Wisdom is in the head and not in the beard.
The Swedish proverb could be an anecdote refuting the idea that old age inherently implies intelligence. But it might also be a description of James McWilliams, associate professor in the history department.
The sporadically bearded faculty member is known for beginning lectures with anecdotes of his own.
“Have a sense of humor,” McWilliams said. “Dammit, people don’t have a sense of humor. People are freaking serious, man.”
McWilliams, a jazz fan who admits to wearing intellectual beliefs on his sleeve, said life offers too much whimsical beauty to be burdened with seriousness.
Born in Georgia, McWilliams spent 10 years of his life immersed in farmer account books studying colonial agriculture. The research later led to a larger interest in food and agribusiness.
McWilliams has published multiple books exploring the intricacies of the subjects. He eventually found himself interested in applying the knowledge to current events, an idea he said a lot of historians might frown upon.
McWilliams said he generally does not buy the argument of learning from the past to avoid repeating mistakes. However, the professor believes historical perspective is necessary in discussions of the here and now.
He emphasized the complexity of environmental issues and said there is little room for idealism.
“That just seems terribly simplistic to me,” McWilliams said. “That’s not how history works. But if I’m going to think seriously about an issue today, knowing how we got to that point is critical. History is an evolutionary process.”
As an historian, the bespectacled McWilliams described himself as currently being in a “funny place.”
“I’m writing more about contemporary events than I am about historical events,” McWilliams said.
This year’s Common Experience theme is centered around sustainability. McWilliams said the university’s focus on the topic is relevant and timely, but worries of a bumper sticker approach.
“I fear that the emphasis will be one on token gestures,” McWilliams said. “Rather than a deeper philosophical understanding.”
McWilliams said he hopes the Common Experience encourages students to embrace the complexity of living in the modern world.
“Everything we do as human beings living in the natural world has a cost,” McWilliams said.
The married father-of-two practices his philosophies at home.
McWilliams said his early life was defined by moving from one place to another. Now a family man, he feels firmly planted in Central Texas.
“I frankly wake up in the morning, and I cannot believe they pay me for what I do.” McWilliams said. “If Harvard came knocking on my door and said ‘oh, we’ve got to have you,’ I kid you not, I would think twice and probably not do it.”
Margaret Menninger, associate professor in the history department, said McWilliams is her best friend in the department.
“The most annoying thing about Jimmy, he’s so bloody creative,” Menninger said.
The two sometimes carpool together and she has even babysat his two children. Menninger said McWilliams is one of her many esteemed colleagues. But of his multiple gifts, proficiency in TRACS is not among them.
Todd Guerrero, interdisciplinary studies junior, is a supplemental instructor for history 1310. The non-traditional student said he is always amazed at the rapport McWilliams has with students.
“He makes history interesting for students who don’t give a rat’s ass,” Guerrero said. “Which is not an easy thing to do.”
Guerrero, a retired Navy senior chief, is most impressed with students’ assessment of McWilliams on the website, RateMyProfessors.com.
“There’s a chili pepper next to his name,” Guerrero said. “I think the girls like the little sweaters he wears with elbow pads.”
But at home, the topic of discussion with his wife always comes back to one of his “greatest talents.”
“It’s burly,” McWilliams said. “(She’s) not a real big fan of the beard. Twice a year I usually grow it out just to try and get in touch with my inner caveman. But it’s coming off soon.”