The Professor Is In: Q&A with Bill Offutt

History Professor Bill Offutt discusses why he gave up law for teaching, how he survived on bottle deposits in Germany, the five people he’d have over for dinner, and more, in this month’s The Professor Is In.

Born in Washington, DC, a city rich with history, it’s no surprise that Bill Offutt, PhD, ended up fascinated by it. Earning his bachelor’s degree in History from Stanford University, Offutt went on to law school at Stanford. Despite passing the California Bar, he literally laid down the law to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in early American history, where he received a PhD in 1987.  After three years of academic apprenticeships at Pacific Lutheran University and Baylor University, he came to Pace as an Assistant Professor in 1990. His book, Of Good Laws and Good Men:  Law and Society in the Delaware Valley 1680-1710 published in 1995, inspired his research to turn to colonial and revolutionary New York. That focus led into his second book, Patriots, Loyalists and Revolution in New York City 1775-1776, which has been used as part of a simulation game in the “Reacting to the Past” series sponsored by Barnard and has been adopted by dozens of colleges and universities in the United States and around the world, including Egypt and Australia.

In 2001, Offutt became Director of Pace’s Honors Program for New York City, which is now the Pforzheimer Honors College.  Since 2007, he has served as Faculty Adviser for the Pforzheimer Honors College.  He is also the coordinator for the Dyson Houses project, which offers Dyson students a variety of intellectual, cultural, and social activities, and provides a home away from home.

What was your favorite class as a student? Least favorite?
Favorite class comes in two flavors—Most important was my first colonial American history class, which I took when I was a freshman. The young professor (Alasdair MacPhail) was the most dynamic, well-informed, and clever person I had ever met, and he hooked me on the subject by asking me to join his upper-level colloquium on colonial social history the next term, a course filled with senior History majors. Even though I was in way-over-my-head, that positive comment changed my life.  The most fun was a class in civil engineering a friend of mine had me take, which dealt with solar collectors, wind generators, methane digesters, and other oddball things that he called “designs in alternative energy systems.” That course not only engaged my problem-solving brain in technical ways, the prof made what we call today “green solutions” seem not only possible but enjoyable. I also remember his aphorism regarding the life-span of nuclear waste and how long it takes to decay—“it takes a long time to wait forever,” a saying that has many uses beyond power plants.

Least favorite classes were in law school (many choices here), but I’d have to say my course in Property was the most awful. The professor spoke in monotone, the subject was completely arcane, the discussions were trivial, and my interest was low. A close second comes the law school prof whom we used to count how many “you knows” he used in every class. My (failing) memory has him doing 60 “you knows” in a 5-minute period.

What one thing or person made you passionate about your current career?
While in law school, Professor Robert Keohane gave me a chance to be a teaching assistant for his introductory course in international relations. I had worked with him as an undergraduate, I had a blind faith that I could teach the class better than the TAs who’d taught me, and I was miserable contemplating a law career. He set me in front of three sections of Stanford undergrads even when I wasn’t his grad student, and authorized me to lead them through his material and to grade their performance. I threw myself into class preparation (ignoring my law courses), I energized my students, and it turned out (by the course evaluations) that I was indeed better at it than the regular grad students. Finding out that I didn’t have to be a mediocre attorney but instead that I could be a great teacher made me passionate about becoming a professor and then developing my talent for teaching over the years.

What quality do you most value in your students?
Intensity. I have seen many students (and my own teenaged children) express a “meh” attitude about many things (sometimes everything) and it drives me nuts. I have no delusion that students should be intense about every class, or even about my classes, but I would like them to feel intensely about something. It is only through that combination of interest, effort, and focus that a person can be his/her best. Athletes call it getting into the “zone” where the game slows down, the mind and body are working in unison, and the sport’s difficulties become easy. Intensity is much harder now given the number of distractions available to students, but it is still what I value most.

