February 10, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 10

Phi Beta Kappa 2003 Teacher of the Year Assoc. Prof. Cynthia Lynn Lyerly, one of four History faculty members to win the award during the past eight years.

For This Department, History Is in the Making

Faculty, students reaping awards and praise for scholarship, teaching

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Like Clio, its trumpet-bearing Muse, the History Department at Boston College could blow its own horn. It doesn't. But History has reason to be proud.


-The department reports its most majors in 25 years, 560, ranking history fourth in popularity among majors in the College of Arts and Sciences.

-Four history professors in eight years have been voted Teacher of the Year at BC by the students of Phi Beta Kappa: professors Lawrence Wolff and John Heineman and associate professors Cynthia Lynn Lyerly and Thomas Perry. Popular teachers of history include assistant professors Stephen Schloesser, SJ, and Seth Jacobs, so vibrant in the classroom, a former colleague writes, "they make James Brown look like John Kerry."

-The university known as "Boston's College" has come to be known for its Boston historians, with Professor Emeritus and University Historian Thomas O'Connor considered the unofficial "dean of Boston history," Assoc. Prof. James O'Toole a noted author on Boston's Catholic past, and Assoc. Prof. Mark Gelfand a biographer of Brahmin philanthropist Ralph Lowell.

-Recent faculty awards include two Guggenheim Fellowships won in the same year, 2002, by Wolff and Prof. Robin Fleming. This past year, Wolff, a specialist in Eastern Europe and the Enlightenment, was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences-Assoc. Prof. Marilynn Johnson's newly released history of police brutality in New York City has received outstanding reviews in the New York Times and Boston Globe.

-The graduate program in history has become highly selective, with six or seven doctoral candidates admitted each year on full fellowships. The program emphasizes training in teaching, with each doctoral candidate serving at least three years as a teaching assistant in the two-semester history sequence taken by all undergraduates.

-BC History's "Preparing Future Faculty" program was cited by the American Historical Association for bolstering doctoral students' professional and classroom-teaching skills.

-Recent alumnus Justin Pariseau '03, advised by Lyerly, won an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship for his Scholar of the College project on Nantucket's black history, and is now a doctoral student at William & Mary.

For all these achievements, undergraduate teaching remains at the heart of the department, with full-time faculty sharing the teaching of university core courses in history. An underclassman's first exposure to History at BC comes in a class taught by one of the department's ranking members, not by an adjunct or teaching assistant.

"We ask our faculty to teach undergrads and graduate students and to publish," says department chairman Assoc. Prof. Alan Rogers. "That is unique. Most universities that have productive faculty reward that faculty by taking them out of undergraduate teaching. We don't do that. We reward our students by giving them the best possible instruction."

Fleming, a specialist in medieval European history who achieved a scholarly hat-trick in 2002 by winning membership at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study and a Bunting Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute as well as a Guggenheim, described the graduate research seminar that meets at her house once a week: "My students talk non-stop for three hours about their own research, and we all pitch in and advise on everyone else's."

Jacobs, who left dramatic acting to become a historian of American foreign policy, and was honored by the Society of American Foreign Relations in 2002 for distinguished writing on diplomatic history, said:

"What makes BC a great place to learn the historian's craft is that professors here teach. There are none of the so-called 'research professorships' one finds at other universities.

"Many graduate students in prestigious Ph.D. programs are advised - correctly - by more jaded classmates that they have a choice as to what kind of adviser they can have. Either they can aim for an academic 'superstar' - someone with 'name recognition,' the recipient of prestigious awards, who will devote as little time to them as possible - or they can settle for someone whose lack of status is compensated by a greater willingness to become involved in students' work.

"Unfortunately, at many places it is simply unrealistic to expect both professional eminence and active mentoring. That's not the case here. I think it's telling that some of the most prolific and acclaimed members of our department have also won numerous awards for excellence in teaching." [See related story.]

An area of growing strength in the department is the cultural history of religion, said Fr. Schloesser, whose courses include Celluloid Salvation and Catholicism Confronts Modernity, and who earned headlines two years ago when he uncovered letters in the Graham Greene Papers at BC that showed the Vatican tried to censure the famed British Catholic author.

A partial list he offered of colleagues active in the field reflected the breadth and color of history scholarship at BC: O'Toole on American Catholicism; Lyerly on the Great Awakening; Asst. Prof. David Quigley on Transcendentalism; Assoc. Prof. Kevin O'Neill on Irish Quakers; Assoc. Prof. Virginia Reinburg on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, medieval prayer rituals, and witch persecutions; Asst. Prof. Rebecca Nedostup on religion and superstition in 20th-century China; Prof. Prasannan Parthasarathi on Hinduism in India.

Students, graduate and undergraduate, contribute as well to the scholarly enterprise: Doctoral student Tracey-Anne Cooper is "finishing a dissertation on a wild and very interesting early medieval monastic manuscript that is full of charms, and curses, and little texts which help one prognosticate the future," said Fleming. Fr. Schloesser noted the senior theses being done by Sarah Berger '04 on Mexican American devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and by Raymond Ramirez '04 on crypto-Judaism in the time of the Spanish Inquisition.

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