Angelo State History Professor Honored for Research Excellence
Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai captured the war stories of West Texas veterans and the Texas Tech University System's highest faculty honor.
Like many kids his age, Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai had little interest in history, and that might be overstating it.
“History was dry. It was boring. It was all about dates and rote memorization, and I thought it had nothing to do with my own life,” he said.
Now, he looks back and appreciates the irony, because the kid who grew up in Massachusetts, Alabama and Thailand with little regard for the past, has built a successful career as a recognized authority on the American Civil War, noted researcher and assistant professor of history at Angelo State University.
He finally understands history’s relevance in his own life.
“What I learned and what I now teach my students,” he said, “is history is about stories and people who are inherently fascinating. And the more students see how their stories connect to these historical figures — that they are not gods or mythical beings but real people who had the same inner struggles and challenges we all have — the more it helps humanize the past.”
In honor of his career of achievement, Wongsrichanalai was awarded the Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Research Award, the most prestigious honor given to faculty members throughout the Texas Tech University System.
He received $5,000 and a medallion for his excellence, funded by annual membership gifts to the Chancellor’s Council — a giving society supporting the chancellor’s priorities by impacting student lives through scholarships, recognizing faculty achievement and encouraging excellence across all four system universities.
Connecting with the past
Wongsrichanalai’s interest in history piqued during high school at Concord Academy in Massachussets. There, Bill Bailey, “a very inspirational history teacher”, assigned Wongsrichanalai and his classmates “The Killer Angels,” a historical fiction by Michael Shaara recounting the Battle of Gettysburg.
“This novel walked you through the mindsets of its characters in this very pivotal battle,” Wongsrichanalai said. “And suddenly, history came alive for me, because it was about stories and dramas that we all could face. It was an indescribable feeling to connect to the past, because it raises questions about who you are. And it made me want to know the rest of the story.”
“...history came alive for me, because it was about stories and dramas that we all could face.”
So it was that the Boston-born son of medical professionals (a surgeon and an epidemiologist), decided to pursue a double major at Bowdoin College. Always drawn to the arts and humanities, he picked history and psychology, the latter, he said, “to placate my folks who couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to make a living in science.”
Wongsrichanalai graduated from Bowdoin with his bachelor’s degree, and quickly followed up with a master’s and doctorate from the University of Virginia. In 2011, he came to Angelo State University, where he developed and taught courses for the Department of History and the Honors Program, earning praise from students and colleagues alike that culminated in the Chancellor’s Council recognition.
“This award is an enormous honor, for me and for my wonderful friends in the history department,” he said. “It’s a supportive, caring, loving environment, a great culture and team to be part of.”
Understanding the stakes
Married to fellow Angelo State history instructor Kathryn Ostrofsky (whose office is right across the hall from his), Wongsrichanalai stays busy with his teaching and scholarship.
He co-directed Angelo State’s grant-funded “Latino Americans: 500 Years of History” project that included a popular lecture series from 2015–2016. Together with Christine Lamberson — also an associate professor of history at Angelo State — he currently co-directs the university’s ongoing Great War Centennial Commemoration Lecture Series, a series of events commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the World War I Armistice funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
While he has taught U.S. military, social and gender history, his focus is pre-1900 America, especially the Civil War era.
“It was the most important experience in American history,” he said, “a crossroads period when the nation had to decide what it stood for, whether it was going to live up to promise of the Declaration of Independence, or go down another path.
“My goal is to help students understand the past is still relevant, still alive…”
“And those debates live on to this day, questions about what holds the nation together, questions of power and citizenship, the meaning of Civil War monuments, the meaning of the 14th Amendment. Wars on ideology are the most devastating, because the stakes are the future and people have conflicting visions of what that future should be.”
Known to his colleagues as “Kid” (from a Thai word meaning “to think”), Wongsrichanalai spends a lot of time contemplating new ways to make history come alive for his students.
“My goal is to help students understand the past is still relevant, still alive in economics, society, culture, all facets of life, and you can’t envision the future unless you understand the past,” he said. “I want them to see that connection, the struggles of human culture to try to live and adapt to an ever-changing world.
“So the most important question I ask them is why. Why did this event happen, and why in one way and not another? Why do we live in the world we live in today? Why are there successes and failures?”
Recording their stories
To get students asking questions about the past, Wongsrichanalai has them interview war veterans throughout West Texas about their military experience. The stories and photos they uncover are digitized and published online as part of War Stories: West Texans Experience War.
“Today’s students are so young, and many are so cynical. History should teach them there is hope.”
It’s another collaboration between Wongsrichanalai and Lamberson that caught the attention of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2014. The agency awarded the project a three-year grant of almost $100,000 to preserve the experiences of veterans and their families over the past century.
To date, nearly 300 veterans who served in a number of different wars have shared their stories with Angelo State students and faculty.
“And that’s extremely rewarding for all of us,” he said. “It allows us to collect information from primary sources, which is valuable historically, but it also gives our students a real connection to the past, which is valuable for their growth and preparation for the future. Today’s students are so young, and many are so cynical. History should teach them there is hope. But history is not a straight line. Like Chutes and Ladders, it can be two steps up, one step back; it can swing one way or the other.”
Outside the classroom, Wongsrichanalai speaks at professional conferences, publishes in historical journals and other media, and has authored two books with a third in the works. He and his wife also travel throughout the U.S., visiting national parks and — no surprise — historical sites.
And, like any good history professor, his mind is on the future as well as the past.
“Education and a more knowledgeable citizenry is the only thing that will save a country not bound by a monarchy,” he said. “People can look at the world and think, ‘Nothing will change,’ and that’s not true. Our Founding Fathers led the American Revolution, but they also created the promise that there could be a revolution every two or four years [through democratic elections]. People have the power to change society if they want to change it. But first they have to understand what came before them.”