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Mary Renda: Teaching Students to Think Historically

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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

May 24, 2002

Mary Renda: Teaching Students to Think Historically

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Mary Renda

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, 1915–1940 (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 required reading.

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, 1920–1940, 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 chronicle—one of dozens written by white Americans of their travels in Haiti during or shortly after the United States occupation there—Renda 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.

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