History professor engages students with storytelling, humor

Before his own life history had begun, Steven Woodworth, professor of history, said his father knew he would be enthralled with the subject.

Woodworth’s students may have wondered about his passion for the subject, as his eyes lit up with tales of the past about where his fascination with what had seemed to be lifeless facts had stemmed.

His father read stories of the Civil War that were written by Bruce Catton, a Pultzer Prize-winning journalist and historical author, to Woodworth in his childhood and generated an interest Woodworth said he later shared through his teaching.

“It was too fun that you would be able to do this for a job,” Woodworth said.

As an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, he watched his professors and was puzzled.

“They must lie awake at night trying to think of ways to make history boring,” he said. “This is something so intrinsically interesting. How can they make it this boring?”

After trying some classic approaches with pop quizzes and lecture notes, he said he set out to present the subject in the way he had fallen in love with it: by telling stories.

He kept a conversational tone and laid-back approach as he analyzed the material, put it into current context and connected it with past lectures. Like an open book, he shared his sources with students and prompted them to find the facts for themselves, he said.

Martha Romero, a sophomore nursing major, said Woodworth engaged the whole class by clearly expressing his ideas while being vibrant and funny.

Woodworth said he was unsure how to react to the news that he was named one of the top 300 professors by The Princeton Review.

The website ratemyprofessors.com was used as part of the evaluation process. The 43 reviews on the site gave him an average of 4.6 out of 5 on overall quality.

One student reviewer wrote, “I abhorred history before taking his class, but he makes it interesting and relates well to students with jokes and analogies.”

Although relating to students was easier when he was closer to their age, Woodworth said he viewed them more in a fatherly sense after having children. His role of influence was greater for his seven children, two of whom attend the university, but he said he appreciated the small role he could play in the lives of students who would shape the next generation.

His own father not only planted the seeds for his love of history, but also was a pastor and journalism professor who encouraged him to express his knowledge through writing and teaching, he said.

After moving around the Midwest, Woodworth said he taught at Houston Community College as a graduate student and then spent several years teaching at Oklahoma Wesleyan University and eventually Toccoa Falls College in Georgia.

When he applied for a job at TCU, he said he and his wife were not eager to return to the same state as Houston. They found Fort Worth to have a more welcoming Midwest atmosphere and a winning football team.

At the university, he continued to fuel his knowledge base for lectures with books about history. Woodworth said his students have picked up on his enjoyment of teaching history, and he said he hoped they developed a curiosity for the wisdom it provided as well.