Teaching, Learning, and Living History:Anne Firor Scott
Anne Scott was a legendary teacher among Duke University undergraduates from 1961 to 1991. Though small in stature, she had a commanding presence in the classroom that belied the years she had spent on the margins of our profession. In the 1960s, she was one of the few opportunities Duke students had to experience a woman professor who exuded such authority. Decades before "active learning" became a goal for undergraduate classrooms, she began her courses announcing that "lectures have been obsolete since the invention of the printing press." I vividly recall that declaration on the first day of class in my sophomore year in 1963. Thirty-five of us were seated on rows of wooden benches bolted to the floor, much like pews, our seats separated by small desktops that left just enough room to squeeze in and sit down. The structure of the room declared that this was a lecture hall, but Dr. Scott made it clear we had to come to class prepared to discuss whatever we were assigned for that day. The learning was in the discussion. She did not use the term, but her teaching was Socratic.
She made a seating chart the first day, and by the end of that week she knew every name and where we were sitting. "Miss Evans, what was this author's point about the Revolution?" "Mr. Jones, what was the evidence for that?" In later years, when she held court at class reunions, I realized that she carried in her memory thirty-plus years of classrooms and could have filled out those charts with almost every student in the right seat. My place was two rows back, stage left. If I had failed to prepare that day, I studiously looked at the floor as she was deciding who to call on. Sometimes that worked. Otherwise, "Miss Evans?" would elicit a guilty admission, or an effort to sound informed based on what had already been said in class.
Dr. Scott (I could not call her anything but Dr. Scott until I was well into my forties and a tenured professor myself) became my model for teaching. I poached and reconfigured her assignments to give my own students the same opportunity to discover the joys of historical research [End Page 119] and analysis. She required us to write the history of the day we were born, which took me back to the middle of World War II and down to the newspaper archive. And we were sent to the archives to find a "primary source"—preferably some personal papers like letters and diaries—from which to write a brief research paper.
The Duke archive at that time was in the basement of the library. A low ceiling with fluorescent lights hovered over large tables in the middle and cast light on surrounding shelves of guides to the collections and reference books. Several women (I do remember the archivists as female) came in and out, offering advice based on their apparently encyclopedic knowledge of what was in the hundreds of collections whose boxes could be requested for study. That archive was a revelation. I had already found the musty newspaper room, whose huge books of bound papers had special stands to hold them while you turned their yellowed pages. This time I wanted to see personal writings, perhaps from the Civil War. An archivist—who in hindsight I would guess was well aware of Dr. Scott's research interest in women—pointed me to the letters and diaries of a young white Georgia woman through which I suddenly found myself in the middle of a giddy round of balls and visits to neighboring plantations. This young woman punctuated narratives of her social life with news of a war that she clearly did not understand and with complaints about shortages of all manner of everyday items. I zeroed in on a picnic outing to Andersonville, where her potato salad, deviled eggs, and ham won the attentions of young Confederate soldiers stationed there to guard a stockade filled with prisoners. Her obvious delight (some of the men were even officers!) made it clear there were few flirting opportunities during wartime.
But a prison? They were picnicking in sight of a huge stockade. Back to the card catalog, where I quickly learned that the work of other historians could help you understand context. Andersonville, it turned out, was a notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp in 1864–1865, a stockade surrounding more than twenty-six acres into which 45,000 captured Union soldiers were crowded, arriving at the rate of four hundred a day. Of those, almost 13,000 died from malnutrition, disease, exposure, and horrifically unsanitary conditions. Photographs and drawings of gaunt men, standing and lying in filth, made it hard for me to understand how my young woman could fail to see (or at least smell) and be touched by such massive human misery. I could not prove she saw it, but I was surprised that she did not remark on the stench when it was only yards away. But then, she had grown up on a slave plantation, so perhaps human degradation was something she had learned not to see. [End Page 120] It was a riddle I could not solve in a short paper, and at the time, of course, there was no secondary literature on this topic. Anne Scott herself was just beginning the pioneering research that led to The Southern Lady in 1970.1 It is interesting that I simply absorbed Scott's conviction that these were valid historical questions and went on about the work. In an important way, that paved my own path into the new field of women's history in the early 1970s with none of the wracking questions many of my colleagues had to face: Are women's stories and gendered assumptions acceptable subjects of historical inquiry? Are there sources? Can such inquiry significantly influence historiographical debates?
One Friday afternoon, a week before Thanksgiving, I was down in that musty archive in the middle of my Andersonville research, wrestling with the horrible and complex realities of a war I had mostly known as a playground argument in Columbia, South Carolina (as in "who should have won the war?"), when someone came down the stairs to tell us that President John F. Kennedy had been shot while riding in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas. Filled with fear, I walked from that dust of the past into a blazingly sunny day on the manicured lawns of the main quadrangle at Duke. Someone shot the president. In Dallas. It was cataclysmic, unfathomable.
I went to high school in Dallas. I knew Dallas was a hotbed of rightwing extremism and groups like the John Birch Society. When I called home, my parents said they had heard disturbing reports of Dallas schoolchildren clapping with glee when the shooting was announced over their PA systems. A family friend in Dallas, who preached that weekend about the shame of this hatred, received death threats. But Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested hours after the assassination, did not fit the pattern. Two days later, Oswald in turn was assassinated as he was being transferred from a city to a county jail. The world was going crazy.
I spent the weekend in the parlor of my dormitory, sitting on the floor around the single TV in the building, watching replays of the assassination of Kennedy and the killing of Oswald, and then live coverage of every step of the funeral cortege alongside scenes of grief from around the country and the world.
On Monday morning I went to my history class. Dr. Scott came in, somber. She stood in front of her desk, leaning back for support, and talked about how she would never again have to work to get students to understand the devastation people felt when Franklin D. Roosevelt died [End Page 121] near the end of World War II. How in just a moment everything changed and memories shifted. Now a subsequent generation had suffered the loss of an inspiring leader, this time with the added shock of violence. She reminded us that people will remember this event far into the future, and they will need ways to understand what it felt like to people who were alive at the time. So, she asked us to take out a sheet of paper and write a page, whatever came to us. We could sign it or not. She promised to deliver them in an envelope to the Duke archives, where they would be made available in twenty to thirty years as primary sources for later historians who would want to understand what we were going through.2
I did not feel eloquent and I could not make any sense of it all, but I made myself write. And I had the really strange experience of knowing that something I was writing would be down in the Duke archives alongside the letters of that wartime young woman whose ability to blind herself to the horror right in her face at Andersonville had been a very different lesson in the complexity of human experience.
Generations of students were touched, moved, and challenged by Anne Scott's pedagogy. Not all of us went on to be historians, or even teachers, but we saw the world through different, more complicated eyes because of her. [End Page 122]
Sara M. Evans is Regents Professor Emerita at the University of Minnesota.
1. Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (Chicago, 1970).
2. See "Student Essays Re: Kennedy Assassination, 1963," Box 3, Anne Firor Scott Papers (David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, N.C.).