David Campion

The liberal arts literally refers to freedom. It is a way of learning that never ends and in which the sum is greater than its parts.

Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Associate Professor of History David Campion


Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Associate Professor of History



What three words would you use to describe Lewis & Clark?

Intellectually Curious, Ambitious, Imaginative

Humanities Summer Research, July 2023

Tell us about your summer research.

My two student researchers and I are examining concepts of criminality and exploration through a close and critical study of a selection of rare books and manuscripts in Lewis & Clark’s Special Collections in Watzek Library. These artifacts range from the 17th to 19th centuries and cover such topics as commerce and piracy in the Atlantic World, early European exploration of the interior of Africa, and the ivory trade in the Belgian Congo.

How did you become interested in your research topic? What sort of real-world implications does your research have?

As a historian of the British Empire, and imperialism more broadly, I have always been fascinated by the intersection of enterprises or activities that have been defined either as legitimate or transgressive. Often these judgments were made by those in power to advance or maintain their own interests and they changed over time in response to local circumstances and world events. Examining the ways in which piracy, commerce, and exploration intersected over two centuries, using original documents from the period, enables a deeper appreciation of the complex relationship between state power and commercial interests and how definitions of legality and criminality have evolved historically and will continue to do so.

How are students involved?

Student researchers are involved in all aspects of this project from the earliest conception to the finishing touches. This includes background research on the subject of each book or manuscript; investigation about their authorship, publication, and provenance; writing and editing the content for panel displays and the exhibition catalog; and layout, design, and curation of the exhibition as a whole.

What would prospective students find most interesting about this research?

Historical research is a form of detective work. It can be painstaking and slow and it often leads down many dead ends before the right information is found. Yet the thrill of the unexpected discovery, of piecing together a compelling and original historical narrative from fragmentary evidence, and of voices from the past—often buried for years or centuries in the archives—once again communicating with the living makes it all worth it.

What do you enjoy most about collaborating with Lewis & Clark students?

Lewis & Clark students are reliable, energetic, and hardworking. Those in the history major are also highly skilled and ready and eager for advanced research. Most of all, they are not bound by the academic presumptions and habits of thought that are often found among more senior historians. I find that they always bring a fresh perspective and often ask the unexpected question. Student researchers, in particular, help me reimagine ways of understanding history and make me reconsider conclusions I have long held about subjects I have studied for years. It is an experience that is both humbling and invigorating.

How does Lewis & Clark/this summer research experience prepare your students for a career and/or advanced studies after graduation?

Archival research, historical curation, and scholarly writing teach students to be rigorous, patient, resourceful, detail-oriented, to read evidence critically and carefully, to investigate thoroughly, and to argue persuasively in speech and writing. Historical research also compels students to think deeply and comparatively about the past as way of understanding the present. It is no surprise that history majors are admitted into competitive graduate and professional programs and go on to have successful careers in such fields as law, government, journalism, and academia.

How do you describe the liberal arts?

The liberal arts literally refers to freedom. With that in mind, I regularly tell my history advisees that once they have completed the minimum requirements for the major they are free; they should not take another history course. I usually get a puzzled look, but I then explain that a liberal arts education is one in which free electives count as much as advanced research in a major. The varied ways of understanding the world and one’s place in it, whether through scientific observation, creative expression, immersion in a culture different than one’s own by learning a new language or studying abroad, appreciation of the historical depth and variety of the human experience, and—most importantly—drawing meaningful connections among all of these are the defining features of a liberal arts education. It is a way of learning that never ends and in which the sum is greater than its parts.

What brought you to L&C?

I grew up on the East Coast and attended college and graduate school there. I was first struck by the beauty of the campus and of the Pacific Northwest more generally, but I was even more impressed by the sense of community and an academic environment on campus that fosters creativity and interdisciplinary connections while maintaining academic rigor and high standards.

Share something you think your students would be surprised to learn about you.

I am an avid wreck diver and have explored shipwrecks all over the world from sunken WWII Japanese warships in Micronesia and the Philippines to scuttled cargo ships in Indonesia and Honduras. This passion stems from my service as a naval officer and years at sea before I became a professor. My most recent wreck dive in 2022 was also the most challenging: the German battle fleet that was scuttled in 1919 at Scapa Flow in the North Sea. Very cold and murky!