“Bring your joy.” For Stephanie Yuhl, professor of history, these are words she lives by as an educator, as a colleague, and as director of the College’s innovative first-year Montserrat program. For students and fellow professors who know Yuhl, her joy is undeniable.
In recognition of her outstanding dedication to sharing her passion for learning both inside and outside the classroom, Yuhl received the inaugural Donal J. Burns ‘49 Career Teaching Medal during the Provost’s Fall Address. The medal, endowed through a generous gift from distinguished alumnus Donal J. Burns ‘49, recognizes and inspires commitment to “long-term teaching excellence” in the spirit of all the generations of outstanding faculty at the College. Award recipients are nominated by campus individuals and groups.
“As a teacher, Stephanie is described as ‘genuine, passionate, devoted and invested in students’ — a teacher who is at once ‘scholarly and penetrating, yet warm and loving,’” Margaret Freije, provost and dean of the college, shared at the ceremony. “Students note repeatedly that ‘she treats her students like colleagues,’ and, as a result, they are drawn into the discipline and are encouraged to develop their own intellectual curiosity and passion.”
Such is the case for Michael DeSantis ‘18, a history and sociology major in the college honors program, currently working with Yuhl on his senior thesis: “Professor Yuhl’s high expectations extend into her approach to conversations with students, and she has always treated me as a fellow historian, which has allowed my intellectual confidence to flourish in a way that I would not have thought possible.”
At the awards ceremony, Yuhl had the opportunity to speak to the gathered body of fellow educators at the College about her personal reflections on teaching — an appropriate task for this talented “teacher of teachers,” as Freije described her. Yuhl spoke about a yearlong writing exercise, called a Political Autobiography, that she gives her Montserrat students.
The assignment asks students to reflect on and articulate their personal “core values,” and to root those values in evidence from the students’ lived experiences, from the historical course materials, and from intentional discussions with others. The goal for students is two-fold: to analyze historical and contemporary power structures and to struggle with how they as individuals are ultimately accountable for their values as they move through the world. Yuhl saves these personal statements and shares them with her students when they are seniors, “so they can have a conversation with their 17- and 18-year old selves” as they embark on their final year at Holy Cross.
Yuhl also called upon her fellow faculty members to show the same bravery as evidenced by her first-year students embarking on their journeys of self-reflection and growth. “We need to share our ‘teacherly’ selves with each other,” Yuhl suggested. “We need to open our classrooms and our labs and our studios up to each other — not for assessment, but for creating relationships where we can learn from each other.”
Yuhl’s impact on students extends well beyond graduation. Alicia Molt ‘09, who majored in history with a concentration in women’s and gender studies, currently works as deputy chief of staff to representative Mark Pocan (D-WI) and credits Yuhl with giving her professional direction.
“I would not be in my current vocation if it were not for Stephanie’s constant encouragement and her commitment to her students’ success,” says Molt. “The passion and enthusiasm Stephanie Yuhl brings to her classroom is truly inspiring and infectious.”
How would you describe an effective teacher? I want to emphasize that there are so many different styles of teaching that work with different kinds of learners. I tend to be high energy and assertive, but others have a quieter manner, which can be just as effective. However, if I had to name a few, there are some key traits effective teachers share: honesty, accessibility and an understanding that teaching is not about the teacher but about the students.
Rigor is essential, but not just rigor for rigor’s sake. I think it needs to be combined with an ethic of care as a kind of belief in the students. It’s important to meet students where they are, especially for first-year students. You can set the bar very high, of course, and you should, but you also need to remember that students are always in the process of becoming. It is really important to try to understand something of what is going on for students outside of class as well because that can have a major impact on their learning.
What advice would you give to yourself your first year in teaching? Know the value of silence in the classroom. Slow down. I’m from California, so I speak quickly. I’m also the chatty youngest of a big family — growing up for me was all about being scrappy and being heard. Around year three of teaching, I started realizing the value of silence in the classroom. Be okay with not knowing the answer — I can’t know everything and I don’t! Use those moments of silence and of not knowing to really let go so that the students have to step up and direct their learning.
What is your favorite question a student ever asked you? Students often ask me “What do you think?” As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more comfortable telling them what I think but also telling them, “It doesn’t matter what I think — your job is to figure out what you think.” I also need to hear their answers to that challenge because that’s what is going to help me grow as a teacher. My job is to be trustworthy with what they share and to engage in that dialogue. No student should ever parrot what they think a teacher wants to hear — that is the opposite of learning.
What is your favorite question to ask your students? Who benefits from understanding the United States a certain way? Or more pointedly, who benefits from a particular way of telling our national story? Who’s written out of that understanding? I want students to understand how power works. History is based on choices being made by individuals with power. Be skeptical. Not everyone agrees or experiences this country the same way.
What do you hope your students take with them after your course? I want students to take with them a sense of accountability that they are historical actors — their choices have consequences and they need to own those choices — it’s all about citizenship. I am less concerned that they remember the exact date of the Voting Rights Act after the final exam is over than I am that they understand the forces that brought that act into being and that they understand the unfinished revolution that act represents in terms of where we are as a country now.
Yuhl, who has taught at the College for the last 17 years, received her Ph.D. in history from Duke University and completed a Lilly Postdoctoral Fellowship at Valparaiso University. With a focus on the ways in which history is interpreted and depicted in public history and memory, she has distinguished herself as an expert of 20th century U.S. history, gender and sexuality history, and southern history. Her scholarly publications include the two-time award-winning book “A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston” (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), as well as an award-winning article titled “Hidden in Plain Sight: Centering the Domestic Slave Trade in American Public History” (Journal of Southern History, 2013). Yuhl was honored in 2011 with the Mary Louise Marfuggi Faculty Award for Academic Advisement for her mentorship of both students and colleagues across the College.
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