James P. Barefield: History
In an age when people spend an average of four years at a given job, James P. Barefield’s 41 years of teaching history at the university is highly impressive. Barefield is currently a retired professor emeritus who still teaches classes occasionally. During his professorship he was very active in the Interdisciplinary Honors program and in the study abroad program in Venice, running those programs for 18 and nine years, respectively.
Matt Hayes/Old Gold & Black
Becoming a college professor was Barefield’s career aspiration beginning in high school. When asked why he decided upon history as a subject, Barefield replied “because it is enormously useful for understanding the world,” and because it is “a way of stirring up the imagination. A major part of education is to enliven one’s imagination and history encourages us to imagine the way things once were as opposed to today.” Barefield, who was born in Florida, attended Rice University as an undergraduate.
After completing a Fulbright scholarship in London from ’60-’62, he attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, and then was hired to teach at Wake Forest. His specialization is in Medieval history, but Barefield also taught Renaissance, Reformation, and introductory European history when he first arrived.
Back then “Wake was a lot cheaper,” Barefield recalls, “perhaps $1,000 a year.”
There were other differences, too. Barefield remembers the student body as consisting of more middle-class students and students being less rigorous in their class attendance than they are today. “I taught a Renaissance history class at 2 p.m.,” Barefield said, “and I seem to remember a great dropping off during baseball season.” He describes the university then as “a little less conservative politically, a bit more sophisticated in terms of religion, (and) much less well-traveled, but in many ways about the same.”
One similarity is that the history department was about the same size, and had as many or more majors as it does now, although at the time history and political science were together in the same department. Besides teaching in the history department, Barefield was an instrumental part of the Interdisciplinary Honors program, running the program from 1986 until his retirement in 2004.
He describes his involvement in the program as one of the highlights of his career at the university. The concept behind the program was to attract particularly motivated students who would be willing to study challenging concepts which combined multiple fields of study. Barefield taught a number of these courses himself; “I did it because I enjoyed working with the students, putting together these ideas in some new way,” he said. One course “The Comic View,” was very popular and he later taught similar courses such as “The Tragic View” and “The Mythic View.” He is currently teaching “The Comic View” as one of this semester’s Interdisciplinary Honors offerings.
The university’s study abroad house in Venice, Casa Artom, is another program in which Barefield was highly involved. He taught for a semester in Venice six times over his tenure at the university, running the program from 1986 to 1995.
Responsibility for the university’s study abroad students meant there was always something to worry about, particularly during the Lockerbie Bombing in 1988 and on September 11, when he was in London as the faculty adviser in the Worrell House. Barefield remembers the immediate result of these disasters being “very cheap airplane tickets — the students worried for about a day or two, and then the immortality mentality set in and they were off traveling again.”
Similar to his experience with the Interdisciplinary Honors program, Barefield values how teaching as a faculty adviser abroad allowed him to get to know the students better.
In addition to teaching “The Comic View” and interviewing students for admissions, Barefield is continuing to work on a book entitled Lively Ghost: Irony’s Role in Imagining the Past. This book, a little over thirty years in the making, explores how irony is used by historians and how it acts as a part of the imagination.
“It’s something I end up thinking about every day,” Barefield said. Although the book is more of a pet project than a pressing venture, it reflects Barefield’s pure enjoyment of scholarship, the same way his more than four decades at the university reflect his commitment to passing on his love of history to students.