Professor Justin Wolfe– Associate Professor in the History Department, William Arceneaux Professor of Latin American History, and Suzanne and Stephen Weiss Presidential Fellow– has made invaluable contributions to more programs, classes, and undergraduate careers in Honors than can be counted. Professor Wolfe says that he was “interested in participating in the Honors program from the beginning” and, in his 20 years at Tulane, has served on many Honors Thesis committees, been named Honors Professor of the Year, and co-founded and developed the “Honors Thesis Bootcamp” workshop course, among many other Honors programs and pursuits. This semester, he is also teaching his own first-year Honors colloquium course, titled “Fake News: Information, Knowledge, and Truth.”
Professor Wolfe says that he has been thinking about teaching a course that tackles the question of fake news for a number of years, especially since the term, “fake news”, was itself popularized during the 2016 Presidential election. Through engaging with his students in his other classes and through the Honors program, Professor Wolfe realized “how important it was to provide students with tools to think about information.” As this first-year seminar has developed, the class has focused more centrally on the questions of: “how do we know what is true, and how do we claim to understand what we think truth is?”.
One of Professor Wolfe’s favorite aspects of teaching a first-year colloquium, in addition to his full docket of classes in the history department, is getting to teach students who would not normally take a history class. For the science majors in his class, specifically, “truth and rationality, the validity of the scientific method, are givens in their fields,” Professor Wolfe says. “So to bring them into conversation with students who are exploring things that seem from the get-go more ambiguous and to realize that, on both sides, there is this ambiguity… and then in the end, that so much of what we think of as truth is about what we agreed to be the truth socially, has been enormous fun.” He says that his class has largely taken on the role of helping students navigate this “epistemic crisis” that truth is not certain, by teaching students that there are things we must be skeptical about, like power distribution, and some things that can be more easily accepted. While Professor Wolfe has always pushed students to challenge the nature of their research and think critically about “established truths” as they relate to his history courses, he sees this first-year colloquium as “a chance to kind of take those ideas and really spread them across an entire small course, and to have those conversations each week, rather than simply at the beginning.”
Professor Wolfe said he did not like history when he first arrived at college, but he credits his own history professors with instilling in him a love for the discipline. He says their passion was contagious and, by the end of his undergraduate career, he realized he wanted to pursue academia himself. “I had been transformed by this educational experience, I was not the same person I had been,” Professor Wolfe said. “I wanted to be able to provide students with an experience like I had had.”
While Professor Wolfe became a Latin Americanist, with a specific focus in Central America, he says that it has been research that has allowed him to branch into exploring and teaching other stories and disciplines. In recent semesters, Professor Wolfe has researched and taught filmmaking classes within the lens of history, this semester teaching “Visual History and Filmmaking.”
He says that it is partially through research that he is always able to keep learning as a teacher; “my research really informs my teaching,” he says. “And teaching and experiences I have inform how I move around in my research, and it’s a really nice symbiosis.” Admittedly a “big fan of the liberal arts,” Professor Wolfe says they provide a valuable space to be constantly learning and growing, for both professors and students alike: “what is so valuable about study that is interpretive, where there isn’t an answer, is that is really hones your skills at dealing with a world that is often in flux.”
Between creating a space for first-year Honors students to think about the nature of truth in a “fake-news” world and continuing to research new fields and grow his own knowledge base, Professor Wolfe tries to live by what he teaches, that history and the liberal “teach you that the world doesn’t stand still, and they teach you the tools for adapting to an ever-changing world, but they also are the place where we look at the amazingness of human creativity.”
All faculty interviewed recommend a book they find compelling and important.
Professor Wolfe recommends Daniel M. Lavery’s Something That May Shock and Discredit You. The 2020 book memoir that discusses issues of “gender, self, and transition that roams across literary history, popular culture, Biblical texts, and Greek mythology,” Professor Wolfe says. It is “an ecstatic paean to the joy, uncertainties, and finally, infinite rightness of humanness in all its forms.”