Renda: Teaching Students to Think Historically
Photo: Fred LeBlanc
This month, Mary Renda,
assistant professor of history, was awarded the prestigious Stuart
L. Bernath Book Prize for Taking Haiti: Military Occupation
and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 19151940 (2001).
The annual prize, given by the Society for Historians of American
Foreign Relations for a first book, recognizes distinguished research
and writing by scholars of American foreign relations. In Taking
Haiti, Renda draws on letters, diaries, songs, and memoirs
to show how American thinking and writing about the island republic
during the United States's nineteen-year occupation contributed
to an emerging culture of American imperialism. Not only is the
book garnering scholarly attention, but, in at least five colleges
and universities around the country, Taking Haiti is now
Renda, a United States
historian who continually tries to "push the boundaries"
of her discipline, focuses primarily on United States imperialism.
Says Renda, "I'm trying to get a better understanding of
the term imperialism and of the phenomenon that we generally refer
to as imperialism. I have a growing sense that the way that we
describe power can help us or hinder us in trying to change it.
Julie Graham, who talks about this with her coauthor in The
End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political
Economy (1996), really helped me understand this. We can describe
power in certain ways that will make it seem inevitable and more
difficult to change. Or we can come to an understanding of it
that will enable us to see the openings and possibilities for
change. That's the way in which my work as a historian is connected
to my work as an activist and as a person who wants to make change
in the world."
In addition to her
history department offerings, such as World War II at Home and
Abroad, U.S. Women's History since 1890, and the colloquium Race,
Gender, and Empire, Renda teaches interdisciplinary women's studies
courses. It's not a vacation from her area of specialty, however.
Says Renda, "When I teach women's studies, it brings into
sharper relief the importance of history." The way she sees
it, "you can't really understand gender unless you're understanding
how it's shot through with class, with race, and so forth. Of
course, in my experience, one of the most powerful tools for understanding
those connections is historical thinking. I'm teaching students
to think historically in order to come to a more complex understanding
of the problems that they/we are facing now and how to go about
intervening and changing them."
Having taken Renda's
Introduction to Women's Studies this spring, Brenda Hernandez
'04, a women's studies major, agrees that the professor's historical
perspective offers a broader view of women's studies. Hernandez,
who believes that "everyone needs to make a personal connection
with a professor," says that for her, Renda has provided
that link. "We sat down to talk, and she made me feel completely
comfortable," says Hernandez. "She's a great listener.
She's a real person and makes herself very accessible to students."
This spring, Renda
was among three faculty members to be awarded tenure and promotion
to associate professor. In addition to her recently completed,
ground-level view of the tenure process, Renda also had the opportunity
to take a bird's-eye view in her role for two years as the College's
representative to the Seven College Conference. During these annual
conferences, which are attended by one faculty member along with
the dean of faculty, the dean of the College, and the president
of each of the institutions formerly known as the Seven Sisters,
Renda met with one faculty member from each of the other institutions.
"We would compare notes," says Renda. "What is
the situation for junior faculty in our respective institutions.
Are there reviews? Are there mentoring relationships? Are there
ways for senior colleagues to be helpful? I have to say, Mount
Holyoke came out looking pretty good. The annual conversations
we have here seem to provide a model that would be helpful for
some of the other colleges."
Renda's current work,
tentatively titled The Uses of Imperialism, 19201940,
grew out of her research on Taking Haiti. Says Renda, "I
was writing about a woman named Edna Taft who went to Haiti in
1937 and wrote a travel narrative of her time there called A
Puritan in Voodoo-Land, a drippingly exoticized account of
Haiti." In Taft's chronicleone of dozens written by
white Americans of their travels in Haiti during or shortly after
the United States occupation thereRenda found a way to begin
to "understand how racism was working in 1937," she
said. "I was beginning to see how Edna Taft's story about
Haiti set up an idea of the United States as an imperialist power,"
says Renda. "Here it was, at precisely the moment when the
so-called Good Neighbor Policy had been set forth, when there
seemed to be a wholesale rejection of earlier forms of United
States imperialism, and yet there were these cultural texts such
as Taft's that were clearly laying the groundwork for other forms
of imperialism. In the middle of all those changes in policy,
in attitude, in world situation, how did the United States's relationship
to this longstanding phenomenon that many of us call imperialism
change? What happened to it at that moment?"
Mary Renda earned
her bachelor's degree from Brown University and her doctorate
from Yale University.
This is the final
in a series of articles about three Mount Holyoke faculty members
who will be awarded tenure and promotion to associate professor
effective July 1.