Humanities Council Alum, Veteran, and Literature & Medicine Facilitator Receives Teaching Award

Humanities Council Alum, Veteran, and Literature & Medicine Facilitator Receives Teaching Award

Dr. Peter Caulfield, professor of Language and Literature at UNC Asheville, served on the board of trustees of the North Carolina Humanities Council from 1998–2004. More recently, Caulfield has served as facilitator for the Humanities Council's Literature & Medicine program at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, guiding literature discussions among VA healthcare professionals. A Vietnam War veteran himself, Caulfield has just been named a Distinguished Teacher by the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Read more below about Caulfield's work and unique role in Asheville:

UNC Asheville Professor of Literature and Language Peter Caulfield has been honing his craft as an educator for more than three decades, helping create the university’s writing program that impacts students across the curriculum.

“He is so passionate about it … It’s not about him or his analysis, but the purity of the art, the literature,” said literature major Dennis Mayne, who took one of Caulfield’s classes in spring 2013. Mayne was just four months out of the Army and still adjusting to college life after a year in Afghanistan when Caulfield told him he had served in Vietnam. The two met outside of class, sharing thoughts about readjusting to life as a student after serving in a combat zone.

Caulfield has been working for several years on a novel set in Vietnam. Now entering phased retirement, Caulfield will use this fall as time to edit and rewrite. But the 2014 Distinguished Teaching Award winner will be back in the classroom in the spring, helping students hone their own writing and leading them in readings from James Baldwin to Romantic English poets. “Immediately you can tell how beautiful it is to him,” said Mayne. “With Keats, he spilled out the words so effortlessly.”

Impact Across the Campus

During the past 27 years at UNC Asheville, Caulfield has taught approximately 4,000 students, but even those who haven’t taken his courses have been impacted by his work.  

“Peter originated ‘Writing Across the Curriculum’ which eventually became today’s Writing Intensive Program,” recalled Literature and Language Professor Dee James, who was already part of the faculty when Caulfield was hired in 1987.

“Writing Across the Curriculum was a voluntary program… Peter managed the program, ran workshops for faculty and edited a newsletter where we shared best practices of how writing can be taught in math, economics, psychology… It was an amazing and important contribution.”

In addition, his pedagogical approach continues to evolve, with his curriculum vitae encompassing courses from literature to humanities.

“I went through the Inquiry ARC workshops and in an honors course I taught this past fall, I tried some new techniques that were suggested for teaching critical thinking,” he said. “I assigned very specific probing questions before students wrote their papers, giving them an extra step of thinking much more specifically about logical claims in important historical essays. It showed in their writing.”

Feedback from the self-described Luddite now takes the form of audio files sent to each student with detailed line-by-line feedback on first drafts and completed papers.

“He’s always focused on ‘what do the students need’ – not interested in frills or flash, but deep thought and what really helps them grow and progress,” said James.

Novel Ideas Off Campus

Peter Caulfield, professor of literature and language, flanked by Daisy Torres (left) and Melissa Castillo, co-presidents of HOLA, the student organization that coordinated the 2013 Head Start Holiday Party.

Caulfield also focuses on community needs, and he is the father of one of UNC Asheville’s favorite annual events, the Head Start Holiday Party. This too originated from novel research, when Caulfield visited an area Head Start while on sabbatical. He became a regular volunteer at Head Start, and then began the annual on-campus party for community youngsters. The party had its 16th renewal in December 2013.

“He organized the event itself, got students to provide and wrap Christmas presents for the kids, and I think it’s one of the great things UNC Asheville has done for the community,” said Merritt Moseley, chair and professor of literature and language.

Caulfield also uses his talents as an educator to help improve the care that area veterans receive. He began a monthly literature circle for staff members at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, using literature as a way of building greater empathy for the veterans among those who care for them. Caulfield chose the readings, formulated discussion questions, and led the literature circles. He has now led two complete cycles of six monthly sessions, with 20 participants each, over the past two years.

“My favorite metaphor for what we do as teachers is the concept of a conversation,” said Caulfield. “I tell my students that all of human history is an ongoing conversation about many essential elements of the human condition.  My role is to help them enter more fully and capably into that ongoing, never (so far) ending conversation, e.g., about literature, about history, about social and political ideas, about various philosophical issues.”

That approach and his decades of dedication led to Caulfield’s Distinguished Teacher award, something which came as total surprise to him. “It was sweet, a wonderful way to cap my career, to say, well maybe I’m doing something right after all these years.”

Original article appeared on University of North Carolina at Asheville's homepage.