Throughout his 41 years at the College, but particularly in the 1970s when "the Middle East was not on everyone's mind," history professor Gene Garthwaite influenced many of his students' decisions to pursue graduate studies of the region, history department chair Margaret Darrow said. Garthwaite, who joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1968 and has become one of the country's leading experts on Middle Eastern studies, will retire at the end of Spring term, according to Darrow.
As a celebration of Garthwaite's career, policy experts and academics in Middle Eastern studies will discuss current social, cultural and political issues in the region in a conference this weekend titled "Crossing at the Green: A Symposium in Honor of Professor Gene R. Garthwaite," Darrow said. The conference was suggested by two of Garthwaite's former students, City College of New York history professor Beth Baron '80 and University of Edinburgh Islamic and Middle Eastern studies professor Andrew Newman '74, who have been planning the event for the last two years as a tribute to Garthwaite, according to Darrow.
"It's a celebration of professor Garthwaite's impact on our understanding in the United States of the Middle East, both in terms of people who are involved in policy and history," she said. "It's quite an impressive array of former students."
The conference's participants — 14 of Garthwaite's former students — will include U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone '73 and Gregory Aftandilian '79, former U.S. foreign policy advisor and Middle East analyst.
Garthwaite was a founding member of Dartmouth's Asian studies program, now called the Asian and Middle Eastern studies department, according to Darrow. He chaired both the history and the Asian and Middle Eastern studies departments several times throughout his career, Darrow said.
"He's been a workhorse as far as the College goes," she said. "He has really given Dartmouth quite a high profile in the area of Middle Eastern studies."
Garthwaite was instrumental in helping students enroll in language programs before Dartmouth offered courses in Arabic, Darrow said.
Garthwaite said in an interview with the Dartmouth that his most lasting contribution to Dartmouth has been the number of his students who have gone on to complete PhDs in all areas of history, but especially in Middle Eastern history.
Garthwaite took a circuitous path to becoming one of the country's foremost experts in Middle-Eastern history, he said. After receiving his undergraduate degree in English from St. Olaf College in 1955, he joined the Air Force, where he served for several years before beginning his doctorate at the University of Chicago. While at Chicago, Garthwaite accepted a job as a camp manager with an archaeological team working in Iran for a nine-month dig. After returning to the United States, he decided to pursue a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies at the University of California, Los Angeles where he developed his research focus on Iran's social history, he said.
Last fall, Garthwaite experienced an arrhythmia that resulted in an emergency procedure to provide him with a pacemaker, Darrow said. The history department began "scrambling" to find a professor who could teach his course, anticipating that Garthwaite would not return to teach for a significant period of time, she said. Garthwaite was back on the job within 72 hours, however, further illustrating both his commitment to and love for his students and the study of history, Darrow said.
Garthwaite said he hopes to have inspired and enlightened students, even if they do not choose to pursue further studies in his discipline.
"Americans are very apprehensive about the Middle East and about Islam and see it in threatening tones," Garthwaite said. "There's sort of a negative association that you didn't find before 9/11 and it's even more important to try and understand this vital part of the world and the richness of its culture and history."
Students have driven much of the research and academic interests that Garthwaite has pursued at Dartmouth, he said. His most recent book, "The Persians," grew out of a First-Year Seminar that he taught several years ago, Garthwaite said.
"Undergraduate creativity is really so important," he said. "I guess undergraduates don't appreciate that we also learn from [them]."
Garthwaite said he tries to teach his classes in an inter-disciplinary manner, which he believes is the only way to understand a society's history.
"Too often, history, for students who haven't taken it, is associated solely with political history, so in my courses I try to introduce religion and literature and those sorts of things," he said. "You can't begin to understand another society's culture without understanding all aspects."
Garthwaite has unparalleled respect for his students and the insight they bring to the study of history, Darrow said.
"He takes students seriously as scholars and as thinkers," she said. "He's genuinely excited by the insights and intellect of his students."
Garthwaite has also been a particularly effective mentor for his colleagues, Darrow said.
"He's been unfailingly helpful in terms of advice and strategizing as to how to make things work well for the history department," she said. "He's always here and he's been a constant collegial presence in the department."
Garthwaite said he plans to stay involved with the Dartmouth community even after he begins his retirement. He intends to continue researching and publishing, but he will no longer teach courses, he said.
"I'm going to continue to live here," he said. "I want to keep my brain active."