Office Hours: Andy Rotter

Matthew Knowles

For Charles A. Dana Profes­sor of History Andy Rotter, his field is about much more than just old white men. He makes it his job to take information out of old, dusty tomes and represent it in new and exciting ways. Professor Rotter calls his current endeavor a “post-post tenure” work that is shaping up to be a “risky project.”

“I’m comparing the Brit­ish empire in India and the American empire in the Philip­pines and I’m doing so from the standpoint of all five senses and how they shape encounters of people within these empires,” Professor Rotter explained.

If this seems like an odd topic for historical research, Professor Rotter would certainly agree. But he would also say that that is precisely what makes it so intriguing. Professor Rotter believes that a lot of the culture shock and intimate exchange between these groups of people came from sensory experiences in these foreign lands, and most of these sensory experiences were communicated in the form of manners.

“People apprehend the whole person…the belief is that if you’re going to be a civilized people, you have to have good manners… the Westerners believed that the Asians they encountered still had fairly barbaric manners,” Professor Rotter said.

Professor Rotter believes that these manners have ev­erything to do with sensory perception. The Indians and Filipinos might dress or behave differently, which offended the Westerners’ sight, speak differ­ent languages, which offended their hearing, or not bath fre­quently enough, which of­fended their smell. Thus, the Western emperors saw it as their duty to correct these peo­ples’ manners in order to civi­lize them. This resulted in the creation of a new elite class of people created by Westerners in these foreign countries.

“They could take some sat­isfaction in knowing that they created a group of people that behaved like they did…that, to the British, was a civilized group of men,” Professor Rotter said.

Researching a topic this unique requires a nonstandard approach for obtaining infor­mation. One cannot just look for accounts of sensory descrip­tion in the indexes of books; they simply do not exist. In­stead, Professor Rotter reads vast quantities of material on the subject in hopes of finding a piece that is relevant to his work. However, of all the docu­ments that he comes across, Professor Rotter finds memoirs to be the most useful, in par­ticular the memoirs of women. Whereas men of this time peri­od typically visited these coun­tries on business and recorded only their transactions in their journals, women reflected on the jarring transition from Western to Eastern society.

“One of the things that I kept coming across in travel literature or memoirs was how deeply affected people were by the smell of the place. They would say things like ‘even be­fore we saw the coast of India, we smelled the land offshore,” Professor Rotter added.

Not only does Professor Rotter provide new perspectives on his­tory in his research, but he also does so in the classroom. This semester he is teaching Ameri­can History to 1877 and a senior level seminar course for majors. Next semester, he will be teach­ing a course on US foreign rela­tion from 1917 to the present, a course on the Vietnam War and a History Workshop which teaches students how to properly go about academic writing in history.

To conclude, Professor Rotter believes that, despite what some may think, history is still a very important field of study today.

“Of course history allows us to learn from the past and ap­ply them to the future and cur­rent society…history, along with other fields, prepares you to do anything well,” Rotter said. “It teaches you how to read, it teaches you how to make an ar­gument. All of these things are vitally important to anything I suspect any Colgate graduate wants to do.”

Contact Matthew Knowles at [email protected]