The Best Little Book Club in Camden–A Reflection on My Graduate Education

By Evan Laine

At the end of every semester in my Law and Society introduction class at Philadelphia University, I always give the students a “pep” speech, so I give it to you:  Life is a pinball game, the old-fashioned type where you stand behind the machine and not a video screen. Those of you who played real pinball know that once you pull the plunger back the ball travels onto the field and in a wild, loud, exciting and totally unexpected way, it bounces off obstacles, rings bells and scores points. You control the ball somewhat with your bumpers and perhaps subtle machine shaking, but there’s a lot you don’t control. But, the game is exciting! However, you can go up to the machine, put your quarter in, yes they were a quarter when I was younger, and not push the lever that puts the ball in front of the plunger. You can decide not to play, indeed if you don’t, it’s safe, it’s quiet, you don’t lose points, but nothing happens. I tell my students pull back the plunger,  put your ball in play, you will never be absolutely sure what will happen,  but I guarantee you there will be excitement and bells, points will be scored, risks will be taken, goals that you never even imagined when you pull back the plunger can be accomplished. I tell my students this story because this is exactly what I did.

Up until 2002, I was a trial attorney with my own law firm. I had been practicing law since my graduation in 1981 from Rutgers Law School.  My profession taught me a very important lesson; an idea cannot and should not be submitted to a judge and/or jury without proper foundation. Concepts must be the fruit of careful, often painstaking, research and analysis. Suppositions, opinions, and conclusions held no weight in a court of law unless one could prove they were based upon adequate and credible evidence.   After time, I also learned that solutions to convoluted and critical problems often do not exist in black-and-white; instead careful analysis frequently revealed the many different shades of gray in between.

For some years, I enjoyed my position and my profession.  As a trial lawyer, your primary job is to teach juries why products are defective or why certain medical practices were performed negligently, but in the end, what I really taught them was limited to that one particular circumstance and for no greater purpose other than making money for myself and of course my client. It soon dawned upon me that I was not contributing as I could and should. I was no longer happy.  I knew I could teach and knew that my skills needed to be applied to a broader and larger objective.

One spring day, I believe it was in 2002, my wife and I were walking near the Battleship New Jersey when we got into a discussion on what we should be doing with the rest of our lives. We were empty-nesters with both of our children in college. Maybe it was the battleship, maybe it was the smell of desperation in the air in Camden, yes it is a chronic condition, that stimulated us into this conversation. She stated she wanted to go in the medical field, and indeed she went back to school and now works full-time in that profession. I stated that the true love that I’ve developed over the years was history. I was an avid reader of anything historical, especially topics in early U.S. history.  I decided at that point I would teach history.   That fall I enrolled in Prof. Seitter’s Civil War history class in the undergraduate program as a type of test drive.   I absolutely loved the class.  I knew at that at point I wanted to teach at a college level and soon thereafter enrolled in the Masters in American History program at Rutgers University.  I would describe it as follows; it’s the best damn book club in America or at least in Camden New Jersey!  Moderated and directed by accomplished and caring professors, twice a week at night I would gather with very intelligent people to analyze fascinating books.  We would discuss, argue, agree and debate, all while having an amazingly good time.  Yes, we had to write papers, but they were on subjects I cared deeply about and was anxious to express my opinions on. I’m not exaggerating when telling you that going to classes were the highlight of my week.

Upon graduation from Rutgers University, with the help and recommendation of my professors, (big shout out to Professors Golden, Woll, Seigel and Bernstein among others) I became an adjunct professor of history and criminal justice in Rutgers University Camden and Philadelphia University. Eventually, I became a full-time professor and Director of the Law and Society program at Philadelphia University where I’m now Associate Professor of History. I teach classes, and research and write articles on topics that continue to fascinate me. My current Interests include the genesis of 9/11 conspiracy theories which led to my article Modernity, Fear and 9/11 Conspiracy Theories, a Rational Attempt to Explain the Irrational. I especially enjoyed giving a lecture on my article during a social sciences conference in Honolulu Hawaii. I’ve also written a book concerning Richard Nixon’s conspiracy to destroy Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s attempts to bring peace to the Vietnam War in 1968. The book is titled Nixon and the Dragon Lady (available at popular prices on!)  Currently, I am writing a museum exhibit for the Arlen Specter Center for Public Policy concerning the late Senator’s investigation into the assassination of Pres. Kennedy. This museum exhibit will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Pres. Kennedy’s assassination.

I look forward to every day of work. Teaching gives me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that I never had as an attorney. I honestly believe that I’m affecting people’s lives, helping them think, analyze and understand the complicated and difficult world we live in. When I put my ball in play that day when I enrolled in the Masters program in American History at Rutgers Camden, it indeed led to a fascinating unexpected ride, one that continues to this present day. As I say to my students I will say once again to you, put your ball in play!

Meet Alum Bill Smith

Bill Smith sent us this post to keep us informed of his current activities. Congratulations Bill on your forthcoming presentation.  

I began my graduate studies at Rutgers-Camden in an effort to increase my content knowledge and improve my craft as a high school teacher. My experiences at Rutgers-Camden prepared me to continue my graduate studies at the doctorate level. I am currently pursuing my PhD in Early American History at the College of William and Mary. I also work as an editorial assistant at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Working specifically with Professor Shankman prepared me to make scholarly contributions to my field. Work that I completed at Rutgers has since been accepted for publication in Quaker History and the Journal of Animal Ethics