Listen: Historian Pieter Judson ’78 Reflects on Field, Swarthmore Experience

Pieter Judson '78

Pieter Judson '78 at last year's "Queer Histories of Swarthmore: A Panel Discussion."

Pieter Judson ’78 had always wanted a chance to reconnect with students from different generations he taught at Swarthmore who went on to thrive as historians.

“I’ve wanted these great people to come together as a group all at once and to share our work,” he says, “to talk about the intellectual, practical, and personal challenges we face, to explore what it means to be an historian in 2015, to think collectively about how to tackle the horrendous challenges facing higher education today, and to enjoy ourselves the way we did in seminars and classes.”

What better way, then, to honor his contributions to Swarthmore than the all-day symposium held in late May at the College, which featured three panel discussions with alumni and faculty before a farewell reception.

Organized by department chair Tim Burke and administrative assistant Jen Moore, the event spurred rigorous discussions on subjects for which Judson has long wielded influence. But it also gave colleagues and former students the chance to tell the former Isaac H. Clothier Professor of History and International Relations what he has meant to them.

“This was a wonderful chance to acknowledge the profound ways that Pieter has shaped the outlooks and careers of so many people and to try to give back, if only in a small way,” says Ben Goossen ’13, a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s department of history, who participated in the panel on history as a discipline, empire and nationalism, and gender and sexuality.

“I was delighted to have a chance to thank not only Pieter, whose history of sexuality course introduced me to the field I work in today, but also Swarthmore's History Department as a whole,” adds co-panelist Timothy Stewart-Winter ’01, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. “The department took my interests in LGBT history seriously, at a time when that was not as common a stance among history departments than it would be today.”

Teachers can tell whether a class went well or badly, Judson says, but it’s difficult to measure the impact they are actually having on students. On this day, though, he got to see himself reflected in the observations of others.

“Who gets to experience that?” he says. "It’s a unique experience to hear someone who is herself or himself now a teacher, explaining 10 or 20 years after the fact, exactly how my teaching shaped her thinking, and how it may have helped her to inspire her own students in contexts very different from Swarthmore.”  

Among highlights was the realization that all of Judson’s students in attendance had kept a personal archive of his comments, says Farid Azfar, assistant professor of history, who participated on a panel on 21st century European history.

“It was amazing to hear such a range of stories,” Azfar says, “from his classmates and professors to his most recent students, converging around the same motif in which Pieter's generosity animated his brilliance.”

The event also revealed the kinship between proud alums of the seminar on fascism that Judson started in his first year at Swarthmore in 1993. They shared memories from all over the emotional spectrum.

“As Farid pointed out at the symposium, the amount of laughter that emanated from a seminar room where fascism was being discussed puzzled many observers,” says Judson.

Judson’s full attention now turns to the European University Institute in Italy, where he has been editor of the Austrian History Yearbook and a professor in 19th and 20th century history since January 2014. He relishes the opportunity to contribute to an institution that stresses faculty/student collaboration and places European history in a global context. And, in a rewarding twist, to train Ph.D. candidates.

“It was always hard to see [Swarthmore] students graduate precisely at the point where they had gained the kind of knowledge, experience, and skills to become our colleagues rather than our students,” he says. “So now I will experience the other side of things.”

Judson is navigating challenges like learning a new language; being away from his husband, Charles, for weeks at a time; and functioning in an institution that’s very different from Swarthmore, he says. But the institutions do share some important DNA.

“I’m surrounded by colleagues who are not simply impressive scholars," says Judson, "but great human beings and already good friends."