by Zinta Aistars
A drop in the stock market, recession in Michigan's auto industry, rising inflation, and falling enrollment in colleges and universities. Today's news headlines? Nope. This was the status quo of the 1960s, when a young new history instructor began his career at Kalamazoo College.
John Wickstrom, professor of history and, until 2007, chair of the department, was, in 1966, a young Yale ABD, barely into his twenties, hired to teach classical and medieval history. By some measures, little has changed since then. History, it is said, repeats itself. By other measures, almost everything has changed.
In 2009, Wickstrom sits in his corner office with photographs and quirky cartoons and medieval drawings taped to his door. And a sign: "Daily Confessions, 5 - 7" invites just that from the students who seek his advice, or simply drop by to exchange, well, confessions.
Wickstrom confesses to the occasional twitch of nostalgia. When he began his 43-year career at Kalamazoo, Weimer Hicks was president and the "K Plan" was bringing the college national recognition for its new-fangled pedagogy - sending the student out into the world rather than trying to fit the world into a classroom. By 1968, chapel services had become more secular activities, and attendance was no longer mandatory. For the first time, female students were allowed to wear slacks to class, and their dormitory curfews (exclusive, and unfairly so, to their gender) were eliminated. The campus was growing up.
"When I first began to teach at Kalamazoo," Wickstrom muses, "some 20 or so of us [faculty] used to meet for coffee regularly. We would eat lunch together most every day, and on Fridays, we'd troop down to The Whistle Stop for drinks. And yes, now and then, we'd get ourselves thrown out."
It's apparent from Wickstrom's delicious chuckle that he enjoyed those days. Now, he brings them up not only as a memory of a good party among colleagues, but as an illustration of a camaraderie he feels is somewhat lost in today's Kalamazoo College. "We were a tight-knit group, and we got a lot of business done during that socializing."
Some things, however, needed changing. The first pop of the "K bubble," as Wickstrom terms it, was provided by the women's movement. Wickstrom admits now, "I didn't realize how male-dominated our campus felt to women. It was only during a recent lunch gathering at which I was one of two males among some 15 female faculty that I got a real sense of how that must feel. It was a revelation."
Learning works both ways. Teacher to student, student to teacher. Sometimes, from administrator to teacher, too. Wickstrom would face another revelation when he was up for review after his first year at the college. The provost called him in and told him he was wanted at the president's office.
"I thought I was doing well," Wickstrom shrugs. But called to President Hick's office, he was told he was not. He was told instead that his contract would be terminated. Wickstrom was caught by surprise, but no one seemed to remember to show him the door, so he kept going to class, kept teaching. "Three years later, I got a Christmas card from the president, telling me I had been awarded tenure. So, you see, matters like retention and tenure were handled a bit more informally than they are today."
By the conclusion of the 1970s, faculty had stopped going to what was then The Whistle Stop. The gatherings became ever sparser. There was a changing dynamic on campus, and part of it, Wickstrom says, was the split between genders. More women had started teaching at Kalamazoo College, and among them, Gail Griffin, English professor who brought an awareness of women's issues to the campus. The two long-timers, both now icons of "K," would sometime circle each other with opposing views, one leaning traditional, the other leaning liberal, but the respect was and remains strong and mutual. "Achieving diversity can be tough," Wickstrom admits. And then there was technology. "It has a way of isolating people. Today, instead of meeting over lunches, we have microwaves in our offices to warm a meal, and we eat alone, looking at our computer screens."
Nevertheless, however much the College changed, Wickstrom states, being at Kalamazoo College, you knew you were always at an unusual, different kind of place. The "odd" calendar of four quarters, he says, was eventually a financial drain on the College, but it was always "intellectually great." Freshman maintained a concentrated focus, while older students were out exploring the beyond, testing their intellectual prowess in the world. There was a freer, informal atmosphere of the summer quarters, Wickstrom says, with fewer faculty and mostly upper class students on campus.
"We are still known for our study abroad plan," he says. "Although today it is a less novel approach." As for the students of yesterday and today, Wickstrom has high praise. "Our students today are sharper than ever. They are independently minded, eager to go places. Granted, some don't seem to be trained as well on how to write academically when they first come in - missing the footnotes, short on the research - but by the time they are writing their SIPs, they are very good. Many as good as students I taught at Yale, some even better. I am very happy with current students' level of excellence."
