November 17, 2017  

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CATCHING UP WITH DR. ANDREW WIEST

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Andrew Wiest is a University Distinguished Professor of History at Southern Miss. He is also the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. In this special feature, Wiest shares some insight into his personal and professional achievements.

Q. What is your hometown and educational background?

A. I was born in Chicago, but I moved to Hattiesburg when I was eight years old, so I consider Hattiesburg to be my hometown. I went to Hattiesburg High School, then to USM for my undergraduate (in history) and MA (also in history). Then I went to the University of Illinois, Chicago for my PhD.

Q. How long have you worked at Southern Miss and what other positions have you held?

A. I taught my first class at Southern Miss in the fall of 1987 (my old notes even say that on the first page). I was just an adjunct fill in professor at the time while I wrote my dissertation to complete my PhD. I never thought that I would have the good luck to stick here, but I did. I have taught here pretty much my whole career, but I also taught courses as a Teaching Assistant at the University of Illinois, Chicago.  I also served as a Visiting Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in the United Kingdom. I also served as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Air Force Air War College at Maxwell, Alabama.

Q. What are your proudest accomplishments as a history professor?

A. One is on the professional end of things -- writing “The Boys of 67: Charlie Company's War in Vietnam.” It also became an Emmy nominated documentary titled Brothers in War for National Geographic Channel. The book and documentary tell the story of an extraordinary group of young men at war in Vietnam. The book has had a great impact on the lives of the men and families of Charlie Company, which is very important to me. The other accomplishments are teaching ones. The greatest experience I ever had as a student was following Dr. Terry Harper abroad on the British Studies Program. That summer changed my life.  I have been so lucky to have been involved with the British Studies Program as a teacher since 1992. I get the great privilege of taking USM students abroad and to watch as their lives get changed as mine once did. Watching as those young men and women are transformed is my proudest moment.

Q. What historical places have you visited that made a lasting impression?

A. As you might suspect I have visited many historical places. Professionally it has to be Vietnam. I started my professional life as a historian of Britain in World War I. One trip to Vietnam with U.S. veterans and Southern Miss students, though, changed all of that, and I have been a Vietnam War historian ever since. Personally, though, the most important historical place is Westminster in London. That first year as a student on the British Studies Program Dr. Harper loaded us all up on the Tube (the London subway) and we went to the Westminster Tube Station. Not really knowing what that was I followed him out and found myself standing at the foot of Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. That moment was critical to me — that moment set me toward a new future.

Q. If you weren’t employed in your current job, what else might you be doing and why?

A. Who knows? This is a tough one, because I always wanted to teach history. Many of my family members were teachers; I had great teachers; I wanted to be like them. So if I didn't have this job, I would probably have found another way to do pretty much the same thing.

Q. What is your favorite aspect of working in a university environment?

A. Two things. Being around young, energetic students helps me to keep young and energetic too. The hair is gray; the knees are rickety, but being around such inspiring students keeps me young at heart. The other is just the conversation – the faculty and students here form an intellectual community that really keep you on your toes and keep you thinking. Where else are you going to have that kind of fun?

Q. What little known fact would people find surprising about you?

A. I am, in fact, Batman.

Q. What’s the best advice you ever received and from whom?

A. As an undergraduate I strolled in to Dr. Neil McMillen's office to chat about the idea of becoming a graduate student with an eye toward shooting for a PhD. He told me that I would have to be crazy to do such a thing. The hours of school would be long and hard (not to mention poor). The job outlook was dim. Years of work for perhaps no payoff. I went away from the office wondering again about my future. But then I realized something. I was, in point of fact, crazy. What he had told me sounded more like a challenge than a reason to quit. So I went back to his office, told him that I was crazy (to which he agreed) and that I was going ahead regardless. It had been a test — a test of my resolve. I think I passed.