On Friday, May 6th, members of the History Department and colleagues across campus gathered in the lounge of Graham Memorial Hall to celebrate the career of Louise McReynolds, Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of History. McReynolds has established a reputation as one of the world’s foremost cultural historians of the Russian Empire. For many at the celebration, however, her retirement was a bittersweet moment that hit much closer to home. Since arriving at Carolina in 2006, McReynolds has earned the deep admiration of undergraduates, doctoral students, and her colleagues. This can be attributed not only to the sheer force of her intellect and her gift for teaching, but also to her legendary disdain for all forms of pretense.
After Department Chair Dr. Lisa Lindsay opened the event, the master of ceremonies, Dr. Donald J. Raleigh, set the tone by commenting on McReynolds’s profound impact on the field of Russian history. As he noted: “Her scholarship is distinguished because she asks big questions, writes with flair and clarity, and places Russian developments into broader, comparative perspective…Cutting across the usual boundaries between social, cultural, and political history, her theoretically informed scholarly efforts have focused on charting and interpreting the cultural life of Russia’s burgeoning cities following the long overdue emancipation of the serfs in 1861.” The presence in the room of a number of McReynolds’s former graduate students, established scholars in their own right, was a fitting reminder that her legacy has been no less pedagogical than intellectual.
Of course, as anyone who knows McReynolds could attest, a celebration that was too somber or stately simply would not do. Thus, Raleigh set up a slideshow of old photos of McReynolds to play on repeat behind him as he paid tribute to her scholarship. There were childhood photos, beach photos, an image of the honoree sporting a 1980s perm, and even one of her in an impossibly unattractive Christmas sweater. These images set the tone for the rest of the event. Two of her former graduate students took the stage. The first, Dr. Andrew Ringlee, fondly recalled McReynolds’s gifts in the classroom and the importance of her example for his scholarship. The second, Dr. Stephen Riegg, made the trek from College Station, Texas to honor his mentor. Riegg prefaced his remarks with a statement of heartfelt gratitude: “I’m a very lucky person in general, and part of that fortune was having the privilege of studying Russian history under Louise, one of the world’s most respected specialists of imperial Russia’s cultural and social history.” He commented on the lasting impact McReynolds’ teaching and intellectual example had on his own scholarship, noting in particular her emphasis on the need to “render cogent, empirically strong analysis into a fun story.” Mixed with the praise were several points on which he and McReynolds differed. Riegg contrasted his color-coordinated, business casual attire with the “Carolina Class of 2022” t-shirt and pink khaki shorts sported by the honoree. Riegg even got in a word of criticism for his former adviser, citing her “inexcusable, ongoing failure to recognize the superiority of the Kansas Jayhawks in all things basketball,” a comment that led McReynolds to jump up from her seat.
Roars of laughter among the assembled guests continued to resound in the imposing, Hoover-era hall as Drs. Lauren Jarvis and Chad Bryant took up the theme of McReynolds’s iconoclasm. Jarvis gave an account of being the honoree’s neighbor during the pandemic. Her remarks emphasized how, during the lockdowns, the honoree turned her historian’s eye for detail toward monitoring what was going on in the Jarvis household. Jarvis would receive emails from McRenolds asking where Jarvis’s Christmas tree had gone, why there were repair people in front of Jarvis’s house, and how Jarvis’s children spent their free time (since they didn’t seem to be outside a lot). For answers to these questions, Jarvis got really great wine and stories at front-yard gatherings, a hand-me-down waffle-maker, and access to the creek that runs through McReynolds’s yard – to try to get those kids to play outside more. Jarvis had never been so happy to have nosey neighbor.
Next, it was Bryant’s turn. The first two words of his address said it all: “Oh, Louise.” Seizing the chance to “tell everyone about a Louise you may not know,” Bryant organized his remarks around four characteristics he would like everyone to remember the honoree for. He dispatched the first three – “subtlety”, “gentility”, “hierarchical” – to growing bouts of laughter as he described, through specific examples, just how little each word actually could apply to McReynolds. Gesturing, like Riegg, to her attire, Bryant asked rhetorically: “Why else would I dress this way today? I know that Louise loves etiquette and upper-middle-class social norms.” Bryant spent the most time discussing the last of his four characteristics: blasé. “Blasé about important political and ethical issues of our time. Blasé about scholarship. Blasé about collegiality.” Behind all the laughter, Bryant’s “roast” captured what members of the History Department will miss most about McReynolds, what makes her irreplaceable. As any of her students and colleagues could attest, she has always been honest, and always done the right thing, even when, or especially, it is unfashionable or unpopular.
To round out the event, Raleigh played short, recorded tributes from McReynolds’s colleagues around the world. One scholar recalled doing research in Russia in the early 1980s, when they were both graduate students. They were on a bus in rural Russia; it was so cold that their glasses had fogged up. “To think,” this scholar recalled McReynolds opining nondescriptly, “we could have studied Italy.” Through her decades of writing cutting-edge history and educating graduate and undergraduate students and junior faculty, she has maintained the ability to reduce everything to its essence, and to have fun in the process. Asked to provide comment for this article, McReynolds had only one thing to say: “Don’t worry about my career – just say I had a good one!”
The Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching was founded in 1952 by Sarah Tanner and her brother, Kenneth Spencer Tanner, in memory of their parents. The award was established to recognize excellence in inspirational teaching of undergraduate students, especially those in their first and second years of their undergraduate career. In 1990 UNC expanded the award to include the work of graduate teaching assistants. This year, awardees included graduate teaching assistants from the Departments of Computer Science, Psychology, and Political Science. The presence of a historian in this competitive field testifies not only to Walk’s talent as an educator, but also to the fact that, at its best, historical pedagogy emphasizes patience, compassion, and building relationships with their students.
Reflecting on his own time in the classroom, where he developed the skills recognized by the Tanner Award, Walk comments that “the most rewarding part about teaching undergrads is building a meaningful relationship with students and giving them the tools to learn on their own.” He adds, “It is especially rewarding to see students using the tools we teach them to craft their own arguments – especially when they challenge dominant narratives, including those we propagate.” Walk received the Tanner Award while teaching a course on conspiracy theories and historical truth, and he advises his students to “think critically and approach the classroom and entire university system with a healthy dose of skepticism. How does power shape the types of arguments we hear in the classroom and those who make them? That type of question should inform how students approach education and is one that I wish I knew long ago.”
While honored to have received an award for his teaching skills, Walk also wants to use it as a way of drawing attention to the hard work of his graduate student colleagues in the Department of History, who also deserve recognition for their pedagogy and empathy toward students. On this note, he draws attention to the ongoing plight of graduate students in the department: “If UNC really wanted to honor their teachers, they would pay all of us a living wage, not give out a few awards.”