While still teaching many of the same topics as when he began - mostly medieval and early modern history - Wickstrom feels it is the approach to history that changes. He subscribes to the thought that one must understand where one has been to move forward. "We do best when we keep a connection to our past. It builds continuity. This is a time when we need to reflect on where we have been. We need to understand our past so that we know how to talk to future generations. The past itself, of course, does not change, but how we present it changes tremendously. Cultural contexts have changed, cultural issues, agendas ... it's gotten very complicated. You can't teach history in an unconscious way. History must be taught to be relevant today."
For instance, Wickstrom explains, when he decides what to teach and how, he considers the question of authority. It could be argued that history is an opinion, after all, a changing perspective, depending on the point where one stands in time. "People however, don't want to hear an opinion about history; they want to hear the truth. There are, of course, cultural suppositions and personal bias in how we approach anything. Still, I believe in the possibility of, if not truth, at least a greater 'fullness' in apprehending the past. At some point, you have to respect authorities that have established themselves as trustworthy. Being a professional matters. Peer review matters. Learning and teaching in a free country with freedom of expression matters. All these help us approach the past with integrity and sensitivity."
It is at this place of deciding on which authority to trust, in fact, that Wickstrom finds the greatest value in a liberal arts education. He explains: "The value of liberal arts is to be broadly enough educated that you have learned how to filter truth from opinion, to sort through information and recognize what to accept as truth."
And Kalamazoo College, too, Wickstrom says, must remain aware of its history. "The ethic at Kalamazoo College is to make the world a better place. In order to accomplish that, we must understand, through history, what this College is and how it came to be what it is about. We need continuity here, too. When we encounter a new idea, we have no trouble trying the new if we have a strong connection to our past. We've changed our identity at Kalamazoo College; we are no longer a Baptist College for training teachers and preachers. Our rather swift transformation into a secular liberal arts College surely helped us survive and prosper. But whether we have replaced that original mission with an equally well-defined identity that will secure our future I am not so certain."
Wickstrom suddenly recalls a student in his classroom, perhaps some 20 years ago, illustrating this very concept - the need for reflecting on what has been learned in the past before moving forward. "A bright student, but quite troubled," he says. "I wasn't sure if he would make it here. The class was taking an exam in Greek history, an hour and a half, and this student sat and sat, gazing into space, lost in thought, while the others wrote from the first moment. He seemed in no hurry whatsoever, only sat and stared. And then suddenly he was writing - feverishly. To this day, that was the best exam I have ever read."
Wickstrom expresses little regret, if any, at his one-foot-still-in, one-foot-already-out retirement. Despite the seismic changes in thinking about history, there is still is a certain repetition to teaching any subject, after all. So he muses on spending more time on academic work, research and writing. He is letting go little by little, no longer teaching full-time, but retiring "gradually."
"If I am feeling any disappointment now," he says, "it is that I wish our academic atmosphere in the classroom would permeate into hallway conversations more. Now and then I hear students discussing a point in philosophy or an idea for a history paper in the Dewing hallway rather than just plans for the weekend. That gives me hope."
And he muses on another memory: his painstaking scholarship, come recently to fruition with publication of his new book - The Life and Miracles of Saint Maurus (December 2008). During sabbatical some 15 years ago Wickstrom sat in on an art history class at The University of Michigan. A medieval painting portraying Saint Maurus engaged his imagination, and Wickstrom wrote about the work in an historical context. The professor was enthusiastic about Wickstrom's first foray into art history writing, and the two began to collaborate: Wickstrom helping the professor with Latin translations while she helped him with the scholarly conventions of writing art history. He then began publishing scholarly work about Saint Maurus and the cults surrounding the Benedictine monk.
