Prolific history professor retiring after 30 years at College

After 30 years at the College, history professor James Axtell is retiring from teaching. But, he will continue making history at the College.

“It is a great loss; I’ve been colleagues with him for 30 years now. It’s a huge loss to the College,” History Department Chair Jim Whittenberg said. “Fortunately, he’s not really leaving. I know where he lives, and he’s going to continue to direct some doctoral dissertations for us, so he’ll still be part of the family.”

Axtell, who attended Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard Universities, began teaching at the College in 1978 and is now officially titled the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Humanities. He said that 30 years at the College is a “nice, round number” and it also “seemed like time” for his retirement.

“After 42 years, I got tired of correcting papers,” he said. “No, that’s a facetious answer; the other reason is that I’ve produced many grad students in my day, and I need to get out of their way so they can get [jobs].”

However, Axtell anticipates that retirement will feel much like the current semester, as he is currently on leave. Axtell is working on three books and will continue to work with six students pursuing doctorate degrees.

“I’m not getting away from grading those papers,” he said. “But a ‘permanent sabbatical’ is a good way to put it.”

Axtell has earned numerous honors, including the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Humanities Award for Teaching and Scholarship, the Loyola-Mellon Humanities Award and the Outstanding Faculty Award from Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education. He is also the only College faculty member to have been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the first member to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. Axtell is one of the few College professors to have his own Wikipedia page.

Axtell began teaching at Yale, where he received his undergraduate degree and later taught at Sarah Lawrence and Northwestern Universities.

He began his research career studying the history of higher education, then moved to White American Indian relations in colonial America. He has recently transitioned back to the history of higher education.

“He’s been one of the country’s leading scholars for three decades now, and he’s the number one scholar in the field of White-Native American relations,” Whittenburg said. “He’s recently gone back to his first love of the history of higher education, and he’s very distinguished in that field as well.”

Axtell, a prolific writer, has published 12 books, including eight on the “ethnohistory” of colonial North America, which he describes as a combination of anthropology and history.

“It’s the history of Indian peoples or any peoples with no traditional records,” he said. “It’s a way of going in through the colonists’ records to get at the Indians behind that lens. You think like an anthropologist but work like a historian.”

His latest book is a history of Princeton University, including information on the university’s educational process shared by faculty and students.

“You can’t take for granted that the past will be the same [as higher education is now], so you still have to recreate it through sources,” he said. “I had to apply the same methodology as used on studying the Indians.”

Though not teaching this semester, Axtell taught his favorite class last fall, a freshman seminar on the history of higher education. He has also taught classes on the age of exploration and comparative colonization of the Americas at the College.

At his retirement party May 2, Axtell plans to address how much the College has changed since 1978.

“It seems befitting of a historian of higher education, and it’ll be a history lesson in a sense for younger members in the department,” Axtell said.


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