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winter 2018

Schmunk honored by SCICU

Professor of art history receives 2016 Excellence in Teaching award.

Dr. Peter L. Schmunk, the Mr. and Mrs. T. R. Garrison Professor of the Humanities at Wofford College, recently was recognized with the 2016 Excellence in Teaching Award, presented by the South Carolina Independent College and Universities (SCICU). The award honors his effective leadership and mentorship inside and outside of the classroom.

Schmunk, who teaches in the Department of Art and Art History, says his early career plan was to compose music. “I was particularly enthusiastic about composing, but I realized my strengths lay more in the academics realm of music, so I finished my degrees in music history.” He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in music from the University of Washington, then a Ph.D. in comparative arts from Ohio University.

“I had a very good instructor at the University of Washington, and I could see what an inspiring, enlightening teacher he was, and that’s when I started thinking about teaching at the college level,” says Schmunk, who has taught at Wofford for 29 years. “Having a really good professor opens the door to that possibility.”

An avid traveler and photographer, Schmunk has led more than 20 travel-study Interims since coming to Wofford. “Interim was a fulfilling part of my experience here from the very beginning because it enabled me to see the things I teach firsthand. I’ve visited all different parts of Europe. Most of the trips have been guided somewhat by weather. I tend to go to the Mediterranean, but I also like to have new experiences. I will go back to almost any place I’ve been because it’s worthwhile, but there are so many other places to see.”

He recently exhibited a group of his abstract photographs with accompanying haikus written by Hoy Professor of English Dr. Deno Trakas, and Schmunk is working on a body of work to be exhibited with the title “Music and Photographic Image.” His research activities have been focused on the influence of musical culture on 19th century painters such as Van Goh, Whistler, Corot and Degas.

“Art history is an important area of learning that ideally all students ought to have some experience in as an undergraduate,” Schmunk says. “We’re surrounded by images all the time, yet there’s little opportunity to learn how to really see them – to analyze and interpret them. That happens in art history.” 

Schmunk says he often finds his students have never been to an art museum, so he tries to include one museum visit per survey course. “I really wish all students came away with some background in art history. I think it would serve them well in later life. One’s life would be richer in traveling, in visiting cities and museums. We’d all be more inclined to see art, learn from art and enjoy it on an everyday basis.”

When Schmunk arrived at Wofford, an art history major had been established already in conjunction with Converse College, as a collaborative major with one professor from each college. “Now we’ve got an established Wofford major with three professors,” he says. During his time at Wofford, he’s seen the college grow in almost every way. “What’s happened in art history typifies what is happening to the college in general. We’ve moved from bare bones and meager resources to a lot more to offer students and a fuller, richer program. It’s thrilling to see Wofford’s change for the better.”

His interdisciplinary approach to comparative arts has contributed to the growth of a robust undergraduate program that now offers courses in Asian, Islamic and African art as well as the art of the American South.

“I try to engage students with lots of questions, getting them to think about what they’re seeing. I want to move them away from being passive learners to more active learners," says Schmunk. "In upper division classes, I don’t want to tell students what to do, study or pursue in research. I hope that is more self-directed and guided by their personal interests. I try to be a mentor, but not a dictator or an authority that constrains the process.” 

Schmunk says that he also has found that gauging his students’ progress helps him teach from where his students are, and this often means quizzes. “I’ve found that it’s necessary to hold students accountable for what I ask them to do – a reading needs to be accompanied by thought questions or perhaps a follow-up quiz – something that guides the learning experience.”

As the recipient of the award, Schmunk was honored at a recent banquet with a $3,000 professional development grant. SCICU recognizes one faculty member from each of its 20 member institutions with the award.

“Peter Schmunk is a meticulously prepared teacher, a skilled researcher and writer, a mentor to both colleagues and students, and he is widely appreciated for his quiet and effective leadership skills,” Dr. Dennis M. Wiseman, provost at Wofford, says. “This is a well-deserved honor for Peter, and it reflects the respect and appreciation that we all have for him.”

Before coming to Wofford, Schmunk had never been to the Southeast, and he says the people he met were what sold him on the job. “When I was in school, most people didn’t think in terms of getting credentials or the job market, but it was more of a ‘follow your own bliss’ kind of pursuit... ‘Do what makes you happy, engages you, and gives you fulfillment.’” Nearly 30 years later, Schmunk is still at Wofford.

by Sarah Madden ’17

Summer 2016