A Journey without End: Taking Bearings (The Wild Card) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #13
Returning to campus, thinking about journeys.
A few prefatory words
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This week is The Wild Card. And I went back to college. Read on!
Reflecting on My Alma Mater
If I had to wager, I’d say I think about my college years more often than most people do. For years, the principal reason I did so stemmed from me being a college professor. If you don’t watch out, being a professor can feel like a long extension of college, albeit transforming roles from sitting in a cramped desk in the back of the classroom to sitting on the desk in the front of it.
But lately other reasons have prompted my college reverie.
One, I’ve been reading a book by Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century writer I first read at the University of Puget Sound. (More on that book in a few weeks.) Two, I visited my alma mater’s campus a couple weeks ago. Walking across the quad and among the brick walls, even more than thirty years past matriculation, brought forth memories and more than a little nostalgia.
Since I graduated, I’ve returned several times, but typically those visits consisted of roaming the sidewalks and marveling at the new buildings. When I attended Puget Sound in the early 1990s, I thought it was a beautiful campus. Now, it is stunning—a friend remarked, “a park with books.”
In a stroll across the grounds, the “park” stands out, but the “books” meant everything to me.
So, I headed to the Library.
When I attended Puget Sound, the Department of History (and Politics & Government and English) occupied part of the second floor of Collins Memorial Library. I learned that corner of the building well. The view out office windows became familiar, as I sat across from professors nervously looking past them at the nearby trees, searching for the words I needed to articulate my questions or confusions or even my inchoate aspirations.
That Friday morning a few weeks ago, I walked through the library to the back staircase and climbed it as I had too many times to count. When I popped out of the stairwell door, bookcases greeted me instead of the familiar classroom and hallways.
It’s a strange feeling to walk over your footsteps, decades later, after walls disappear. The ground slips beneath you.
When I started started college, I held only a vague sense of a course of study and career direction. It would involve more words than numbers. That was all I was certain about.
My first semester consisted of courses not unlike those I took in high school and that met certain university requirements. One of them was a US history course, which inspired me to find another history class the next term that would fulfill a different requirement. That second class—American Intellectual History to 1865—convinced me to declare history my major.
Cause and effect here were strange. The first class reading—a sermon by John Winthrop—baffled me entirely (before class discussion), and I never received worse grades than in that course.
But I liked a challenge in those days.
I asked the professor to be my advisor. I took more classes with Professor Bill Breitenbach than anyone else and am sure received harder comments about my writing from him than anyone. I’ve faced greater challenges in my academic life—writing books is harder than finishing a term paper, after all (and don’t get me started on the travails of editing a book with a bunch of academic authors!)—but no one pushed me more.
When Bill—we were a first-name, informal campus—won a teaching award at UPS, he said, “My goal as a teacher continues to be to offer the kinds of courses that I myself would have wanted to take as an undergraduate. These were courses in which the professor was intense and challenging, courses that required me and inspired me to work harder and learn more than I would have done if left to my own devices.” Bill perfectly captured my experience with his classes.
Bill taught me how to think critically about history. Until I stopped teaching last spring, I still used his handouts with my students, giving his insights to others so that they might learn how to be a historian, at least a little. After thirty years, I never found a better way to convey the habits of mind historians need.
One of my clearest memories with Bill comes from his office hours, sitting that second floor in the library. I don’t remember why I dropped in, but like many of our conversations, we turned to writing. In response to a comment or question from me, he said, “You’re on a journey with no end. It’s not like you wake up one day and you are finally a good writer.”
Bill was telling me there is no secret, or shortcut, to writing well, that no formula would produce flawless results. Instead, writing well demanded that writers attend to the prose and thinking behind it, each and every time they sat down to string words together.
Eventually, Bill told me to branch out and take more classes with other professors. His specialty centered on early American religion and reform, so I trod over the ground of Puritans (hence, Winthrop) and Transcendentalists (hence, Thoreau) several times from different angles.
Following his suggestion, I took another course, this one in something that I felt no interest in. But the professor was young, so I thought I’d try. That course—American Environmental History—turned out to change my life, setting me on a course for graduate school, a Ph.D., and the college professor’s life. We started the course by reading about colonial New England—a topic that I’d encountered numerous times with my advisor—but from an environmental angle. And everything looked off from that vantage, a distortion that fascinated me.
I was hooked.
And that is why I became a historian: a good teacher and then an inspiring perspective. A dry match strikes easily.
What Bill told me about writing—“a journey with no end”—is true for education generally. You don’t stop at the end of the book, or with a degree conferred, or when a career stops. Our true journeys simply don’t end, and along the path we leave seeds for others to incorporate on their own way.
A couple years ago, I wrote an essay about many things (including Thoreau), but mostly about how I understood the value of education. If that sounds interesting, check out "When You Know the Price of a Huckleberry" in Weber—The Contemporary West (pages 112-120 below, or this direct link).
Weber—The Contemporary West Fall 2021 by Weber—The Contemporary West - Issuu — issuu.com Read Weber—The Contemporary West Fall 2021 by Weber—The Contemporary West on Issuu and browse thousands of other publications on our platform. Star...
I participated in a short interview with Caitlin Tan on Wyoming Public Radio recently. The story published this week. You can listen to it or read the transcript below.
A historian’s thoughts on how America both protects and exploits public lands | Wyoming Public Media — www.wyomingpublicmedia.org When Yellowstone National Park was first founded 150 years ago, it was a landmark move. It was the world’s first national park signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, and in the years since, it has represented America’s efforts to protect the outdoors.However, Adam Sowards, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Idaho, recently wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times detailing America's troubled history with public lands. Sowards spoke with Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan.
As always, you can find my books and books where some of my work is included at my Bookshop affiliate page (where, if you order, I get a small benefit). And if you are in the Seattle area, tomorrow night is my book event at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
Taking Bearings Next Week
I've completed three cycles now, so next week, we start over with The Classroom. Coming your way will be a lesson in American land philosophy and policy.
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