Fighting for the Dead: Study.com Interviews Award-Winning History Professor Dr. Peter Wood

Dr. Peter Wood is an emeritus history professor at Duke University and the recent recipient of the Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award from the American Historical Association. We caught up with him to discuss his dual passions for history and teaching and how he keeps the past alive for his students.

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By Megan Driscoll

Dr. Peter Wood

Study.com: What is your own educational and professional background?

Dr. Peter Wood: I was lucky to grow up in a large, education-minded family and to attend good schools in St. Louis and Baltimore. Both of my parents were educators, so I was learning to be a teacher even as I was being taught.

At school I had more than my share of exceptional teachers. In third grade, believe it or not, I invited several to my birthday party, since these gray-haired instructors were not simply my role models but my friends.

In college, I was struck to learn how many classmates had had only one or two good teachers in twelve years, while I had seen no poor ones. The next dozen years, studying history at Harvard and Oxford, didn't change my good fortune.

E-P: How did you find yourself teaching at Duke?

PW: In the summer of 1963, after my junior year in college, I lived in Krakow, Poland. Exploring that ancient university city suddenly made early American history, scarcely two centuries away, seem both accessible and exciting.

I went on to earn a Ph.D. in colonial American history, writing a dissertation about slavery in early South Carolina, which became a book called Black Majority. In a time of civil unrest, I wanted to understand the early roots of racism in America.

Then I worked for three years at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City and enjoyed it thoroughly. But when Duke offered me a post in early American history, I jumped at the chance to teach at a fine school in the region I was studying.

E-P: You recently received the Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award from the American Historical Association. They say the award is 'intended for inspiring teachers whose techniques and mastery of subject matter made a real difference to students of history.' Can you describe the teaching accomplishments that earned you this honor?

PW: I can't be sure, as it came out of the blue. Every year the AHA invites nominations, and apparently people put my name in the hat. It's quite a thrill after more than three decades of teaching, since the award comes from my peers.

Naturally, it is humbling, since the AHA has more than 14,000 members in all fields of history; I know how many of them are super mentors in their fields. A part of it must be for durability, showing up ever day, like Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripkin.

But another part may be for evolving my own approach. There are many different kinds of good teachers, and the best ones, I guess, are always excited by their work, but never quite satisfied either. Each new class is a different challenge, and just when you think you have found the key, conditions change. There's an old saying from Heraclitus: 'You never step in the same river twice.'

E-P: What drew you to history as a discipline, and how did you become interested in teaching?

PW: I mentioned wonderful teachers. But I am a visual person, so certain sights also stirred my imagination. I remember riding a stern-wheeler on the Mississippi from St. Louis to Hannibal, Missouri, when I was five! And I recall, soon after that, visiting the Old North Church in Boston, where the lanterns signaled to Paul Revere.

Some of the most important early moments for me were confusing ones, as I struggled to understand the adult world around me. Why were docents at the St. Louis Court House reluctant to talk about the Dred Scott Case, for example? Why were black Missourians cheering for the Brooklyn Dodgers when Jackie Robinson came to town? That really got this young Cardinal fan's attention in a deep way.

As for teaching, every historian is drawn by powerful forces. You want to pass along what prior generations have learned so far, but you also hope to revise and expand that knowledge in the wake of new insights. I want my students to feel the same sense of amazement and questioning that I felt watching Jackie Robinson.

E-P: What has been the focus of your own research over the years?

PW: Given my start, attending segregated schools in the 1950s, I've always been particularly interested in the roots of racism, and in the complex contact between different cultures that shapes much of American history. (This became an important theme in the recent U.S. History text called Created Equal that I wrote with a terrific quartet of scholar-friends; I wish I'd tackled that challenge earlier in my career.)

By now, we're becoming aware that the American slave labor camps (that we still call by the benign term, 'plantations') lasted for more generations than the Russian Gulag. When I was in school, discussions of American slavery usually began and ended in the antebellum period. That has changed in the last generation.

I love early American history--beginnings matter so much--but I have roamed quite a bit in my interests. I wrote an article about 'Television as Dream' that has been used in lots of media courses, and another about the roots of African American dance. I am proud of a long piece called 'The Pardoner's Tale' about why Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. I've even written an article about gourds!

Dr. Peter Wood on Winslow Homer

E-P: You just published a new book about the American artist, Winslow Homer. How did that interest come about?

PW: Thirty years ago, my immersion in race relations and my appreciation for American painting came together in the study of African American images. I became involved with the Menil Foundation in Houston in the early stages of their magnificent project on The Image of the Black in Western Art.

