Peter H. Wood: Recalls teaching his last class

Historians in the News

[Peter H. Wood has written about colonial slavery, the demography in the early Southeast, the French explorations of LaSalle, the history of North Carolina, and the black images of American artist Winslow Homer. He has served on the boards of the Highlander Center, Harvard University, and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; his most recent book is Weathering the Storm: Inside Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream (2004).]

It was early December, the end of the fall semester, and I was sitting in my office, having just taught my last class. The usual mixed feelings of exhaustion and elation had given way to equally predictable and tangled emotions: relief and regret. Though the class had gone well, there were the inevitable pangs of disappointment over missed teaching opportunities and the regular resolves about how to make it all work a little better. Surely I could shake up more members of the cell-phone generation—reaching them sooner and challenging them more deeply—the next time around.

But there would be no next time. This wasn't just the last class of the 2006 fall term; it was the last course in my short and enjoyable thirty-two-year teaching career at Duke. With a knock on the door, a history department secretary asked in an off-hand way if I could "help move some furniture in the graduate lounge?" Even as we chatted going down the hall, I had no inkling that I was innocently being ushered into a retirement celebration cooked up by busy graduate students—the same kind of unpretentious and energetic young historians that I had been working with for more than three decades.

Peter Wood (at left), working at his dining room table with fellow textbook authors Elaine May, Jackie Jones, Vicki Ruiz, and Tim Borstelmann. Photo by Elizabeth Fenn.
After I mastered my total surprise, we toasted each other in champagne and cider and devoured a homemade cake. They even gave me a little clock, marked, "With Best Wishes and Thanks"—which sits on our mantel piece, the perfect gift for an early American historian. Before they dispersed to grade term papers, we chatted about the U.S. history text, Created Equal, which I was revising for its third edition, and the unusual class I had just finished, entitled One Nation-One Semester.

Since then, I have had a full year to think about both those topics and the surprising, satisfying way that they came together. I can now see more clearly, in retrospect, that working hard on a U.S. survey with four impressive American historians boosted me out of my engaging, comfortable "colonial" world. It gave me the renewed excitement about big-picture historical themes I needed to attempt such an unorthodox final fling.....

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