The American poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry once said, “If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are.”
For Wendy Petersen Boring ’89, this quote rings true.
“I grew up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley — fishing the streams, hiking the forests and mountains, walking the beaches and rafting the rivers,” says Petersen Boring, a fifth-generation Oregonian. “It’s as necessary as the air I breathe to be in this area, where I have this unbelievably strong sense of place.”
Now a Willamette University history professor, Petersen Boring says her sense of place helps connect the concepts of history and sustainability — a perspective she hopes to pass on to her students.
“We need a history that forms the fiber of our identity and gives us a sense of purpose and vision for our collective future,” she says. “When students interrogate the term ‘sustainability’ and figure out what it means for them, in this place, they are better able to apply this concept to their everyday lives.”
From Student to Professor
As a Willamette undergraduate, Petersen Boring never dreamed she would one day become a professor at her alma mater.
Her plan was to attend law school, so after graduating with a history degree, she enrolled at University of Oregon Law School. But when she started sneaking out of class to attend lectures on medieval history, Petersen Boring realized she didn’t want to be a lawyer: she wanted to teach.
Changing paths, she went on to earn a master’s of arts in religion and a doctorate in history from Yale University. And in 2006, Willamette hired her as a full-time history professor.
“Willamette produces life-long learners, and I consider myself the product of a good liberal arts education,” she says. “I did not expect it, but I am thrilled to be back.”
Now in her eighth year teaching at Willamette, Petersen Boring’s former history professors have become her colleagues — including her college mentor, Bill Duvall.
“When I was an undergraduate, I took six classes from professor Duvall,” Petersen Boring says. “He introduced me to the principle that has guided my work ever since: history is alive.”
To help history come alive for her own students, Petersen Boring’s courses cut across disciplines — from “Women and Gender in Medieval Europe,” to “Western Civilization and Sustainability: Beginnings to 1600.”
“Wendy’s energy engages different types of students to respond in her classes,” he says. “She creates a safe space for everyone to practice adding to the discussion.”
Petersen Boring doesn’t just engage students in classroom discussion — she asks them to examine their values and the way they live.
“We wrestle with the questions, ‘what would it look like to have a society that is more sustainable?’ and ‘how can we move toward a more sustainable society?’’” she says. “The answers are tied to an individual’s sense of place and sense of tending to a community.”
For Petersen Boring, examining these questions resulted in tangible lifestyle changes — including replacing her front lawn with an organic vegetable garden, eating local food, saving her wash water and calculating her carbon footprint.
But through her “Ethics of Agriculture” course at the Zena Summer Institute in Sustainable Agriculture, Petersen Boring challenges students to develop their own understanding of sustainability.
“By what they choose to eat and how they grow what they eat, students try to stand against the industrial food complex,” she says. “As they develop their individual food ethic, they each have to consider the impacts, both global and regional.”
Integrating sustainability into her classes and personal life has also inspired Petersen Boring to examine nation-wide changes in sustainability education.
Recently, she co-edited and contributed an essay to the book, “Teaching Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences,” published last November.
David Orr, a notable politics and environmental science professor from Oberlin College, wrote the forward. Several Willamette students also took part in the project, including Curry ’13 and Emily Dougan ’14, who co-wrote a student forward; and Colleen Smyth ’14, who conducted bibliographic research and copy edited the manuscript.
“It’s really exciting, because people nationally are thinking outside the box on what it means to teach,” Petersen Boring says. “Sustainability education is much more project-based, problem-oriented and transdisciplinary, and there are more partnerships with nonprofits, businesses and other entities outside the university.”
Petersen Boring also works closely with students to examine innovations in sustainability education through the Liberal Arts Research Collaborative (LARC). Through LARC, select undergraduates work alongside professors in the summer to study the arts, humanities and social sciences.
During his LARC project with Peterson Boring, Curry says his professor treated him like a peer, not a student. Since completing the project, they have presented their research in tandem at the 2012 Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference, among other conferences.
“My work with Wendy has honed my thoughts around education improvement and increased my ability to work as a change agent,” Curry says. “She has inspired me to continue being a leader wherever I go.”
Petersen Boring says the most rewarding part of her job is watching students, like Curry, connect the lessons of history to their own lives.
“Students go through unbelievable personal transformations, as they grasp questions with more precision, more depth and more complexity,” she says. “By studying history, they find that the conversations of the past are still relevant today.”
• Story by Katie Huber ’13, politics major