Breathing Life into History
May 30, 2017
For Dr. Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai, research and teaching go hand in hand.
“I think research helps keep me sharp in the classroom,” Wongsrichanalai said, “because I’m able to share what I learn with my students. But I also find that the students have unique takes and unique perspectives and they are able to help jog my analytical skills on what I’m working on. I don’t really see a difference between teaching and research.”
An assistant professor of history, Wongsrichanalai’s passion for both earned him this year’s ASU President’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Research/Creative Endeavor.
“I was honestly surprised,” he said. “There were a lot of very impressive nominees. I certainly didn’t expect that I would be able to compete with some of the wonderful research our faculty conducted here at Angelo State.”
Wongsrichanalai, who grew up in Thailand, is a social and cultural historian. One of the major research projects that led to his faculty award is titled “West Texans and the Experience of War: World War I to the Present” and is being funded by a three-year, $99,982 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“This project is part of an initiative called ‘Standing Together,’” Wongsrichanalai said. “It is designed to collect stories and engage with veterans who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our unique spin is that we are also approaching the centennial of World War I, so we expanded it to cover a century.”
Wongsrichanalai, along with project co-director and assistant professor of history Dr. Christine Lamberson and students in upper-level history classes, has spent the past two years engaging with veterans and their families, collecting their stories to preserve their history.
“It’s so rare that we find a source base that no one has really looked at in history,” he explained. “It’s an untapped source. All of these stories of people who have not been collected or recorded – what can we do with that?”
“I think research helps keep me sharp in the classroom because I’m able to share what I learn with my students.”
Also co-director of ASU’s ongoing Great War Commemoration Lecture Series, Wongsrichanalai previously co-directed ASU’s “Latino Americans: 500 Years of History” project and helped coordinate the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration Lecture Series from 2011-15. He has also published multiple essays and books, including his monograph “Northern Character,” and is currently working on three separate book projects.
All that passion for the past first took flight during a U.S. history class Wongsrichanalai took as a high school junior in Massachusetts.
“We read a chapter from the novel, ‘The Killer Angels,’” he explained. “It’s historical fiction, but I was fascinated by the way the characters, historical figures, supposedly boring black-and-white figures just came alive out of the pages. That sparked an interest in the American Civil War.”
“When I graduated from high school,” Wongsrichanalai continued, “I wanted to be a high school history teacher. Then I went to college and said, ‘I want to be a college professor and I want to teach history.’ It started with a work of fiction, but it got me to see how history could be much more vivid and alive.”
Now that he has become a college history professor, Wongsrichanalai’s goal remains the same – to share the lived experience of Americans.
“We know stories of leaders and generals and politicians,” he said, “but we are interested in and find the greatest satisfaction in being able to tell the stories of ordinary folks and what they experienced. What they suffered. What they went through. What they sacrificed for whatever cause motivated them”
“History isn’t just names and dates,” he added. “It’s about people and stories. And we as humans, as a society, have always been fascinated by stories.”
Wongsrichanalai also hopes that at least some of his passion for history is passed on to his students.
“I want history to come alive for them,” he said. “I want students to be able to see not just the stories of the past, but also how their family members’ stories weave into the grand narrative of American history.”
“Those students assisting with the grant have a hand in not just learning about history, but also preserving it,” he continued. “I know that most of the students I teach are not going to be historians, but I want them to have a love of history. I want them to be interested in history, and I want them to spread that interest in history. That’s the goal.”