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Notes from a Davidson Classroom

By John Syme

Outside Chambers Room 1086, the hallway hubbub between bells is beginning to ebb. Sally McMillen, Mary Reynolds Babcock Professor and chair of History, chats easily with students about their weekends and the movies. Stragglers arrive: one marginally sheepish, but no egregious bedheads. shuts the door gently but firmly, the way she teaches. The Haiti earthquake is just days old, “horribly perfect timing” to coincide with HIS 246, Fires, Famines, and Floods: Environmental Disasters in U.S. History.

McMillen, in her third decade at Davidson, labors with easy smile and sharp gaze, handily mixing classic sensibilities of scholarship with evolving form and content. Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style tops her syllabus; assignments flow mostly electronically. Next week, students will research a primary document from Jamestown in the early 1600s. Today, Lorde Percy’s “Trewe Relacyon of the proceedings and occurrents of moment which have hap’ned in Virginia…” informs discussion.

First-year and upper-level students meet in the middle to parse perspectives from the sweep presented: the benefits of bubonic plague to survivors; the role of spices, astrolabes and Henry the Navigator; Pizarro and the Incas; English Enclosure Acts and debtors’ prisons; Gilbert in Newfoundland; Raleigh at Roanoke. Did settlers wind up eating shoe leather because they were “naïve”? Which parts of Lord Percy’s relation are “gendered accounts”? What were the unintended consequences of global exploration in the 16th century, and how did they reverberate in later centuries? Give three examples.

A section front of Wall Street Journal on McMillen’s desk, “Rising from the Ruins,” by Kevin Rozario: “Perhaps this is a time to listen to Voltaire. First, the obligation to help the victims. Then, time to study, to learn, to discover the particulars of history, to ponder which type of development is best for Haiti.”

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