By Shruti Mungi '19
Cate Denial, Knox College’s Bright Professor of American History, has been selected to receive the Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award by the American Historical Association (AHA).
The AHA annually offers awards and prizes for historical projects, publications, and distinguished teaching and mentoring. According to the association’s website, the Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award “is intended for inspiring teachers whose techniques and mastery of subject matter made a real difference to students of history.” Nominations are made by a cross-selection of former students, colleagues, and others to address the nominee’s outstanding teaching and advocacy outreach.
“When it said I was the winner this year, I had to read it twice to be sure it was real,” commented Denial. “I was elated! And also so grateful to the students who wrote letters for my nomination.”
Denial has been teaching at Knox since 2005 and serves as the chair of the Department of History. She has served on several academic mentoring committees and has been an active part of the historical outreach at Knox. She is also the director of The Bright Institute, a three-year program for professors of American history before 1848 at liberal arts colleges from across the United States. A part of the Bright Institute’s summer seminar is devoted to pedagogy as a means to better the ways of teaching history.
Assistant Professor of History Danielle Fatkin echoed the sentiments that the award recognized about Denial’s commitment to students and faculty at Knox. Fatkin emphasized Denial’s constant improvement in teaching methods as well as her dedication to other members of the Department of History, commending her as “an absolute leader at Knox.”
When asked how this award reflects on the academic atmosphere at Knox, Denial said it showed just how far a reach history can have.
“It shines a light on the incredible teaching work we do here, and how hard Knox professors work to make sure their teaching is research-based, active, and supportive of our students. It also reflects the breadth of the support we provide. History helps people become creative, flexible thinkers as well as talented researchers,” she said.
Knox student Eden Sarkisian has taken several classes with Denial and is working as a teaching assistant for Denial’s First-Year Preceptorial class in Human Rights. They commented that they were not at all surprised to learn that Denial had won AHA’s award, crediting her for their development as a writer, student, and activist.
“Taking classes with Professor Denial, especially through the Social Justice Dialogues program, has been the highlight of my college education,” they commented. “Her classes teach me to question the status quo and to study history in the context of power, privilege, and humanity.”
Denial credits Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by Bell Hooks as a book that has most shaped her teaching style. She emphasized the need to treat her students as working historians: showing them how to develop research questions, write narratives, create exhibits, and do archaeology just as professional historians do.
Josh Althoff, a senior who has benefitted from having Denial as a resource for his summer research and his current Honors project, referred to Denial’s Museums, Monuments and Memory class last year for giving him a rewarding experience of exactly this. The class took the students far from home to tour museums in D.C. and included substantial research into the way museums function, he said. It culminated in the construction of their own exhibit in the lobby of the Ford Center for the Fine Arts.
Denial will be formally presented the award at a welcome reception and presentation ceremony during the American Historical Association’s 133rd Annual Meeting in January. Meanwhile, she is working on her second book project that looks at the politics of motherhood in the Ojibwe village of Fond du Lac, a project that grew from Denial’s previous book, Making Marriage: Husbands, Wives, and the American State in Dakota and Ojibwe Country.