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Catherine Denial

Burkhardt Distinguished Chair in History

At Knox Since: 2005


Catherine Denial joined the Knox faculty in 2005. She earned her
bachelor's degree at the University of Nottingham, her master's degree
at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and her doctoral degree from the
University of Iowa. She's currently working on a book about marriage
and divorce in Dakota and Ojibwe country at the beginning of the 19th century.

Why Knox?
I love teaching -- it inspires and motivates me -- so I'd always wanted to work at a place where teaching was valued and supported, and where professors were allowed to be creative. Knox is that place. Here, I get to be part of a community of learners that's always changing and growing, and that delights me. It also gives me enormous satisfaction to work at an institution founded by abolitionists, to know that social justice is at the very heart of what we do.

I was friends with Knox alums when I was in graduate school, so I'd heard lots of fond stories about the institution long before I was looking for a job. When I had my Ph.D. in hand, Knox was looking for a professor in exactly my fields of expertise. It felt like all the tumblers in the universe had clicked into place.

Professor Catherine Denial talks with a history studentWhat is your most memorable moment at Knox?
In terms of comedy it's probably the moment I fell down the steps at an opening convocation in Harbach. I was fine, but I learned not to wear new shoes on the first day of class.

More seriously, the students in my Historian's Workshop class last year created 3-D timelines to try and give shape to their thinking about time, space, ethics, and ideas. The class where everyone shared their creations was one of the most amazing classes I've ever had the privilege to be part of, and my students were just as enthralled in each other's work as I was. It was an incredible moment.

Describe your current research/creative work. What is most interesting about this work?
I'm working on a book about marriage and divorce in Dakota and Ojibwe country (modern-day Minnesota) at the beginning of the 19th century. The story that's usually told about westward expansion across the Great Lakes is that Americans showed up and Native communities faded away. My research tells a quite different tale -- that Americans showed up, and Native communities refused to acquiesce to their ideas about morality, marriage, family, and gender. This allowed Native people to prevent Americans from really getting a strong toehold in the region for at least 30 years.

If you weren't a professor, you would be a ___?
A florist, or a professional gift-wrapper -- I could have a shop called "Arrange!"

What is your favorite thing about Galesburg?
Sitting on the porch in the late afternoon. I love saying hi to my neighbors and watching the world go by.

What were the last three books you read?
Joy Ladin, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders.
David Treuer, Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life.
Janny Scott, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother.

What did you do to celebrate receiving tenure?
The president told me she was recommending me for tenure the day before my students opened their exhibit for HIST 347: Museums, Monuments, and Memory. We were up to our ears in insulation panels, paint, nails, pins, ribbon, glue, and 2x4s at the time, and it looked like we'd be at work until midnight to get everything ready. My friend Jennifer sent me roses, and I stole away for an hour with my friends Megan and Laura to have a martini, but then spent the rest of the night hammering, cutting, painting, and assembling the exhibit with my students. In many ways that was the perfect accompaniment to the news -- to go back to doing what I love best; working alongside my students to make history really matter.

View Catherine Denial's faculty page
Read more about the Museums, Monuments, and Memory exhibit