that’s pretty inspirational.

My favorite memory from the time he was working on the opera was writing back and forth with him about it. He sent me the libretto while it was under construction, and had some questions about some Russia-related stuff. He didn’t really need my help. He knew what he wanted to say. I think he was just trying to make me feel useful. But he was that way with a lot of people, not just his kids. He took great joy in getting people to talk about stuff they knew and cared a lot about. He was really skilled at that. He was never impressed with snobs. But he really appreciated hard work and expertise, no matter what kind.

I didn’t get to see the opera in person. I visited California during a dress rehearsal, though. It was great, and the first time I saw the new CVC theater. In my day, theater performances were endured in the gym. During the rehearsals of Crime and Punishment, my dad was already getting headaches during, which turned out to be the tumor in his head that killed him a few months later.

Were you a student of your father’s at CVC? Or your mother’s, Pat Rainbow [HS and later MS spanish teacher]?

Yes. I had both as teachers. They were both great, though I assume you’re trying to get some juicy stories. I’ll just say that I didn’t apply myself to my studies 100% of the time.


You continue to work in academics — after living all over, learning and teaching, how do you believe Christian education helps students navigate today’s challenges?

Christian education centers on fundamental and essential questions about life. What is good? What is true? What’s the nature of love? How should I live? Why does it matter? Big questions like these are always important. But they were, I think, especially important to my generation. I grew up in the nineties. There was a lot of angst and aimlessness in the culture. The Columbine shooters were my age. The threats to a meaningful life when I was in high school were apathy, not caring, the temptation to just get by, relativism. 

Christian education also conveys the values of grace, humility, forgiveness, truth, mercy, kindness. These are, again, always important. But they’ve taken on a particular resonance today. We live in an age of sanctimony and outrage, people falling over themselves to display their virtuousness, and eager to pronounce judgement. Students I teach more and more often come into their freshman year of college exhausted, worried, and fragile. It’s not really their fault, in many cases. I think the values Jesus taught to his disciples—a powerful mixture of humility and courage—would go a long way to mitigating the anxiety that seems to characterize so much of culture today. But there’s more to say about that. 

What was your favorite or first (or both) memory of CVC?

I started at CVC in the middle of sixth grade—a time in every boy’s life, needless to say, of brimming self-confidence, precise hormonal balance, and good fashion sense. Despite all of those advantages, I wondered if I’d make friends. Mike Griffin and Case Anker (two boys in my class) went out of their way on my first day to be kind to me, and became my best middle-school friends. CVC—this is something I’ve realized even more since graduating—is the kind of place where there are lots of great friendships. Not every school is like that. CVC friends are still among my best, especially those from high school. I also saw the quality of friendships characteristic of CVC when my dad got sick. So many were so good to him, and to my mom. 


What would you tell your younger, high school self?

First, I’d tell him to listen to his older self. Then, I’d tell him to ask all his teachers, especially his male teachers, more questions. Not about class, but about their beliefs, what they care about, what they think about, and about their lives. I’d tell him to ask them about how they think he should live his life, too. He wouldn’t follow all their wisdom, no doubt. But I’d tell him he should try to get as much of it as he can, anyway. Don’t graduate high school, I would say, until you have taken your favorite teachers out to coffee, and made them tell you the meaning of life.


Who was your favorite CVC teacher? Tell me why.

I had lots of great teachers. I always loved Mr. Elsenbroek’s class. He taught me in high school. He always gave us lots to think about, and had a winsome way of channeling the ridiculous antics of my friends and me into teachable moments. I have also thought often of Mr. (Tim) Kornelis, who was my middle-school math teacher. He was also a great teacher, a really faithful man, and a positive example for my 12-year-old self. But like I said, there were a lot of great teachers then, as I’m sure there are now. A lot of people poured serious energy into us.


After graduation, what did you pursue? Job? School? Tell me what led you to that path.

It was a bit of a circuitous route. I went from being an engineering cadet aboard a ship, to being a hireling on Doug Van Beek’s dairy farm (you were an excellent boss, Doug). I took classes at the College of Sequoias and eventually graduated from Fresno Pacific University, which is where I first got interested in history, in philosophy, in Russia, and in a girl named Brady, who married me right after we graduated. We moved to North Dakota, where I worked on a cattle ranch (long story), and Brady worked at a law firm. A couple years later we moved to the east coast, I started grad school, we had some babies, took them to Russia, was sent to Siberia, I wrote a dissertation, worked in New York City, and moved to Texas. In my mind, it all makes sense. But I won’t bore you with how I think that’s the case.


What does a typical day of work look like for you?

Usually, I teach three days a week. On those days, I’m reading for class, meeting with students, giving lectures, leading discussion sections, sometimes grading papers, and talking with colleagues (some of my teaching is team-teaching). On the other days, I prepare for classes, do research, and write. When classes aren’t in session, I’m doing more writing than teaching. I also give talks occasionally at a place called the Women’s Institute of Houston, about history or Russia or both.


What’s next for you? Another book? Exploring more Russian ideologies?

I’m writing a few things. One is a book related to a political movement for Siberian autonomy that developed in the 19th century. A bunch of people back then thought that Siberia would be the next United States, which was at the time still very young. Both places were frontier colonies with lots of natural wealth. And the American colonies had broken from their empire. Siberia should, too. They gained a lot of steam until the movement was crushed by the Bolshevik Red Army after the October Revolution in 1917. The characters whose lives I have researched were either executed or fled to China. A number eventually ended up in California where they became prominent Russian historians at Berkeley and some other universities. Some were the professors of my professors’ professors. So, kind of like my intellectual great-grandparents. There are some “separatists” in Siberia again, today. But Putin isn’t a fan. He might like my book, though.


If you’re not writing or teaching, what are your hobbies? Do you have time for those?

I like to ride mountain bikes, that’s one hobby. Not many mountains around Houston, but when we travel west we bring the bikes along. I also like to camp in Texas with my family whenever I can. 

Finally: if one wanted to write a book–any book, what’s the first step?

There are people much more knowledgeable than I when it comes to writing books, especially if you’re not talking about an academic book. In general, though, good writers are always good readers first. So read lots of books. Also, it’s sometimes useful to remember that if you wait for a fully-formed idea before you start writing it down, you’ll almost never get started. That’s because writing is not just a record of our thinking, it’s also a means by which we think. The process itself is often how ideas, stories, etc., get formulated in the first place. So, write lots of pages. And then rewrite them before you make anyone read them.


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