"Really, the Maurus story was all a pious fiction" Wickstrom smiles. "Saint Maurus is probably an entirely fabricated character, created by an ambitious abbot who needed a famous founder for his monastery. There were hundreds of such stories about saints that were made up, just to build these connections and create cult centers. But the fiction can tell you a great deal about the art and the culture that produced it." Wickstrom continued to explore the stories, fiction or fact, woven around the saint, a paper for an art history class eventually growing into a book, and the book eventually growing into a seminar Wickstrom would teach in his final years at the College. "My discovery of St. Maurus is what I hope my students can experience: Get interested in a subject and then follow it through, wherever it leads."
It is said of Saint Maurus that he miraculously saved a fellow disciple, Saint Placid, from drowning. Thinking he was on dry land, Saint Maurus walked on water and pulled the disciple out by his hair. One imagines a similar scene: John Wickstrom, pulling the placid student from drowning in intellectually-slack indifference, then setting him on solid (and demanding) academic shores.
"John always brings home the shop talk. That's the best part," Elaine (Larson) Wickstrom '86 laughs. Once a devoted student, now the historian's wife, Elaine very much shares her husband's fascination with all matters historical. The two married in 1996, long after Elaine sat in Wickstrom's classroom, but academia continues to inspire her.
"I admire John's commitment to this institution and to his students," she says. "A teacher is part preacher and part actor. Doing it well requires enormous dedication and focus. Thankfully," she adds, "John lacks the 'all about me' when he's before a class. He gets out of the way of his material. His own persuasions or politics don't enter into the equation. That quality is rare and admirable."
The effectiveness of his classes derives from their mix of genres. Says Elaine: "He combines lecture with the latest audio-visual, with discussion of art and music of the time period, the theology and philosophy. He immerses the class in the entire cultural matrix of history."
A history major herself, Elaine continued her studies - adding historical theology to her mix - at the University of Chicago, a city the couple loves and where the two plan to spend some of John's retirement years. A second home in Hyde Park awaits them.
"History is a living re-imagining of the past. Your perspective changes depending on where you find yourself," she says. "History is our Rorschach test, revealing us today as much as it reveals about our past."
Elaine fondly recalls small but savory details of her professor-husband's past: the batches of his famous chocolate-cherry cookies he bakes each quarter for his students, and classes invited to the house for a historical movie and discussion. "He has his zealous fans, his groupies," she says, herself included.
She's also a fan of liberal arts. "It's the best educational approach," she says. "Its breadth of understanding makes better citizens. Everyone needs the perspective of the self within history to understand who and what you are. Kalamazoo College, and John, do an exceptional job of providing that perspective."
Vicki Szabo '92
"I think what I appreciated most about Dr. Wickstrom was his seriousness of purpose. There was a sobriety about his presence, but also a soft-spoken wit. Class felt like an event to me - I began to really look forward to the certainty of new discovery. I felt like we were privileged to be there (given his seriousness and clear passion for the subject). There seemed to be a real importance to what we were studying.
"Dr. Wickstrom made me a better student because I had to rise to the occasion. He made medieval history fascinating and relevant. I developed a real passion for history beginning with his classes. That passion is what I think I am best at communicating to my own students.
"He put up with my silly youthful fascinations with Arthurian Britain, but moved me ever so steadily from popular conceptions of history into serious ideas of what history is and what historians do. Rather than quell my passion and naysay my research ideas, which were a bit flighty, he suggested more challenging and serious topics, including monastic history and archaeology.
"He encouraged me - very thoughtfully and wisely - to pursue archaeology. This shaped my research. My research skills, gained at Kalamazoo in history, and in the field as an archaeologist, got me into a PhD program at Cornell and helped me stand out in the job market thereafter.
"He inspired me and encouraged me to become a medieval historian, a decision I didn't make lightly - I went into this discipline with my eyes open, because of him. I realized the difficulty, but also the rewards. I will also hold him up as the archetype of a historian and medievalist.
"I still keep in touch with Dr. Wickstrom (still can't call him John; he's always Dr. Wickstrom) now and again - mostly because I know he is furiously busy, as am I with teaching and work. We e-mail once and a while, and I was sorry to hear of his upcoming retirement, but I know this will only mean retirement in a symbolic way. I know his work will continue." [Szabo is associate professor of ancient and medieval history at Western Carolina University.]
