Peter Richardson, Linfield College German Teacher, Named Oregon Professor of the Year (2009)
MCMINNVILLE, Ore. - Linfield College Professor Peter Richardson was named Oregon Professor of the Year on Nov. 19, 2009. The award is given by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Richardson teaches German - and introduction to life. So many students have sunk into a worn, wooden rocker in his office they wore out the bottom. He lugged in another. "Students sit there, rocking furiously back and forth thinking about the things students have to think about," Richardson said.
"In my last semester I spent two hours a week in that chair," said Linfield graduate Daniel Clausen, who still remembers singing German folk songs in class. "I learned as much about life as I did about the German language."
"Students are just beginning to conceive of who they want to be and they are thirsting for experience," Richardson said. "It's a heady experience to choose what they'll pursue, to look past the required courses for directions that will help them deepen their understanding and become three-dimensional human beings."
At first students have the idea that every course needs to have a tangible outcome, Richardson said. "They ask, 'What good is philosophy?Why take a course in art?' I try to help them see the value of a liberal arts education."
Richardson also teaches by experience. He doesn't like to lecture, but interacts one-on-one, "setting students in motion." To help students better understand the lives of Swiss farmers, he brings in cow bells and hand-carved butter churns, and at the beginning of every fall semester he tells new students, "Welcome to Linfield. I hope we don't see you next year." He hopes they're studying halfway around the world, learning to understand their own culture by experiencing another.
As for German, he believes language spills over into literature, history, anthropology, religion, politics and sociology. "When you teach language, you are teaching culture," Richardson said. "The world beyond is fascinating. I want to help students find their place in it."
He's taken his advice to heart by finding his own place in the world beyond - specifically, in the Swiss Alps. Every summer he returns to a village so small it barely registers on the map, a place where the high-mountain solitude is broken only by the tinkle of goat bells and the banter of herders.
For the past five years Richardson, who admits to loving a good puzzle, has deciphered and transcribed 1,300 documents from that village. The documents, hundreds of years old, include love poems and letters, gravestone inscriptions, milk delivery lists, forest regulations, wine receipts, poorhouse documents, cattle certificates and even magic incantations. The Linfield professor can list the ingredients in recipes from the 1500s.
He has even transcribed a household guide to scripture written by religious renegade Martin Luther. "Someone found it in a drawer," he said. "People are finding out about the project and emptying the boxes in their attics."
The documents have been neglected for generations; paper has decayed, ink has faded and careless folds obscure crucial passages. Compounding the difficulty of transliteration, let alone reading, is the archaic handwriting in an alphabet that died out in the early 1900s. "Some authors used vocabulary that was quaint, self-important, overly Calvinistic or just plain bombastic," Richardson said. "On the other hand, the quill pens of children have left us touchingly simple and eloquent memories of school days.
"Many letters tear at your heart," Richardson said. "They were written by people who were not educated, but their language betrays genuine sentiment that is well expressed. Every new document is another person's take on the human condition, and those papers of a personal nature enable the writer to step off the page."
Richardson is giving the words back to the people whose ancestors wrote them, preserving the documents in digital format and bequeathing them to a local museum.
The project should keep him busy until - like the people who first penned the documents - he himself passes on. "I'm sure I'll never really finish this," he said.
Richardson has been at Linfield for 30 years, growing alongside the college. "I like to think that the environment we provided has helped develop individuals who care for people and the planet," he said.
People ask him when he's going to retire, and even though he's building a barn, plays a half-baked guitar and banjo, and has grown lavender for the farmers market, he tells them he's still having too much fun teaching. "I'm grateful for the companionship of my students," he said. "I know the fall after I retire I'll be wondering what neat people will be walking through the door."