Profile with Sarah Deutsch

Sarah Deutsch (Illinois & St Catherine’s 1977) is a Professor in the History Department with a secondary appointment in the Women’s Studies Program at Duke University. She was previously the Dean of Social Sciences at Duke University. She holds a PhD in American History from Yale University, an MLitt in British Imperial History from the University of Oxford, and a BA in History from Yale University.

Rhodes Project: Where did you grow up?

Sarah Deutsch: I was born in Connecticut, but I grew up in suburban Chicago.

Rhodes Project: What book are you currently reading?

Sarah Deutsch: I’m reading Sashenka by Simon Montefiore for a book group I am part of.  I just finished a book that I liked better – Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. It was beautifully written and quite moving.  It also happens to be Duke’s summer reading book. 

Rhodes Project: What piece of technology could you not live without?

Sarah Deutsch: I’m not sure there is a piece of technology I couldn’t live without. I love my smart phone, but I lived a long time without it beforehand. Sometimes I think I am more of a slave to it than it is to me.

Rhodes Project: Could you describe a favorite past project?

Sarah Deutsch: The ones I am fondest of have been more collaborative, working to set up a structure in which people were encouraged to do interdisciplinary teaching, for example. They would collaborate on a seminar that they would then promise to repeat. I like to work to get people to sit down and talk together. I’ve been involved in leading a number of public library discussion groups and constructing discussion seminars. I was particularly proud of my association with the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities and Public Policy, which does a wonderful job of public programming, particularly in under-served areas, but also does thought-provoking programming on important issues for wider groups of people. We did a project on de-industrializing communities in Massachusetts in the late 1980s. I’m happy about my books too, and that they’ve had an impact.

Rhodes Project: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Sarah Deutsch: Definitely teaching. It was really hard when I went into the administration because I was a Dean for three years and my teaching was dramatically reduced for that position. Teaching is really why I do what I do. I love to research and I love to write, which is why I teach at this level, but mostly, I simply am a teacher. I love working with students and seeing the light bulb moment that happens to them in almost every session. The excitement they show by being empowered to think more creatively and more daringly about things and with greater foundation is really exciting to me.

Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Sarah Deutsch: I think keeping up with new ideas and new technologies—new ways of delivering new ideas—can be challenging. I’ve been put in charge of our course here to teach graduate students how to teach. One of the things I realized as I looked at the syllabus I inherited is that there was no provision for teaching how to teach online. I think by the time these graduate students are through, they are going to be asked to do that. I’ve never done it, so there’s this whole notion that I somehow have to gear up to learn how to do this thing that I actually don’t really intend to use. I’m looking at webinars, looking for reading materials and bringing in a guest speaker. You really have to think about what the most effective medium is for what you want to get across.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a memorable teaching moment?

Sarah Deutsch: There have definitely been many, many satisfying moments, some driven directly by me, but, even better, some where I’ve simply set the scene and given the students the analytical tools to take themselves to new places. Once, when I was teaching at Clark University in the early 1990s, my students and I had just heard the farm-worker and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta speak on campus. My students had been offended that she had referred to herself as being “snow-blinded” when she testified in Congress. All my students in this particular discussion group were white—something that hasn’t happened to me in over a decade—and that made the section a safe space for them to probe their response. I asked a few questions, but mostly just listened as they talked themselves from their viewpoint to hers using the kinds of questions we’d brought to bear on documents throughout the semester. By the end of the session, one of the students summed up where they were—that their initial response had shown they had identified defensively with those snow-blinding representatives so far removed from Huerta’s experience, and by the end they saw themselves as she had and understood why.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman interested in becoming a professor?

Sarah Deutsch: Do it only if it’s what you most dearly want to do, not just for what you imagine the lifestyle is. Make connection – human connections, collaborative connections. Don’t just put your head down and work in your office and not step outside. You will need that community and you’re going to need to be known on campus. You’re going to need to find allies and multiple mentors in your department and in other departments.   

Rhodes Project:  What do you like to do in your free time?

Sarah Deutsch: I like to hike. There’s a part of western North Carolina where you can hike to waterfalls and then go swimming in them. That’s a wonderful thing to do.

Rhodes Project: What inspires you, and why?

Sarah Deutsch: Movements for social justice have always inspired me. People are often inspired by moments of injustice to work together to create change. Right now in North Carolina we have a legislature that is working very hard to overturn decades of socially progressive legislation, on both economic and social fronts.  There are a growing number of people who protest in front of the legislature, and some of them go in and get arrested. The willingness of people to do that, and what they say their reasons are for doing it, is pretty inspiring.

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