Josh Boggs '07
"My first class with Professor Wickstrom was 'History of England to 1688,' which I took in the spring of 2004. I knew very little about medieval history, and spent much of the time in half-fear of the professor, whose Viking appearance and dry wit (especially regarding tardy classmates, inept kings, and the weather) bespoke the sort of academia to which one aspires. At any rate, I was a business major, and mostly interested in early American history, so this class was more of a curiosity for me.
"Two years later, I had taken more courses with Professor Wickstrom, and had become fascinated with medieval culture. He had a remarkable ability to discover revelatory tidbits within the vast field of medieval studies. Because the medievalist must teach a period of over a thousand years, it is a business of painting vast landscapes while researching the minute strokes. Many times Professor Wickstrom would interrupt his own lectures to point out a new idea which had suddenly occurred after many years of teaching the same subject. 'Do you see what I'm saying,' he would ask as he explained the idea, inviting us into one of those little revelations that make history so vital.
"This patience, or willingness to accept inspiration as a product of due diligence, is what I chiefly recall when I think of Professor Wickstrom. When a student approached him with some new idea or trivial fact, he would carefully listen, and often smile, 'Oh yes, I see.' As my SIP advisor, he would likewise hear out my thoughts or read through my drafts, offer some reflection on the subject - more encouragement, really - and send me back to the books, saying 'Well, go forth.' In that same understated way, he helped me find a program and make the decision about grad school - and then casually offered many of his own books to me and a fellow classmate - something for which I am forever grateful. I am quite sure that I would never have had the courage to seek out a career
"We do best when we keep a connection to our past."in history without his quiet encouragement."
Linda Ketelaar '69
"I attended Kalamazoo College from 1965 through 1969. My major was medieval history. I have spent the bulk of my post-'K' work in IT. An MS in information science from Drexel University led me into this career.
"I still recall the lecture Dr. Wickstrom gave on Caligula, Claudius, and Nero as being so enthralling - beyond facts and figures - that I was inspired to learn more history and specifically from Dr. Wickstrom. This led me to craft a course of study with Medieval History as the focus associated with complimentary courses in literature, art and music.
"Dr. Wickstrom's interest in the subject and facility with expressing this interest inspired a number of classmates in my years at Kalamazoo to continue pursuing history in post-grad settings. I have retained my fascination with ancient and medieval history to this day - an acknowledgement of having an inspiring professor 40 years ago!"
Elizabeth Leigh Platte '07
"I graduated from Kalamazoo College in 2007 with a major in Classical Studies and minors in Latin and History. Since then, I have been a student in the PhD program in Greek and Roman History at the University of Michigan. When I started at Kalamazoo in 2003, I knew that I would major in Classical Studies. My focus on ancient history came about largely from the impact of Dr. Wickstrom.
"In my first quarter I took his course 'The Fall of Rome and the Early Middle Ages,' which inspired my interest in Late Antiquity, the period from 300 to 600 CE and the focus of my graduate studies. While I was in the course, Dr. Wickstrom became my advisor, and, as such, had a huge influence on my experience at 'K.' He was a caring and considerate advisor who not only pointed me in the right direction, but also pushed me to go further than what was comfortable - and this was essential to my accomplishments.
"Writing papers for Dr. Wickstrom was always an ordeal because I knew that he demanded high standards. I was always able to write on a topic that was important to me, so I was encouraged to produce quality papers for my own benefit, which was something that Dr. Wickstrom's courses introduced to me. Perhaps his most significant impact on my academic experience was the guidance he provided while I was applying to graduate schools. Without him, I would have been lost during the process.
"Now that I am in graduate school, I've gained a deeper appreciation for Dr. Wickstrom as a professor. He prepared me well for a graduate curriculum, especially through the medieval history seminar on hagiography that I took with him. I continue to do research on topics which he introduced in that class and have recently been in contact with him about one of my current projects which deals with the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great. Dr. Wickstrom is also working on that text, which we discussed in the seminar I took at 'K,' and I hope to have more conversations with him about it as my project progresses. Now that I am a graduate student instructor at the University of Michigan, I find that Dr. Wickstrom, as well as other excellent instructors I encountered at Kalamazoo College, are models for me in the way I present material and interact with my students."