What’s your advice to students to make the most out of their time in college?
I find it hard to give global advice to college students, because as my 18-year old daughter says (with great validity as well as force) “I don’t know her life.” But, knowing that free advice is worth what you’ve paid for it, here are two aphorisms to live by, in college as well as later: 1) People are more important than things. 2) Follow your bliss (footnote: Joseph Campbell). Most of what you’ll remember about your college years will involve one or both of those rules.

If you had to do it all over again and took another path, what profession would you like to attempt? What profession would you not like to do?
Assuming I had the talent, I’d want to be a professional baseball player; lacking talent but given the opportunity, I’d want to be a baseball general manager like Billy Beane/Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball. I was an early adopter of what is today called Fantasy Baseball but back in the early 1980s was called “Rotisserie Baseball.” My interest in statistics and quantitative analysis, which I’ve used as a historian, began as a child who memorized the back of baseball cards and played “Strat-o-Matic” table-top baseball. I knew I could evaluate baseball talent better than the bozos who ran the Washington Senators in the 1960s; I proved it in my fantasy leagues of the 1980s; and I wish I had the chance to run a real team today.

The answer to what profession I’d not want to do is the one I already rejected: lawyer. I passed the bar but never practiced law. Although the knowledge of the law’s history and development still engages me, the anxiety of the work plus my own mediocre talents would have destroyed my happiness.

What is your favorite book/TV show?
TV—The  Simpsons. Far and away, the best writing and most apt commentary on modern American life. My office is littered with Simpsons memorabilia.

Book—Currently, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. The author is a Nobel Prize winner on behavioral economics, but the book also summarizes his deeper work into the psychological processes behind our decision-making and its errors. It’s changing how I think and more importantly how I help other people think through things.

What would you do if you had an extra hour every day?
Sleep. I would insert the hour between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. I have always been an insomniac, who found it hard to turn off his brain. Thus I get to bed too late and get up too early (for children and/or work), and am constantly tired. Sleep deprivation in its extreme can lead to psychotic behavior, although I don’t believe I ever made it that far during my kids’ infancies. However, accumulated sleep deficits have proven to make you stupid. More sleep would make me smarter and happier, and I know that’s true for my students too.

What is your favorite journey/experience?
As a grad student, I met and married my wife, Nancy Reagin, who was starting her work in German women’s history. She gained a fellowship to do her dissertation research in Germany, and even though I knew no German and had never been off the North American continent, I went with her as the “trailing spouse” for a year—the German fellowship paid a little bit extra for me to be there. We lived in a fifth-floor walk-up in Hannover, surviving at the end of the month on bottle deposits; we went to England, the Netherlands, and into East Germany (behind the Berlin Wall in 1986); and while she worked in the archives I wrote the bulk of my dissertation. I met people, did things, learned stuff I could never have anticipated. The year in Germany (though I learned very little German) altered my perspective on the rest of the world forever.

What is your favorite saying/words to live by?
Aside from the two items above (people are more important than things; follow your bliss), I would say this: If you have a chance to do something nice for someone, do it. Don’t worry about what it looks like, or whether you’ll be taken advantage of, or even what the consequences will be. Random acts of kindness are worth doing in and of themselves. And that is true even though, as another favorite aphorism of mine says, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

If you could have any five people, living or dead, imagined or real, as guests at a dinner party, who would you choose?
I am going to narrow this to my field, American History, as well as to ignore the obvious answers of noteworthy figures. As a social historian who believes in oral history, I am primarily interested in what average people thought at various points in American life, so here’s who I’d like to talk with:

1) a colonial Pennsylvania Quaker, circa 1710 (to find out if what I wrote in my first book on that society bore any relation to reality)

2) a revolutionary New York woman, circa 1775, to find out what she thought was going to happen to her country and for women

3) a freed slave who joined the Union Army in 1864 and who lived ‘til the 1890s, to find out what had gone right and what had gone wrong

4) an immigrant woman/union activist from the early 1900s who survived the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the Great Depression, to understand the interaction of great movements with personal experience

5) a 22 year old college grad in 1965, who had participated in civil rights actions but was now facing the draft to go to Vietnam

I think these people would have something to say to each other, as well as to me.