An interview with Professor Bill Woehrlin who retired in June, 1993, after 31 years on the faculty. This interview was conducted in May, 1993 by Professor Kirk Jeffrey, the author of our occasional History department newsletters in 1992-1995, and again from 1997-1999.
You came to Carleton in 1962. How did that happen?
I was teaching at the University of Massachusetts. The department chairman here at Carleton, Professor Carlton Qualey, was looking for a Russian historian. He happened to meet someone I knew at Amherst College, and that person recommended me. I was invited out to Carleton to meet Qualey and the Dean. Those were the only two people I met! I wasn’t introduced to other members of the department, and I didn’t meet any students. This was truly the era of the old buddy system. I never answered an advertisement or prepared a placement dossier. The job offer came out of the blue.
Why did you decide to come to Carleton?
U Mass was a new state university; I was one of a number of faculty members who were hoping to make it not just a big-time grad school but an outstanding undergraduate institution. Unfortunately, the school got into the hands of the academic entrepreneurs. They pushed the graduate programs and gave little attention to the needs of the undergraduates.
We had very large undergraduate classes and relied heavily on teaching assistants, some of whom were quite inexperienced. I was disillusioned with all that. I didn’t know much about Carleton, though my wife is from the Twin Cities area and her grandfather had served on the board of trustees.
When you came here, what was the History Department like?
The department had five regular members plus the Dean of Students, Casey Jarchow, who taught an occasional course. The regular members were Dick Vann, a specialist in English history and European intellectual history; John Baird, who was in Latin American and also knew something of Spanish history; Catherine Boyd, our medievalist; Carlton Qualey, who did all the American history — he had huge enrollments — and me. So three of us taught modern European history: Vann, Baird, and I, and one did medieval Europe and one did U.S. Baird, Vann, and I were the young people, while Boyd and Qualey were the senior professors in the department.
What about non-western history?
Baird of course specialized in Latin American history. My first year at Carleton, I did an East Asian course. That was about it.
What was the college like in the 60s?
Well, there must have been about 1100 or 1200 students, about two-thirds the number that we have now. History was a popular major back then, just as it is now. When I arrived in 1962, the College had just recently switched from a semester system to the 3-3 calendar. This was causing a lot of turmoil as professors tried to compress semester courses into ten weeks. (We really had ten-week terms then, not nine-and-a-fraction the way we do now.)
In 1962, we didn’t have many courses in the History Department. Most of our teaching was at the survey level. Right away I was involved in the two-term survey on European history, History 10-11. The first course went up through the Enlightenment and the second picked up with the French Revolution and covered Europe through the Second World War. I also had my two-term survey in Russian history, of course.
Did students take comps?
Oh yes, we had comps. Comps in History consisted of a six-hour exam taken by all majors on the same day — three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon. The department faculty would get together and try to make up an exam — those were horrendous meetings! You could pretty much assume that every History major had taken the European history and the American history survey courses, so that simplified matters. Then each of us added questions on our special fields.
Each exam was read by, I believe, three members of the department. I remember that we young people would race round town on our bicycles, passing the comps bluebooks on to the next reader. Then we had “interviews,” as we called the oral exams.
I don’t suppose that you had a photocopy machine.
No, no photocopy machines. The paperwork was very limited — that was a huge difference from today. We had no department secretary. A student was hired to work about four hours per week. That was it. We were quite crowded. At first I shared an office upstairs in Leighton with John Baird, the Latin Americanist. It was very disconcerting to try to have a conversation with a student. Baird might be talking to another student about twelve feet away!
The department was a top-down operation. Qualey was the senior member, and so he was chairman. When he was away on leave, Catherine Boyd chaired the department. There was no idea of a rotating chairmanship. Qualey was a charming man, but a bit stiff. He had started teaching at Carleton in 1945. He identified himself totally with the department and defended it fiercely. It was Qualey who began our expansion into the history of the entire world. He hired a Latin Americanist, Baird, and our first East Asian historian, Tetsuo Najita. Yet he resisted the idea of adding a second Americanist to help him out with his own big classes. When he retired in 1970, we hired two young fellows who are still here, Cliff Clark and Kirk Jeffrey.
Was there an elaborate tenure review the way there is now?
Tenure? I didn’t even give a thought to that. One spring I got a letter from John Nason, the president of the college. “By the way, the trustees have granted you tenure. We hope you’ll want to make your career here with us.” The job market was very favorable to young professors in the 60s. There were plenty of openings and few Ph.D.s coming out of the graduate programs. I got seven or eight inquiries from other schools my first year at Carleton.
How about the students in the early 60s?
They were quite intense — they worked very hard. We had some outstanding students, especially women. You see, many of the top liberal arts colleges at that time were single-sex schools. Williams and Amherst were for men only. So Carleton was one of a very small number of top co-ed schools. Talented women students who wanted a co-ed school gravitated to Carleton.
How did the department begin to expand its offerings?
We added an East Asian specialist in 1963 or ’64 when we appointed Najita to a new position in the department. He later moved on to the University of Chicago, and we then hired John Perry, who like Najita was a specialist in Japanese history. Later still, the position went to Chang-tai Hung.
I think that the president of Carleton in the 1960s, John Nason, was the person who really pushed us to expand into Asian history. I’m not sure why, but he was convinced that this was an important field that we simply had to include in the curriculum. It was obvious, too, that students were interested in history courses. Carlton Qualey sometimes had 150 students signed up for his courses, so it wasn’t difficult for us to make a case that we needed to expand the department.
When our Latin American historian left, we hired Diet Prowe from Stanford. His research interest was modern Europe, but he had a secondary field in Latin American history. For several years he offered courses in that field. Then a few years later, in 1969, Eleanor Zelliot joined the department to fill a new position in South Asian history. Eleanor also taught courses on Southeast Asia, an especially important field during the Vietnam War. By 1970 the department had grown from five people to nine, and we offered courses on Latin America, East Asia, and South Asia.
Bill Woehrlin’s replacement was Adeeb Khalid, who joined the History Department in September 1993 as our new Russian historian with additional background in Islamic history and Central Asia.
For more information about staff replacements, please visit our History of the History Department pages.]