Kyle C. Lincoln '06
"Rarely does a teacher provide the sort of guidance that Dr. Wickstrom has given me over the brief time I've known him. 'Magister's' (as he has taken to signing himself in his e-mails) guidance has already taken so many different forms for me. Best among these cases was his advice for a paper on the Inquisition: 'Just find a part of it that turns you on and go with it.' Other examples would come quick and fast, the measure exactly enough to get me started and never too much to keep me from figuring something out for myself in the end.
"His love for his subject is evident in his classroom style, from describing the Germanic invasions as 'biker gangs kicking ass,' to using a still shot (appropriately censored) from the movie Caligula to delineate the excesses of the Julio-Claudian emperors. His passion for history comes out in a variety of ways. Twice I've been part of a class he's invited to his house for a movie night (always topical). It's that connection to students which I think sets Magister apart from other professors. Perhaps even more impressive is his ability to make history come alive, whether it be a critical analysis of the opening scenes of the movie Gladiator, or a comic aside about Charlemagne's 'beer gut,' or simply coming to class in his commencement robes and being 'a medieval professor' for a day. That dedication creates little flocks of disciples every year, students that take every Wickstrom class, even if their major is math or economics."
Robert Stauffer, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology
"John and I are the same age, but he came to Kalamazoo College seven years before I did, and my first sense of him was of a brooding and even intimidating intellectual. The thick turtleneck sweaters and dark glasses - his style at the time - contributed to this impression, as did his equally dark office and acerbic (as it seemed to me then) wit. Frankly, I was a little scared of him, yet at the same time found myself attracted to his breadth of classical learning, obvious commitment to his teaching, and - a bit later - extraordinarily literate and clever minutes of faculty governance meetings, invariably signed Scriba (Latin for 'the secretary').
"But it really wasn't until the early 1990s that I felt I got to know John well and came to think of him as one of my most valued colleagues. We both were involved with the seemingly endless discussions related to the curricular reform of that era, as well as with the somewhat chaotic campus politics of the time, and I came to see the true depth of John's commitment to the well-being of the college and the remarkable wisdom that informed this commitment. Probably no one else at the college has as strong a sense of both the value and the currently precarious state of a broad and deep general education in the liberal arts, and certainly no one is as courageous as John in publicly asking hard questions when such education is challenged by contemporary intellectual and pedagogical fashions. Indeed, I'd say that most of the actually serious discussions that occur in full faculty meetings are a result of penetrating questions John raises. Often (and I think unfortunately), John's position doesn't prevail (fashions are powerful forces), but even when it doesn't, I sense that most of his colleagues nonetheless recognize and respect John for this forthrightness, insight, and integrity. When John speaks, the conversation deepens, and I know that I am not alone in recognizing that.
"On a more personal level and especially with regard to the last decade: when I needed advice as department chair or as a committee member - or simply needed help in making sense of developments at the college - I invariably turned to John. Even settling into his office, no longer so much dark as quietly elegant, is comforting, And John's generous and careful listening, his wit, and his ability to see issues in nuanced and imaginative ways are all unfailing. (I sometimes wonder if his rich analytic imagination stems, at least in part, from his lifelong quest to make sense of the complex and "foreign" culture of the European Middle Ages.)
"A final point: Given John's age and perhaps even his disciplinary focus on the distant past, one might have expected a certain reluctance to join the digital age. (I know this has been true of me!) Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. John not only regularly uses digital technology in his classes - partly because he draws significantly on art in exploring the culture of the Middle Ages - but he also has become thoroughly engaged with and quite accomplished in this technology. I find this both fascinating and admirable. And as one more illustration of John's generosity, I personally have benefited enormously from his expertise and patience when, as I clumsily struggle to negotiate this brave new digital world, I turn to him for help. The help is always forthcoming, and in this too, he is a fine colleague and teacher."
A young specialist in the history of the American West?
John Wickstrom through the more than four decades he devoted to Kalamazoo College students.
Wickstrom's special field of interest is hagiography, the study of medieval saints' lives and what they illuminate about the communities and cultures from which they spring. The two "Lives of Maurus" he translated were written in thorny, idiosyncratic Latin and had never before been translated from their 9th-century originals.