Interview by Jenn Q. Goddu
The history department will lose two treasures this year when professors Bill Thompson and Charlie Reed retire.
Thompson came to Queens in 1975; one of his significant contributions to the university has been to develop the study abroad program into what is now the John Belk International Program, catapulting Queens to one of the top universities in the country for study abroad programs.
Reed joined Queens in 1991, arriving with a national teaching award. In 2000 he was named North Carolina Professor of the Year. He has taught in both the College of Arts and Sciences and in the McColl School of Business.
The colleagues met recently in Burwell Parlor for a convivial interview discussing their personal history, their teaching history and the importance of history in a liberal arts education.
Q: Did you always intend to study history?
Thompson I have always been interested in history, but I don't think I saw it as a career option until I realized how much I missed it. After I finished pre-med at Davidson, I ended up thinking I would probably go to law school. [First,] I worked at Wachovia Bank and Trust in a managerial trainee program.
That was just awful.
So, I went to graduate school in history, finally. When I finished [at Vanderbilt], the job market was horrific. I went to work [writing editorials] for The Charlotte Observer. I was actually offered the job but only if I was willing to give up all ideas of teaching. I tried very hard to do that, but I just couldn't. I did finally get a [teaching] job at Stetson, and then here.
Reed Alec McGeachy at Davidson really turned me on to history. At the time, I was raising hell and carrying on, and I didn't realize how affected by his integrity as a scholar I was until later. When I got to Oxford, several people knew of him through his doctoral thesis, even though he had never published. His determination to keep up with developments in ancient history impressed me no end.
Q: Your undergraduate years at Davidson overlapped. Did you know each other?
Thompson I knew of Charlie, but he didn't know me. Charlie was a very colorful figure, and to large numbers of students, Charlie was a hero. He was everything that they wished they could be.
Reed That's very kindly put. My parents did not agree with that.
Q: Why did history appeal to you?
Thompson I am fascinated by the connections from one generation to the next and by all of the complexity in the human experience. History is-without any question-the very best of all possible ways to try to understand that experience. If one is a historian, one develops a historical perspective that influences everything you do.
Reed That's extremely well put. [Historians] see things in a very different perspective than people who don't know much about history. Nowadays, an awful lot of people don't know much about history. There is a large-scale cultural amnesia that we find in our students-and in our colleagues-and that persists to an even greater degree in the general public.
Thompson This is one of the great problems of our time, this lack of historical knowledge and perspective.
Q: What changes have you noted in your students?
Reed I can't identify clearly and distinctly changes in the students or their perspective; that's probably because of myopia.
Thompson When you're talking about the best ones thirty-five years ago and the best ones in the last few years, I'm not sure there are a lot of differences. [They] share the same curiosity and eagerness. Taken more generally, I think students now are less willing to undertake the types of reading assignments that I would have given 30 or 35 years ago. Students are why we both love doing what we do, by the way. We don't like teaching to an empty classroom.
Q: What is the relationship between the history department and other departments on campus?
Reed Since I taught in the CORE program and in other parts of Queens, I guess I just took the department for granted. In a larger school, the department is one's university. The people one knows are there, and often one knows very few people from outside there. That is far from the case at Queens.
Thompson We really have close colleagues across the campus. One of the things that I was fortunate to do with Dick Goode, I think starting in the early eighties, was to create an interdisciplinary humanities course that eventually became the CORE program. We launched it with an art historian named Ben Pfingstag and a religion professor named Beth Johnson, "team teaching" in the genuine sense of the word. The four of us were in there together all of the time. That was the most marvelous thing. Have you been able to do that Charlie, genuine team teaching?
Reed For nine years at Virginia Tech. It was just wonderful. A lot of what I do, I stole from someone in another field.
Thompson Let me add that Charlie did very important work in improving the CORE Program when he came to Queens. That is one of the ways in which we overlap outside of the history department-in
starting and then later in improving this significant program. Historians are particularly adept in this sort of thing because of their breadth of perspective and their emphasis upon context.
Q: How has your perspective of history changed from teaching it?
Reed Not much, I guess. You're in the unenviable position, as a historian, of knowing a hell of a lot more than your students.
Thompson If I have to prepare something to teach, that is a very different kettle of fish than just reading over material or enjoying reading it. I have to engage in an analysis that is much more demanding. It is so vast and so complex that you can't know it all, but you don't want to appear to be the village doofus.
One of the healthiest things you can do is be able to [tell] a student, "You know, I don't know." Once you can say that, you have [the] security or confidence that is really important to enjoying life teaching history. When I first started teaching, there were lots of times I would be asked something, and my first reaction would be terror. Being a good historian is really a matter of seasoning.
Reed Most historians don't ripen young.
Thompson It's almost a shame isn't it, Charlie? You're just getting really good when it's time to go.
Q: What course has been your favorite one to teach at Queens?
Thompson I really have liked most of the things that I have taught. If I came back in another life, I probably would not come back in another profession. I have taught for about 20 years a course called "Ideas and Values in Conflict" which I have loved teaching. It was originally titled "Voices from Hell," but the curriculum committee made me take that title off. I have had a sense of accomplishment from that because [students] seem to have enjoyed seeing very momentous intellectual and cultural challenges. I [also worked for 17 years] on the international experience program; that was an all-absorbing endeavor. We developed it very much by the seat of our pants.
Reed Bill developed that, he's too modest to say this, into a program unlike any other in the country. It sends virtually every junior abroad for much of May.
Thompson That was Billy Wireman's vision. Before we had the program, you just did study tours on your own and students paid for it themselves. Bob Whalen and I had taken a group of students into central Europe and the students came back and were talking to Billy a lot about it. He said, "You know, we ought to do this for all of our students. Can you set something up?"
So, I taught two courses for a while and then I cut back to one course. Charlie, do you remember taking me down to a doctor's office one day when I thought I was having a heart attack or a stroke? I came back and said, "I need to cut back some." So, for a period of 10 years I taught one course each term [while directing the International Exchange Program] and I loved it.
The last two courses I developed were the Nuremberg Trial course and a Watergate course. I love those two courses because the material and the personalities involved were absolutely fascinating.
Reed I've enjoyed "Social and Political Theory" more than anything else. The chance to read the great social political theorists like Hobbes or Mill or Weber or Aristotle or Plato yields never-ending riches that you can talk about with students. So, the discussion is ready made. The class is just a process of trying to come to terms with what the author is saying, and that process never ends. Most students don't have a penchant for the abstract. But a few do, and I am impressed in many cases by their conclusions. I've learned a lot from students, particularly when reading the older books.
Q: What does the study of history add to a modern education?
Reed Now, we've come full circle. It depends. The study of history at a big university and the study of history at a small liberal arts college are different. In a liberal arts college, we're more inclined to use history to illumine the present, very often by contrast. I hope that in studying Athenian democracy, [students] come to have a better idea of American democracy.
If you were having this conversation with big university faculty, it would be totally different. They'd be quite happy to stick to history. It's obvious that, very gently, we've told you we're not. Our notion of history is much broader than that. We value our historical training enormously, but we think that there's a lot more to intellectual inquiry than the discipline of history as it is conventionally defined.
Editor's Note: This interview was edited for space and clarity.
The chance to read the great social political theorists like Hobbes or Mill or Weber or Aristotle or Plato yields never-ending riches that you can talk about with students. So, the discussion is ready made. The class is just a process of trying to come to terms with what the author is saying, and that process never ends.
- Charlie Reed