Encouraging far-reaching ideas and nearby adventures 

As the leader of his son’s Cub Scout pack, Nathan Wood devised an activity. His scouts would set out on a hike through the Lawrence Nature Park at dusk, holding a rope for assistance.

For the hike back, Wood would note that, while the rope was still there, they wouldn’t need it. Together, with senses strengthened, they’d grown capable of exploring the dark and unfamiliar.

“I wanted to connect them to their local environment,” says Wood, “and empower them not to be afraid of it.”

Connection and fearlessness are values Wood brings to his work as an associate professor of history, and ones that informed his role as last year’s University Scholars seminar instructor.

The Rockers Family Honors Faculty Fellow since 2020, Wood was approached by program director Sarah Crawford-Parker to lead the 2023 seminar — an invitation Wood enthusiastically accepted. 

“University Scholars have the opportunity, in a multidisciplinary classroom with curious and creative contemporaries, to grapple with big questions and big problems. That’s really appealing,” he says.

Wood’s seminar, “Technology and Society,” asked students to examine and scrutinize the influence of technology over humanity, with examples sourced from 20th-century Europe.

“This sort of belief in progress, and this sense that technology is always improving — I really wanted to challenge that myth,” says Wood.

To start, students read works by historians like David Edgerton, who asserts that an innovation’s introduction is less important than its use. They also engaged with figures like web developer Maciej Cegłowski, whose design philosophy of “good enough” resonated with many in the seminar.

Cegłowski’s concept is “something that has been on my mind a lot,” says 2023 University Scholar Levi Cromwell, “as I consider artificial intelligence and how it will affect the humanities.”

For the research project he undertook in the second half of the semester, Cromwell, a humanities major, looked at the use of cassettes in disseminating Ayatollah Kohmeni’s sermons during the Iranian Revolution, while friend and fellow scholar Diego Prieto selected genetic recombination. 

The technology was one Prieto had interacted with as a biochemistry and microbiology major, and Wood was pleased to see the student investigate his own field through a historical lens.

“He got to go back and learn about how controversial it was when it was introduced and how terrified scientists were about the potential of this technology,” says Wood. “And I like to think that he does his own work now with a much more informed perspective.”

Prieto confirms that the project had an effect. “I was able to see that we shouldn’t be scared of technology,” Prieto says. “We should understand that it’s ours to create, it’s ours to control — it’s a reflection of who we are.”

Prieto came away with a better understanding of his own field, and of the variety of disciplines represented by his cohort and united by the program and by Wood.

“You have sociologists, engineers, computer scientists, biologists,” Prieto says. “I feel that Dr. Wood was a great catalyst to allow us to mesh our personal experiences.”

Wood echoes Prieto in his appreciation of the cohort’s diversity of knowledge and background.

“This is a really lucky thing for me to have been able to be a part of. I get to learn from my students — where they have their disciplinary expertise and their life experiences that are different from mine,” says Wood. “And so we’re all in it together.”

The collegiality and respect that Wood and the scholars built between each other serves as one of the highlights of his time in the classroom. 

“I’m getting a little sentimental just thinking about how thrilling it was to be in a group like that,” says Wood, “to see them bouncing ideas off of each other and learning from each other.”

The semester for his University Scholars began by grasping guidance, ended in independent exploration, and defined itself through trust — much like the trail navigated by Wood’s scouts.

Inspired by those expeditions, Wood has led two twilight hikes for honors students, whom he hopes take away the same lessons of connectedness and observation.

And, as a historian might, Wood’s greatest hope is that his students are called to return — whether it be to the woods for relaxation, to the past for insight, or to him for mentorship.

“That really for me would be the metric of success,” Wood says.