Willamette University

Campus Conversations

Seth Cotlar has quietly bolstered Willamette’s history department for most of the last decade. Students adore him. he adores them back.

What do you miss if you go through college without history?

Understanding the past facilitates self-understanding. In the end, it enables you to understand how the historical moment you’re in shapes who you are.

This is liberating, really, since it can free you from the limits of the society into which you’ve been conditioned. You could say that what it means to be free is to embrace ideas out of choice, not out of the givenness of how things are.

What historical idea, period or issue really sustains you intellectually?

The 1930s come to mind, which is odd because that’s not my area of specialization. It was a great moment of experimentation and change, and the political changes that came about then are what we’re still debating today.

I remember that the Depression, interestingly, had created a huge pool of unemployed academics, so the government put them to work writing state guidebooks for travelers. There was a new market for such books because it was just in the past decade or so that large numbers of people had cars and there were decent roads to drive them on. Remember that there were no chain hotels or restaurants yet. Going places in the U.S. was really a foreign experience in many ways, and that’s why people did it. It makes you wonder what you might actually lose with today’s instant connectedness.

What do you say to the parent who wants his/her child to get a job out of college and wonders if history and the humanities are too “soft?”

Too much emphasis gets placed on a misunderstood notion of vocation. In seven years, 50 percent of the jobs our students will hold will be jobs that don’t exist today. To some extent, the more specific your training is, the more you’re limited and the less useful it is long-term. You must study things like history because you’re going to have to analyze situations, make meaning out of a mass of data, and understand people and their motivations in complex ways.

These are transcendent skills that have always been cultivated in a place like WU. We’re not training generations of eccentrics who will blog about the Civil War in their pajamas; we’re helping reinforce the virtues of a broad-based citizenry.

If we ever live in a world where we want employees without critical thinking skills, the ballgame’s over.

What guides you as a teacher?

I want students to be excited and unsettled by what they’re doing. I learned from the late professor Nacho Cordova that our job — and I might not say this exactly right — is to give conviction to the unsettled and unsettle those who are convinced.

Often I find myself playing the devil’s advocate in class when we all seem to be agreeing with each other. We shouldn’t. Nothing makes me happier than to see phenomenal, well-reasoned papers from students who disagree with me. If you want to affect the world, you’re going to have to be able to talk to and convince people who disagree with you. I know what I think and believe now, but that’s probably not what I’ll think and believe in 20 years.

One thing that I always talk about with students is the difference between an opinion and an interpretation. I have an opinion about this cavity in my mouth, but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m talking about. I want a dentist, who’s trained about these things, to interpret it for me. In the same way, public policy can’t be dictated by unreflective opinions and emotional reactions.

What about Willamette’s history do you think we should try to remember or honor?

I’ll give you two answers. The first is that we should continue coming to terms with our missionary legacy. Jason Lee and his compatriots came here with the best of intentions, but their certainty about their own correctness — their ethnocentrism, to be more precise — made them unable to really see and understand the people who they were purportedly trying to help. People will respect us more if we explore this morally complicated encounter that laid the foundation for Willamette — if we explore all the issues related to our relationship with native peoples of the area — than if we hide from it.

Second, it’s worth recognizing Willamette’s long history of wedding the two parts of being an academic that tend to be separate: teaching and research. It’s a serious investment. This is what the country’s best liberal arts colleges do.

In a sense, this teacher-scholar model is a little old-school. It’s not the most efficient way to do things. But when I go to conferences about collaborative research between faculty and students, I’m shocked: What most people call “undergraduate research” is what we call taking a 100-level Willamette course!

Every university says that they put students first, but Willamette does it, and that’s something that should be preserved.


How Seth's Portrait Was Made

Opie's PhotagraphyAlexandra Opie, assistant professor of art, has been working with the wet-collodion plate process for the past year. this method of making photographs, first begun in the middle of the 19th century, creates its image directly on a metal plate. since there is no negative produced, the photographs are one-of-a-kind pieces. this re-application of an antiquated process furthers Opie’s work dealing with the effects of time, both upon and within photography, and its focus on creating unique objects — as opposed to infinitely reproducible files — is especially relevant in the age of digital photography.

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Seth Cotlar

Seth Cotlar
Associate Professor of History

How Seth's Portrait Was Made