Friday, July 17, 2009

Jeanne Boydston and the Nature of the World

I just learned last week that the women's historian Jeanne Boydston died from lung cancer toward the end of 2008. Jeanne was just a great person and it's a real loss not to have her. She was super-smart, warm, friendly, generous to the nth degree, and had a crackling vitality that made any encounter with her an engaging experience.

Jeanne was certainly more than generous to me. I think I had only met her once at a house party in Philadelphia, but she was more than willing to meet with me over lunch and discuss my work on artisan culture in Philadelphia. Seven years later, without meeting me again, she wrote a very nice letter supporting me for tenure.

Here's an excerpt from the memorium statement.

[Jeanne Boydston] was a brilliant and beloved teacher who won the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award as well as other honors for her teaching and mentorship. No listing of her scholarly work, awards, and publications can effectively measure her impact or convey the warmth with which students recall her generous guidance. In her modest way, she helped students know that their ideas had enormous value, while at the same time suggesting how they might polish the roughest ones into an elegant argument . . . Boydston loved her work, and cherished the life of the mind that scholarship and teaching, at their best, could entail.

What Jeanne Boydston and others like her have taught me is in many ways the nature of the world.

I grew up in an abusive family where my father's primary justification for the way he acted was that he was preparing us for the cruelty of the "world out there." But when I got to the world "out there," I found an enormous amount of warmth and generosity from Jeanne Boydston and the many people like her who I've met in academic life, at the local Walmart, at the BP, and just about every other place I've been. Mrs. RSI and my in-laws kind of glow with human goodness.

That doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of structural inequities, corruption, and assholes in the world. Certainly, I've encountered this slice of reality and I write about these matters all the time in this blog. But thinking about Jeanne Boydston reminds me of the extent to which the world is filled with generous, loving people. I'm glad I knew her a little.

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