One Professor’s Reflections on Four Decades of Teaching at WWU
By Annaliese Grellmann
Every fall, new students flood the campus, claiming the classrooms, dorms, and cafeteria as their own; living life in the same places as thousands of other students have before them. Terrie Aamodt, a professor of history at Walla Walla University, has witnessed this cycle of coming and going almost 40 times, which gives her a perspective of this campus’ history that few others have. 
Aamodt began teaching at WWU, then Walla Walla College, in 1979 at only 24 years old after getting a call to fill a temporary position in the English department. She said, “I knew that I didn’t have experience. I didn’t have a doctorate. But I knew that I loved to teach, and I threw all of my efforts and energy into it.” She remembers working 70 hours a week.
After getting her master’s degree in English from the College of William and Mary, followed by her doctorate in American Studies from Boston University in 1986, she continued to work for the English department but began teaching classes for the history department, too. In 2003 she became a history professor full time. She’s even written the book, “Bold Venture: A History of Walla Walla College.”
Over the past four decades, Aamodt has observed the shifts in culture on campus. For example, when she began teaching, students were still familiar with King James English. Now, the majority of students are not, which has made Shakespeare more difficult to teach.
Aamodt noticed a big shift in college students in the 1980s at the beginning of things like MTV and cable television. She said, “You just had way more options for entertainment.” She went on to say, “You start to notice that reading as an activity has a lot more competition from other things, and certainly the advent of the internet… There’s so much competing for the waking hours now.”
She commented that it wasn’t a good or bad thing, just different. She said, “I think in many ways students are more sophisticated and they know more about the world. They’ve traveled more and I see those things as somewhat balancing out.”
Aamodt has seen how the big world events of each generation impact students on campus. “There are stresses in every era,” she said.
One spring in the late ‘80s there was a thunderstorm during which a bolt of lightning hit a fuse box, causing the entire University campus to be without electricity for 10 days. Aamodt remembers teaching in the dark in the administration building where the temperature was the same as outside. There was no hot water for the entirety of those 10 days. Since the cafeteria couldn’t wash dishes, they had to use paper plates. This might not have been an event that caught the attention of the world, but it was an event faculty and students will never forget.
According to Aamodt, world events have also left their mark on campus. At the start of the Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991, Aamodt said, “The vast majority of students were assertively pro-war.” During an open house in the men’s dorm, one wing of Sittner decorated itself to look like the Persian Gulf, even making a tank out of papier-mache.
Aamodt recounted the televisions in the cafeteria where every day at lunch students “could go and watch the U.S. military blowing up buildings in Iraq. People would sit there and cheer. It was kind of like a video game. That was disturbing.”
On the other hand, there was a small group of students who were, as she described, “very conscientiously opposed to the war.” Every night for the entire month of January these students spent almost all night on College Avenue holding a vigil. “They were not getting much sleep. It was affecting their ability to study, but they were so dedicated to that cause,” she remembers.
“We had the potential for some real clashes on campus,” Aamodt said. The public clash finally came in February when a group of pro-war students began protesting in front of Village Hall on the opposite side of College Avenue from the anti-war students. While there was a play being performed in Village Hall, the pro-war students were outside waving signs that said, “Honk if you support President Bush.”
That night, Aamodt happened to be on campus working when she got a call around 10 p.m. saying that there had been a riot on campus. The pro-war students, one of whom was a military veteran, put on ski masks to hide their identities and attacked the anti-war students, ripping their signs and pushing them around. She said, “When I got out there everybody was separated and the pro-war folks were waving their flags. They had a U.S. flag and they were waving their signs and horns were honking, while the anti-war folks were quietly standing on the other side.”
She gives credit to the dean of students at the time, Walt Meske, for what happened next. He decided students needed to be able to have a conversation, so he put big pieces of butcher paper on bulletin boards all over campus where students could go and write their opinions about the war. She remembers these big pieces of butcher paper as being the start of thoughtful and constructive conversation between students.
Next, she recounted another time students demonstrated. A few years before the school’s name was changed from College to University in 2006, the Board of Trustees voted to name the school “Northwest Adventist University” and Aamodt said, “The students kind of came unglued.” The students were so distressed by the possible name change that they staged an all-night sit-in in the library.
She said, “There were 300 students in the library and they refused to leave. And it wasn’t just the name. There were some other things and one of the major issues was the difference in dorm policies between men and women. The men’s dorm had fewer restrictions than the women’s dorm. Both men and women were upset about that.” She said she will always credit the president of the college at the time, W.G. Nelson, for staying up all night in the library listening to the students.
Now, the pandemic has shifted campus in a way like never before. Aamodt said, “The pandemic, from a teacher’s perspective, required us to think about things we’ve always taken for granted; just having the students physically present in the classroom.” She described how difficult it was to not be able to move around in the classroom, but instead teach inside the small frame of a camera.
Despite all the changes WWU has seen over the years, some things have stayed the same. When asked what on campus has remained consistent, she responded with the question, “Do you even want me to go into Western Wedding University territory? That’s just a tradition.” She also said, “There is a friendliness that I think is very much unchanged.”
Aamodt described the continued commitment to the core themes of WWU. She said, “A liberal education asks you to ask tough questions and follow those answers where they lead. And that can be difficult, but it’s a part of living.” Learning to thoughtfully engage with one another isn’t just excellence in thought, but beauty in expression too.
Aamodt said that since the beginning of this school there has been a strong commitment to service, although the expression of that has changed over the years. Now, we have the Center for Humanitarian Engagement which brings service right into the community, as opposed to having to travel around the world to serve. “I think that’s a wonderful continuation of that tradition of service,” she said.
Lastly, she said, “I think that there are many students who are serious about spiritual matters.” She observed that this generation of students tends to be less institutionally focused, but said, “There still is that spiritual hunger.”
Over the past four decades, professor Aamodt has helped students navigate through war, a global pandemic, and the dramatics of daily life, all while teaching them to grow in excellence in thought, generosity in service, beauty in expression, and faith in God. She said, “It doesn’t feel like it’s been very long, and I think that happens when you enjoy what you do.”
- Personal communication with T. Aamodt, 4/14/2021.