Eric Washington’s office is how you’d imagine a history professor’s office—hundreds of books, thousands of stories. The books go from the floor to the ceiling, and if you read them, all the way around the world. They contain personal accounts from both sides of the transatlantic slave trade. There are heart-wrenching diary entries from the Haitian Revolution.
One book is a memoir written by an Iranian-American woman who came to the U.S. when the Iranian Revolution broke out. “Students really get into her story. They tell me on the way out that I have to keep that book.”
These stories are at the heart of Washington’s classroom and his profession as a historian. Not because the stories give the answers, but because they invite complex questions. After reading the Iranian-American woman’s memoir, students often write in their papers about how reading it has challenged their views of immigration and revealed some nuance they didn’t understand before.
“People have uncomplicated views of the world and of history. I encourage students to live in the tension. History is not an equation that gives you an answer. In fact, you may have more questions after you read these stories— and that’s good,” Washington said.
“This is a great big world. And there’s a lot that we don’t know. God has placed us in this world not to remain stuck in our own corners. I want students to understand that you can travel without leaving where you are, through books, through history, through literature. That’s important because we’re in the world to explore it, to see what
makes us human.”
Exploring the world and what makes us human has always been important to Washington. He was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. Some of his favorite books growing up were the encyclopedias and the World Atlas set his parents bought. “I read those over and over. I guess in one sense, that’s probably what started me on a path of becoming a historian.”
As for teaching, his first experience teaching was in church. He was 15, his dad was the pastor, and the vacation Bible school program needed a teacher. It was inevitable. “I was teaching kids just a few years younger than me,” he said. “I had to learn how to prepare for class and present the material in an interesting way.”
Today, he keeps his class interesting by modeling curiosity himself. “A professor never stops learning, interrogating, and challenging themself. I bring that attitude into the classroom—that’s what I want for my students. If they see me being curious and asking a lot of questions, I think they will, too, and that’s how they learn and grow.”