Through this interest, in 1988 I became the co-curator of a national exhibition on Winslow Homer's Images of Blacks. I followed that with a book called Weathering the Storm, about one of Homer's most famous and least understood pictures, The Gulf Stream. Amazingly, no one had ever explored that painting's connections to black history, even though it hangs in the Metropolitan Museum.

That experience prompted me to go further. So, yes, I've just finished a book called Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer's Civil War. It focuses on a little-known painting of an African American slave in Georgia in 1864. The picture was lost for a whole century, but it offers a unique perspective on the Civil War, one suited for our own time.

E-P: What are your areas of specialty as an instructor?

PW: I enjoyed teaching colonial American history and the Revolutionary era to grads and undergrads, along with the first half of the US Survey. New scholarship, fresh students and the shifting world context made each class different every year.

But I also liked developing new courses that had not been offered before. I introduced Duke's first Native American history course, and before there was a Film and Video Program I created a class on 'The History of Documentary Film.'

I often taught a first-year undergraduate seminar called 'Headlines and History,' where students wove together past and present, using their own family experiences and events and issues in the daily paper. I wanted to get them away from thinking that history was something remote and inaccessible that just happened to other people. Usually, it worked wonderfully.

E-P: What do you find most challenging about teaching history? Most rewarding?

PW: The first challenge is that we live in a culture that pays little attention to history, often dismissing it as 'boring' or 'irrelevant.' I like the up-hill fight of expanding each student's definition of what is actually relevant.

Secondly, if you teach early American history, you face the added challenge that this portion of our past, while still poorly understood, is often placed on a pedestal or in a glass case. 'Show reverence, but don't ask questions.' I bristle at that approach. In my classroom, every assumption and opinion should be up for fresh consideration--mine, yours, the author we are reading, and the parent texting you from home...

For me, the best reward is not in training more professional historians, though that has been exciting and satisfying. Instead, it is in seeing individual students emerge, now or later, as stronger individuals with a better historical grounding. I love it when someone 'gets it,' realizing both that they are connected to the past in crucial ways and that they do not need to accept historical distortions that have been passed down for generations. I like to invert the old saying of Mother Jones; my motto is 'Pray for the living, and fight like hell for the dead!'

E-P: We'd love to hear any interesting questions you raised in your classroom that you can share.

PW: Here are two simple but sweeping puzzles that I often bring up in any early American history class. The first is simply: 'When does American history begin?' With Plymouth Rock? With Jamestown? With Columbus? Given my interest in Native American history and archaeology, I always spend more time on the long 'pre-contact' era than most students expect. It's full of exciting and wide-open questions.

The second puzzle is tougher; I called it Wood's Paradox: 'Is early American history the East-to-West story of early English (or trans-Atlantic) expansion up to the 1800s, as I once learned it? Or is it the study of everything and everyone in the Americas (or else the present-day United States) before, say, 1800?' Wrestling with that for awhile raises powerful questions about when and how to shift paradigms.

E-P: What advice would you give to an incoming college freshman who's considering majoring in history?

PW:

  • Try it and see if you like it. My life was changed by a freshman class in American Social History that my advisor recommended. The course blew my mind.
  • Be brave and study some part of history you never learned anything about in high school. Too many students play it safe, trying to repeat old successes. History is much more than what has happened since World War II; dig deeper.
  • Even if you dive back into Presidential History or Biblical History or Civil War History because you love it, don't expect professors to re-affirm every idea and notion you learned before. Ideally, they'll challenge you with new perspectives.
  • Remember that almost everything in the world has a rich historical component. So build on your own interests from the start. If you like astronomy or cooking or baseball or economics, find ways to push that historical dimension.

E-P: Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about your work in history and your experiences as a professor.

PW: Classroom teaching is almost always exhilarating, and I've been lucky to have wonderful students. But my 'work in history' has always been fueled by experiences outside of class-time.

I enjoy one-on-one discussion more than anything. When North Carolina raised the drinking age to 21, I had to shift from beer to coffee in out-of-class conversations with undergrads. Too bad! And I regretted when e-mail began to take the place of office hours and face-to-face contact.

In fact, many of my best teaching and learning experiences occur off campus. I always benefit from encounters with high school teachers and students and local groups of all sorts.

Each encounter reinforces my belief in public history. I've benefited from talking with people at museums and historical sites, and from taking part in archaeological digs and PBS productions.

After I taught my last class at Duke--a crazy survey called 'One Nation--One Semester'--I blogged about it here. The course and the posting were satisfying experiments. I envy the current generation of tech-savvy teachers and students. Part of me would like to start all over again!

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